Sometimes, profitable businesses arise from accidental discoveries. Alexander Freedman, who goes by “Oscar,” established Call-Home S.A.R.L in 2005, after spending almost an hour waiting in line for a telephone booth when he first got to Luxembourg. Recognizing an opportunity, Oscar decided to establish a store for phone booths, mostly for lower-income foreign workers who needed to call home.
When Oscar first opened his shop, people would peer in through the window from the outside - suspiciously at him, a “lone black man” in the store, as he described - wondering whether it would be safe to come in. Recreating the scene during the Business MeetUp, he got up from his seat and walked outside. Moving his head from the outside as if trying to get a better view, he assumed a worried expression. Oscar was making light of challenging moments, and the audience laughed.
He didn’t have any customers for the first few days, which isn’t unusual for new businesses. Then, once people got to know him and the shop, they started coming in droves. A couple years later, however, the growth of mobile communications and internet services decimated his business, though some booths remain in use, mostly for calling developing countries with poor internet. Faced with looming closure, Oscar responded by diversifying into financial and logistics services. Now, through the use of MoneyGram and ..., he helps the same clients as before, but with sending goods and remittances – usually cash – to friends and family abroad.
Migrant entrepreneurs face myriad obstacles: linguistic and cultural barriers, weak support networks, low capital, reluctant banks, limited access to information. Without substantial capital guarantees, traditional loans are virtually impossible, and many banks decline even to open a basic bank account. To be sure, some of these issues affect entrepreneurs in general, but they affect migrants disproportionately.
Racism represents another obstacle. Oscar, who originally hails from Nigeria, recalled his experience living in Vienna, Austria before moving to Luxembourg:
“I worked for many years in Austria as a dishwasher in restaurants and wanted to do something better with my life,” he said, “I went to the government employment agency to ask about courses I could do to become an IT specialist but was told I couldn’t,” due to racial discrimination. At first, Oscar didn’t mention the reason, only after being asked.
As one of the most diverse countries in the EU, Luxembourg is a welcoming place for migrants. Nevertheless, studies show that racism and discrimination persist against people of colour and Muslims, impeding their social and economic mobility, as highlighted i.e. by a recent study specific to the Luxembourgish labour market
One day, Luxembourg tax officials visited Oscar’s shop, asking to speak with his boss. “I’m the boss,” he replied.
“No, we mean, we want to speak with the owner,” they asked.
“Yes, it’s me,” he replied, to looks of disbelief.