Untapped potential: The challenge and opportunity of migrant entrepreneurship

by Monder Ram

Migrant entrepreneurship is a notable feature of economies across Europe. Self-employment often provides migrants – and established ethnic minority communities – with a job, a mechanism for survival in a context of racial inequality, and for some, a path to social mobility. There are some spectacular successes: a recent study by the Centre of Entrepreneurs (PDF) looked at immigrant entrepreneurs in the ‘heartland SME segment of the economy’ (companies with a turnover between £1 million and £200 million) and found that foreign-born owners were: responsible for one in seven businesses in the UK; almost twice as entrepreneurial as UK-born individuals; and on average, eight years younger than the typical UK-born entrepreneur.

But my colleagues and I at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) usually focus on the smaller, more mundane – and perhaps more representative – entrepreneurial activities of migrants.

Shopkeepers, retailers and small manufacturers are our stock in trade. Yet even these businesses make important contributions which are often unacknowledged.

Our recently published article identified important social and economic benefits of migrants involved in such seemingly straightforward entrepreneurial ventures. These micro-firms serve as a buffer against unemployment and exclusion. Our interviewees often mentioned how their workplace shelters them from the discrimination and racist abuse suffered in the open labour market. And this is because, in addition to providing much needed employment to marginalised communities, many shops and cafés act as social hubs, meeting places for a mix of native and migrant customers. Owners and workers in retailing and other customer-facing outlets speak appreciatively of their close contacts with the native population.

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Yet the entrepreneurial potential of migrants is being hindered by a lack of guidance, exclusion from ‘mainstream’ business support networks, and inadequate knowledge of how migrant businesses operate.

CREME has a long tradition of engaging with non-academic stakeholders to tackle such challenges. Our two ongoing projects, both benefiting from ESRC support, demonstrate how insights arising from social science research can make a material difference to communities.

The first involves collaborative research with a dynamic migrant-owned social enterprise, ACH Integrates. ACH Integrates resettles migrants through labour market and social integration. CREME has undertaken research on the entrepreneurial aspirations of new migrants, which has been used by ACH Integrates to provide services to support their clients to establish their own businesses. CREME has also supported ACH Integrates with its award winning ‘Rethinking Refugees’ campaign, which tackles the negative portrayals of refugees in the media.

CREME’s second project comprises a unique group of partners representing business (Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Growth Hub), civil society (Citizens UK Birmingham (CUK:Bham)) and the banking sector (NatWest Bank). This project has trained business owners from disadvantaged areas, provided business support to over 50 businesses in the three areas, and developed a system of business support that recognises the contribution of migrant businesses to the city. The learning accrued from the project is changing the way in which CUK: Bham, GBSLEP and NatWest Bank relates to migrant businesses.

Next Steps

The prize money secured from winning the 2017 ESRC Impact Prize will help to promote these projects in major national and European events involving practitioners working on migration and entrepreneurship. CREME will stage the 22nd national Annual Ethnic Minority Business Conference in November 2018. It will provide an ideal forum to scale-up these projects in other areas of the country. CREME has also discussed potential for extending the projects to mainland Europe with participants of the European Migrant Entrepreneurship Network (EMEN). EMEN partners will visit CREME as part of study tour of best practice initiatives in migrant enterprise support in early 2019.


monderProfessor Monder Ram is the Director of Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME), based in the Business School at the University of Birmingham.

He has extensive experience of working in, researching and acting as a consultant to small and ethnic minority businesses. He is a leading authority on small business and ethnic minority entrepreneurship research and has published widely on the subject. 

Monder is responsible for initiating the annual Ethnic Minority Business Conference in 1998, which has developed into the most important event in the calendar for disseminating policy and research on ethnic minority firms.

He was awarded an OBE in the 2004 New Year Honours List for his services to black and ethnic minority businesses.

In 2017 Monder won the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Impact in Business and Enterprise.

Winners of this year’s Celebrating Impact Prize will be announced on 20 June. Read the 2018 shortlist and follow #impactprize on Twitter to find out more.

You can follow @monderram and @CREMEatBham on Twitter.

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