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Startup Refugees turns reception centres into startup hubs

Cooperation project Startup Refugees, set up by Finnish journalists and entrepreneurs Riku Rantala and Tunna Milonoff, gives refugees the skills to enter the workforce and set up businesses.

Rantala and Milonoff got the idea for the project while doing their series Docventures, a popular combination of political documentary films and talk show. The adventurous pair felt they needed to stimulate people’s thinking rather than just allowing them to stare meaninglessly at a screen.

Creating a positive impact

Riku Rantala (left) and Tunna Milonoff founded the Startup Refugees programme to create positive impact. Image: Startup Refugees

Rantala describes his motivation behind the Startup Refugees as wanting to make a positive impact: “In our case we believe in karma,” he says.

The reception centres in Finland provide the basic needs for refugees – food, shelter and water – but Startup Refugees as an organisation aims to provide a sense of hope for people who have left behind war torn countries.

Rantala feels that not enough is being done to help refugees integrate into Finnish society.

“We need to help refugees to settle,” he states. “If nobody is helping them to make business then it’s going to be a lot harder to do that.”

Startup Refugees believes that the work should start in the reception centres. As days in the centres can be long and boring, the programme aims to make this time more constructive by giving the people the means to start their own micro businesses in the centre, or working towards getting their hygiene passport to work in the centre’s kitchen. Essentially the programme is designed to give refugees the essential tools to allow them to work towards bigger goals.

“They want to do something meaningful and at the same time make their days in the centre more comfortable,” Rantala observes.

Making it happen

Startup Refugees receive the necessary resources by getting sponsorship from companies and people who want to help. Already 350 different companies, organisations and individuals have signed up, including Finnish gaming giant Supercell, Microsoft, the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, and the Finnish Immigration Service, as well as several communications and PR agencies, universities and research institutes. The companies and people all help in different ways: the large companies donate money, the small businesses training and equipment, and experienced business coaches their time.

Startup Refugees brings together public sector, refugees, companies and investors. Image: Startup Refugees

Companies might have many reasons to get involved: perhaps they might be looking for someone who speaks a particular language and may be able to make that initial contact from the centre.

The organisation is able to deliver hope by providing mentoring from businesses and entrepreneurs. This aims to improve refugees’ chances of employment and also to initiate a thinking process that may allow the refugees to form their own companies.

When it comes to applying funding for refugee startups the organisation acts as a networking group. Startup Refugees is able to connect people in the centre with investors as well as mentors to train the aspiring refugee entrepreneurs and give them the foundation to succeed.

Rantala explains that although the focus is on startups, employment is the main target. “We’re not making any limits for people; if somebody gets a job then it’s always good.”

Due the unique nature of the Startup Refugees program, Rantala believes that someday it will spread outside of the country although the focus remains in Finland for the time being.

“Right now [the goal] is to make this work really well here but it would be really interesting to copy the concept,” Rantala says.

Helping Finnish businesses

New startups that are born in reception centres would create diversity among the business landscape in Finland and promote exports to the Middle East via their founders’ established contacts in the region.

“If there is nobody in Finland who knows how to handle the culture or how to meet the people’s needs, how will we ever do good business there?” Rantala ponders.

The project also sets out to change the public perception of refugees in the media.

“Sometimes they receive abuse and are spoken about like animals; people tend to forget that they’re a really diverse group of people.”

Startup Refugees helps people to create business, for example in reception centres. Pictured a reception centre laundry, established by the refugees themselves. Image: Startup Refugees

Text: Ruairi O’Hehir

Published on 16.03.2016