Ecosystem

An Accelerator Aims to Restore Dignity and Livelihoods to Migrants and Refugees

Anne Field | December 2, 2018

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The world is grappling with a refugee crisis of massive proportions. More than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, including 22.5 million refugees. One person is displaced due to conflict or persecution nearly every two seconds, according to the United Nations.

As the Trump administration battles a caravan of migrants seeking a better life at its border, the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University is taking a different approach. Last May, the university kicked off a six-month accelerator for social enterprises that serve or are led by migrants, refugees and human trafficking survivors. Called Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins (SEM), it recently wrapped up its first cohort of 21 for-profit and nonprofit enterprises.

At its core, the program is about “recognizing and restoring the dignity” of displaced people, according to the Miller Center.

That was evident as the 21 teams presented their ventures at a pitch showcase at the recent SOCAP conference in San Francisco.

Manyang Reath Kher (pictured above) was one of the entrepreneurs from the program who presented. An orphan and refugee from the age of three, he was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of 20,000 children displaced during the Sudanese Civil War. At the age of 17, he moved to the U.S., where he attended high school and college, always looking for a way to help his fellow refugees. He started a non-profit called Humanity Helping Sudan, but decided he wanted to form a for-profit enterprise that didn’t require constant fundraising.

That led him to create 734 Coffee, which sells coffee harvested by farmers in the Sudan as well as the Gambela region in Ethiopia. (7˚N 34˚E are the geographical coordinates for that region, which is where the Pinyudo refugee camp Kher grew up in is located). A portion of sales go to a scholarship program that helps refugees pay for college. “I feel I understand the problems these people face and the best way I can help them is through a company,” says Kher.

Other participating enterprises include Talent Beyond Boundaries, Washington DC-based nonprofit that matches skilled refugees to global employment opportunities, 1951 Coffee, which provides job training and employment shops to refugees at its two Berkeley, Calif.-based coffee while educating the surrounding community about refugee issues, and Makers Unite, a Netherlands-based social enterprise that connects newcomers to the local industry through the power of making.

Mentoring and Coursework

The Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins accelerator teams each social entrepreneur up with two Silicon Valley mentors—experts who may not know about the particular issues facing the enterprise’s target market, but are old hands at how to start and scale businesses. They also guide their assigned entrepreneurs through a structured curriculum, tapping Miller’s already existing Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Online program, with the goal of helping them work out a growth and financing strategy.

Entrepreneurs talk weekly with their mentors after going through coursework module on anything from achieving economies through the value chain to creating growth strategies. They complete eight modules, chosen from a total of 100, based on their specific needs.

At the end of the program, the whole cohort meets in person, and, among other activities, present their companies to a panel of three or four experts to get their feedback. “We want our entrepreneurs to have a great pitch for a pitch session, but we also want to prepare them for the really hard part—getting through the two to three hour due diligence meeting with investors later on,” says Thane Kreiner, executive director of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

The Miller Center started offering social enterprise accelerator programs in 2003, and has worked with over 890 social enterprises in 65 countries since then. It offers the core GSBI program, a three-day program run in about 35 countries since 2010 and a one-year in-residence accelerator.

Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.

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