A combination between tech and refugees? How can these demographics serve as inspiration for the startup community in Berlin? The catchy new term represents a highly political and controversial shift for an industry that historically serves paying consumers only.
At this year’s Diversity in Tech Conference hosted by The Factory Berlin, panelists used the term “techfugees” to frame a discussion around the city’s tech industry and its growing number of refugees. The conversation also expanded to include, more broadly, diversity in tech, addressing topics from how immigrants are shaping Berlin’s tech ecosystem to gender inequality and potential next steps for the LGBTQIA community in tech.
Janette Gusko, Communications Director of Change.org Germany, moderated the “Techfugees” panel, which featured Paula Schwarz, Serial Founder of Startup Boat, Akram Afwakeeri, a Syrian engineer who had to restart his education after receiving asylum in Germany, and American Ruth Seregesi of the startup Young People Front for Democracy and Justice. The panel stressed the significance of entrepreneurship, startups, and their contributions to improving Europe’s refugee crisis.
Despite their diverse backgrounds and goals, they all agreed on one thing: too many startups talk about refugees, yet refugees themselves are rarely part of the conversation. There are so many people who want to help, yet no one listens to the ones who need it. The trend for entrepreneurs to commit to this topic seems very appealing: Berlin currently gives a grant to almost everybody with a plan to act on this issue. But what about the user? Is it enough to create solutions without involving those meant to benefit?
Concerned about the situation, Akram Afwakeeri advised stakeholders that even if there is a lot of funding available to help refugees nowadays, they should think carefully about three things before committing:
- Who is your audience?
- What is the impact of what you are creating?
- Is it a long-term project?
Startup entrepreneurs need to realize that solutions for the refugee crisis cannot be planned for the long-term. A diaspora community must have a termination date and it seems as if the created concepts are disconnected from reality. What really counts is the impact.
There is a risk of having humanitarian startups as a trend which escalates quickly, making it sometimes impossible to be replicated, but most importantly people are not allowed to narrate their own story. So how are these entrepreneurs tackling this problem?
Paula Schwarz, a 24-year old half Greek, half German, based in Berlin is the CEO of Startup Boat. Startup Boat specifically develops ways to make it easier for refugees to access information, and settle in their new home countries, or set about travelling to another. The startup consists of twenty entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and executives from Facebook, Lufthansa Innovation Hub, McKinsey, and others.
What happens if you involve refugees in the conversation? How can we empower refugees to be part of the solution for the European refugee crisis? First-Contact.org, a pan-European site providing basic, but vital information about how and where refugees can register for residency cards, where they can access food, shelter, medical aid, and transport, seeks to involve the refugees through workshops and psychological support. They bring together entrepreneurs with NGOs and other stakeholders to figure out how different initiatives can be pushed forward. It is a space where entrepreneurs facilitating humanitarian assistance and refugees can interact and engage in a conversation to understand the community’s true needs and desires.
According to Schwarz, the fact that refugees — mostly highly educated and belonging to the middle class — are actively trying to improve their situation is a clear indicator of their entrepreneurial mindset.
“They actually are entrepreneurs because they found themselves in a difficult situation and they did something about it. That’s why we should see this phenomenon as a chance to welcome a highly capable workforce, rather than a problem.”
Refugees are able to understand their needs and actively contribute to solutions. In this way, they are not only recipients of help, but become part of the assistance themselves. Refugees should not be seen as people who need help, but considered as job creators and economically active members of their adoptive community. As Schwarz suggested in the panel, the current demographical situation proves that we live in a time of re-learning. It’s a time to rethink the definition of entrepreneurship in Europe. We must support development issues from the front end and be proactive, not reactive.
A deep understanding of the user once again finds itself at the core of solution development. The way humanitarian aid, humanitarian startups, and the refugee crisis itself is being perceived must be redefined. Empathy is more than a design thinking key word. It is the key to well-designed, tailored solutions and represents a new form of entrepreneurship — one that is scaling rapidly.
My personal take-away from this panel: The way forward must be tailored. Empowerment tools are needed. This is not a classical startup case, as the life expectancy for these ideas has to be short. All the diaspora community wants is to hurry up and resume their lives.