How Migrant Journeys Feed A Business Mindset

Do migrant entrepreneurs do things differently? Well, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that companies led by founders who have crossed one or more borders can outperform their native counterparts. To give just one example, a 2021 survey by the Open Political Economy Network found that eight of the UK’s 23 unicorns were established by at least one entrepreneur from elsewhere in the world.

But is there something in the migrant experience that contributes to the creation of large companies? In late March, I spoke with Ramzi Rafih, founder of No Label Ventures, a venture capital fund created to invest in migrant-owned businesses. In his view, the experience of making long and often difficult journeys tends to foster an entrepreneurial mindset and the will to succeed.

It was a compelling narrative, but I was eager to hear more about the topic from an entrepreneur’s perspective. Is there an X factor, and if so, why?

So, earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak with Mesbah Sabur, co-founder of Circularise, a business-to-business startup from the Netherlands that enables supply chain traceability. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sabur moved to Europe in the late 1990s. Although he has since taken the perhaps conventional route of going to college and then starting a business, he says his first immigration journey played an important role in shaping his approach to life and business.

Crossing Borders

At least in the early days, finding a new home in the Netherlands was not easy. “It was a long journey,” he recalls. “In wartime, you can’t cross borders and there were some dramatic scenes as we crossed between countries.”

Once in the Netherlands, the family faced a five-year wait in an immigration center while the authorities decided whether or not to grant asylum. “That kind of thing lives with you,” he says.

From that moment on, Sabur’s life took a more conventional course. He finished his school years and went on to study at university. But I felt like I was traveling without a map.

“One of the things you find is that there’s no one to tell you what to do,” he says. So while other students’ parents were aware of post-college trajectories and might, for example, advise their children to study hard and then join a big consultancy, Sabur’s parents were out of the loop.

But in a liberating way. No one gave me advice. He had a blank sheet of paper. I started a business during my second week at university.” It seemed like an unusual choice. While classmates were engaged in extracurricular activities, Sabur and partner Jordi de Vos developed software.

Positive contribution

Sabur was also aware that he didn’t quite fit in. “As a migrant, you will never be a local,” he says. “The next best thing is to earn your place because they won’t accept you by default. And you’d better make a positive contribution to society.”

Without a doubt, Circularise – also co-founded with Jordi de Vos – represents this positive contribution not only because it is a company – and therefore creates jobs – but also because it is part of a movement towards greater environmental sustainability. The software allows companies to track materials and components that move through the supply chain and end up inside products. This creates a transparency that facilitates the recycling and reuse of materials.

Sabur and de Vos began by identifying a problem that had no solution – at least not that they had in their possession – and began to investigate the issue. Commercialization of the solution itself began in 2016, with the help of funding from the European Union’s Horizon program. In the intervening years, the company continued to draw on EU support while building its own revenue. In 2022 it secured 11 million euros in Series A funding.

International focus

A familiar journey, perhaps. But Sabur says he had a slightly different perspective than at least some of his peers. “There are companies working in spaces similar to ours that focus on local markets first,” he says. “We never looked at the Netherlands as our market. We went international from day one.”

This raises a question. Circularise offers a business-to-business solution. Finding the ears of corporate buyers is notoriously difficult even in a domestic market. So how do you get your foot in the door?

“You have to have vision. Even billion-dollar corporations need to be led by the hand when they look at sustainability. I spent many years understanding the problem and that has helped me tremendously.” However, he recognizes that while some potential customers are relatively easy to approach, others are not. “In some years, it’s taken years to figure out who to talk to,” he says.

The market is changing. Sustainability has moved up the corporate agenda, driven by regulatory change, customer demand and concern about reputational damage. This has made things easier.

One could argue that Sabur’s experience simply echoes the journeys of other b2b companies. So there really is a migration factor. Every migrant story will be different, but perhaps it is the underlying ethos rather than the day-to-day approach to running a business that characterizes a migrant-owned (or part-owned) business. This knowledge that you “have to earn your place.”

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Business today is about being adaptable and agile, and this can be seen in many different migrant journeys. In today’s economy when political and economic climates often change quickly and unexpectedly, those who practice a business mindset rooted in the idea of migration find the most success.

Today, many entrepreneurs and businesspeople migrate from one industry to another, or to find new technology or market strategies to remain competitive. They embrace the change and unpredictability that come with migration and use it to their advantage. With this mindset, these individuals have the capacity to learn new skills and develop innovative ways of working. They also have the tools to assess different markets and environments, and look for potential opportunities.

At Ikaroa, we believe that the drive and resourcefulness of migrants can help businesses to reach their full potential. We understand that migrating can be a risky journey, and yet, it is a journey filled with potential. We are proud to provide the service and support necessary to help migrants build the business mindset needed to realize their vision and dream of success.

We provide workshops, advice, and networking opportunities to help those with a business mindset understand how to navigate the challenging process of migrating. We also provide access to financing, mentorship programs, and support networks to facilitate the successful transition from one industry to another.

We are passionate about ensuring that all ultimate journeys, whether it be a physical journey or a professional journey, are successful. As such, we strive to effectively bridge the gap between immigrants and the business world and help them to reach their desired goals.

Migrant journeys can help build a business mindset and the benefits this mindset brings can help entrepreneurs to become more successful in their prospective fields. With the assistance of organizations like Ikaroa, migrants are provided with the knowledge and support needed to realize their vision. We believe that migration is essential to the development of a business mindset, and as such we are committed to supporting migrants’ and entrepreneurs’ journeys.


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