Seven young people, all in their mid 20’s to mid 30’s, sat around tables, their eyes fixed ahead on a computer screen. Furiously clicking away text, formulas, and numbers into the cells, these recent arrivals – 4 Syrians, 2 Iranians, and 1 Russian – were working on financial plans for a business project intended to eventually provide a means of self-employment in their new Luxembourgish homes.
Individualized follow-up for budding entrepreneurs
“When I first started project Sleeves Up, I wanted to help make entrepreneurship accessible to more people – especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Fabienne Colling, leaning forward ever so slightly to explain her inspiration. She is president of Touchpoints (touchpoints.lu), the Non-Profit which runs the project, and is a serial entrepreneur herself.
Touchpoints serves to promote integration by creating meeting points between local people and immigrant populations in Luxembourg. Potential future projects include a “perceptions exposition” designed to combat unconscious stereotyping, as well as a mediation service to help recent arrivals and employers forestall and resolve potential conflicts in the workplace.
Sleeves Up, Touchpoint’s first project, serves to help Luxembourg’s newcomers to transform their talents into a means of self-employment through training courses, individualized mentoring, and personalized follow-up. The project began by the end of 2016, aided by funding from "Mateneen", launched in late 2015 by the Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte to help cope with the recent influx of refugees. Soon after receiving funding, Sleeves Up began providing individualized business-creation mentoring and follow-up to budding entrepreneurs.
Link participants with valuable ressources
In early February, Sleeves Up started its first round of “Sleeves Up trainings” designed to impart entrepreneurial skills and link participants with Touchpoints many partners, such as Microlux (microlux.lu), the House of Entrepreneurship (houseofentrepreneurship.lu), Nyuko (nyuko.lu), and other resources. The workshops included topics such as the business pitch, creation of a three-page business plan, marketing, taxes, and social security, as well as lunch with a fellow refugee entrepreneur. For the first round, six workshops in total were held in Clervaux, in a room graciously provided by the commune, for 4 hours every Friday, in February and March. The computers were provided curtesy of Digital Inclusion asbl (digital-inclusion.lu), which promotes social inclusion through digital technology.
On April 7, a supplementary session will introduce participants to the House of Entrepreneurship and Microlux, Luxembourg’s first microfinance institution. While continuing to provide individualized assistance and follow-up for current participants, Sleeves Up plans to hold a second round of training workshops in September for new ones.
General information sessions for associations
For now, Sleeves Up appears to be succeeding given the level of interest and positive feedback from participants. Jordan, a US citizen who came to Luxembourg mid last year, brings international experience helping companies navigate uncertain political and economic environments. He speaks fluent Arabic, gained through several years of living and working in the Middle East. Nevertheless, since English is the most commonly spoken language among the refugees after Arabic, basic English is required for participation in the workshops. Future workshops may be conducted in French in the event of sufficient demand.
In addition to the workshops and the individualized mentoring, Sleeves Ups performs general information sessions for a wider audience. A big part of these sessions is sensitizing people to various options for self- employment, but also to the importance of learning at least one commonly spoken local language, which effectively means French, Luxembourgish, German, or English.
The importance of language-skills
“Many refugees come to us expressing a strong desire to start their own business," says Jordan Gerstler-Holton, director of the project, "but we tell them that without knowing French or at least English, how do you expect to be able to interact with suppliers, clients, and government authorities? With a failure rate of over half for SMEs, success is extremely difficult. Without the language, it’s virtually impossible.”
During the workshops, each participant focuses on his or her own project while providing ideas and feedback on other. “The idea is not to dump lots of information on the participants, with the hope that some of it sticks,” says Jordan.
“Rather, it’s that we give them the space to develop their projects and strengthen their skills via the business plan and other interactive activities, so that they walk away with greater confidence to engage others about their projects, determine what questions to ask, and plan next steps, which differ from participant to participant depending on their particular project and where they are in the process.”
Continuously improving sessions, material & approach
Given that this is the first time Sleeves Up is holding these sessions, Fabienne and Jordan are also learning what works well and what could be improved, with a view to improving the program for the September round. “One of the things that worked unexpectedly well was a role-playing exercise, which was primarily intended to improve specialized linguistic ability by having them pair up to devise and perform a situation involving an angry customer,” explains Jordan.
“We had participants work in pairs and we were going to give them each 10 minutes to prepare a dialogue and then perform it for the group, but instead everyone wanted to dive right in and perform it spontaneously, so we went with it. The interaction was not only fun (and funny), but also provided insights and feedback on how to behave when confronted by an angry customer, which happens to every business owner, and how the response made in these situations impacts the company in terms of branding, profitability or processes. The same interpersonal skills are applicable even for Sleeves Up participants who ultimately decide not to open a business and instead go work for someone else.”
Rebuilding ideas on firmer ground
Another important insight came from an unexpected failure. Each participant practiced their “business pitch” during the first and last session, with the idea that having the chance to develop one’s idea over the course of the 6 sessions would result in a superior pitch by the end. The idea was that participants could see how much they progressed with their idea over the prior six weeks.
“But in reality, with some participants the result was opposite,” says Fabienne. “Some were more uncertain about the viability of their project by the end than they were at the beginning. They’d come to the first session energized about their idea. We’d frustrate them a little by challenging various assumptions via the business plan and other exercises, and have them rebuild their ideas, this time on firmer ground by making the necessary changes.”
“We effectively relearned a lesson that one can easily forget,” Jordan says. “Becoming a entrepreneur is not a linear process, but full of ups and downs. There are moments where one is confident of being on the right track, other moments where everything seems to be going wrong, and everything in between. These moments are difficult to plan and usually arrive unexpectedly. The important thing is to recognize that these are necessary conditions for growth, not only as an entrepreneur, but also on a personal level.”
Pictures by Dorte Størup & Touchpoints