Syrian Refugee Entrepreneurs Have a Voice at Global Entrepreneurship Congress
In April, over a thousand entrepreneurs and investors, along with corporate, civil society, and public start-up champions, from nearly 170 countries came together in Istanbul at the 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC), the annual flagship event of the Global Entrepreneurship Network.
Delegations shared ideas and best practices for boosting their countries’ entrepreneurship ecosystems and helping their entrepreneurs become more innovative, global, and attractive to investors. One common message echoed throughout more than a hundred sessions over three days: entrepreneurship drives economic growth, creates jobs, and has the potential to solve global challenges.
Turkey is an ideal country to hold a global forum on entrepreneurship, as local organizers TOBB, TIM, Endeavor, Habitat and others state: a major economy; an aspiring regional entrepreneurship hub; and a vibrant nation with a young population, sitting at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.
There is another important but less obvious reason: this year’s GEC host is also the host to the largest number of refugees in the world, with over 3.5 million Syrian refugees alone having made Turkey their home since the war in Syria started in 2011. In Turkey, Syrians have established nearly 7,000 businesses with over $300 million in capital and 9 employees on average. Syrian entrepreneurs building new lives and new companies in Turkey and other host countries represented some of the most important attendees at the GEC this year. If entrepreneurship is, at its core, a way to recognize needs and create solutions, addressing one of the gravest humanitarian crises in modern history requires the perspectives of refugee entrepreneurs and their champions.
GEC 2018 provided a number of platforms to voice the opportunities and challenges of refugee entrepreneurship. As Building Markets, we presented our work with Syrian entrepreneurs, including a pioneering report on Syrian SMEs in Turkey, on two occasions: a workshop on Entrepreneurship in Post-Conflict Economies, along with colleagues from SPARK and SIAD as well as a promising young Syrian entrepreneur, and the Empretec Global Summit: Entrepreneurship + Migration, sharing the stage with colleagues from UNHCR, Habitat, and TUBITAK to discuss our experiences supporting Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey. Another panel discussion on Defining Priorities focused on the role of startup communities in addressing global challenges including the refugee crisis.
Throughout these events and other conversations with fellow participants, here are some of our key takeaways:
- Gaps continue to exist between refugee entrepreneurs and local entrepreneurship ecosystems (even one as vibrant as Turkey’s, and despite welcoming and facilitating host country policies). In Turkey, language remains a unique barrier. In addition to this, there is an ongoing need to 1) increase availability of and access to reliable data on Syrian-owned businesses (which Building Markets is addressing with an online platform); 2) offer capacity development trainings to SMEs, including support on navigating the Turkish regulatory environment and economy, which we provide through our local partners; and 3) boost integration with the Turkish business sector, public institutions, and support networks, which networking opportunities such as GEC can facilitate.
- Syrian entrepreneurs want to overcome the narrative of refugees as “burden” and demonstrate their contributions as foreign investors and business partners. Our work and others’ have demonstrated the job creation potential of Syrian-owned SMEs in Turkey, as well as the value they add to local markets. We need more assessments and success stories to break down prejudices, celebrate contributions, inspire other refugees (including budding, first-time entrepreneurs, such as the participants of Habitat’s Imece program), and encourage the international community and local advocates to invest further.
- Global entrepreneurship ecosystems and events like GEC should include refugee entrepreneurs, regardless of where they are currently located. Syrian entrepreneurs are capable and eager to address refugees’ challenges with their unique access, innovation, and commitment, and, when the time comes, will be crucial actors in rebuilding Syria with their investments, experience, and ideas – possibly along with their business partners from their host countries.
Last week, another important event took place, this time with Syrian refugees, host countries, and donors at the forefront: the Syria Conference, held by the United Nations and the European Union in Brussels. Ahead of the conference, the EU consulted 108 non-governmental organizations (NGO) working in Syria and in the refugee host countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. One of the support needs emphasized by organizations on the ground is the livelihoods of refugees. NGO partners working with Syrian refugees underlined the need to increase the levels of income of refugees and not just offer relief, and commitments were made at the Conference to boost employment opportunities for both refugees and host communities.
We at Building Markets believe that unleashing the power of entrepreneurship and small businesses is one of the most effective ways to invest in refugees, host communities, and the future of Syria.
Selen Ucak is a Consultant with Building Markets USA, an innovative international development nonprofit that promotes economic growth, jobs, and stability in crisis-affected economies by supporting local SMEs, and Lead Researcher/Author of Another Side to the Story: A Market Assessment of Syrian SMEs in Turkey. Follow our work with Syrian entrepreneurs at refugees.buildingmarkets.org and @BuildingMrkets.