Do migrant entrepreneurs do it differently? Well, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that companies led by founders who crossed one or more boundaries can outperform their native counterparts. To name just one example: a study conducted in 2021 by the Open network for political economy found that eight of Britain’s 23 unicorns were founded by at least one entrepreneur from elsewhere in the world.
But is there something about the migrant experience that contributes to the creation of great companies? At the end of March I spoke with Ramzi Rafih, founder of No label companies, a venture capital fund set up to invest in migrant-owned businesses. According to him, the experience of making long and often difficult journeys often fosters an entrepreneurial mindset and the will to succeed.
It was a compelling story, but I was eager to learn more about the subject from an entrepreneur’s perspective. Is there an X factor and if so why?
So earlier this week I had the chance to speak to Mesbah Sabur, co-founder of Make circular, a Dutch business-to-business startup that enables supply chain traceability. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sabur moved to Europe in the late 1990s. While he has since taken the perhaps conventional path of going to university and then starting a business, he says his previous migrant journey has been instrumental in shaping his approach to life and business.
At least in the beginning, finding a new home in the Netherlands was not easy. “It was a long journey,” he recalls. “In times of war you can’t just cross borders and there were some dramatic scenes when we crossed between countries.”
Once in the Netherlands, the family waited five years in a migrant center while the authorities decided whether or not to grant asylum. “Those kinds of things live with you,” he says.
From then on, Sabur’s life took a more conventional course. He completed his school years and went to study at the university. But he felt like he was traveling without a map.
“One of the things you discover is that there’s no one telling you what you should be doing,” he says. So while other students’ parents knew about career paths after college and would advise their kids, say, to study hard and then work at a major consulting firm, Sabur’s parents fell outside that loop.
But in a way that was liberating. Nobody gave me advice. I had a blank page. I started a business in my second week at university.” That felt like an unusual choice. While exploring themselves in extracurricular activities, Sabur and partner Jordi de Vos developed software.
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 you won’t be accepted by default. And you better make a positive contribution to society.”
Arguably, Circularise – also co-founded with Jordi de Vos – represents that 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 the materials and components passing through the supply chain and ending up in products. This creates a transparency that makes it easier to recycle and reuse materials.
Sabur and de Vos began by identifying a problem for which there was no solution – at least not one in their possession – and began investigating the subject. Commercialization of the solution itself began in 2016, using funding from the European Union’s Horizon programme. In the intervening years, the company continued to benefit from EU support while building its own revenue streams. In 2022, it secured €11 million in Series A funding.
A well-known journey, perhaps. But Sabur says he had a slightly different perspective than at least some of his colleagues. “There are companies that work in similar spaces to us that focus on local markets first,” he says. “We have never seen the Netherlands as our market. We went international from day one.”
That raises a question. Circularise offers a business-to-business enterprise 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 companies need to be guided by the hand when looking at sustainability. I have understood the problem for years and that has helped a lot.” However, he acknowledges that while some prospects are relatively easy to approach, others are not. “In some years, it’s taken me years to figure out who to talk to,” he says.
The market is changing. Sustainability is moving up the corporate agenda, driven by regulatory changes, customer demand and reputational concerns. That has made it easier.
You could argue that Sabur’s experience simply mirrors the journeys of other B2B companies. So there really is a migration factor. Every migrant story will be different, but perhaps it is the background ethics rather than the day-to-day approach to running a business that characterizes migrant-owned (or part-owned) businesses. That knowledge that ‘you have to earn your place’.