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Refugee women entrepreneurship program shares successes

March 9, 2021

Syrian-Canadian Bayan Khatib, executive director of the Syrian Canadian Foundation looks back at the progress made by HER Startup, a refugee women entrepreneurship program, since its launch in 2020.

Over a year ago, the Syrian Canadian Foundation (SCF) partnered with Jumpstart Refugee Talent to launch HER Startup, a first-of-its-kind refugee women entrepreneurship program to carve pathways for refugee women with an entrepreneurial drive. Starting from signing on the primary funder, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the program has come a long way.  As opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, the program has advocated for a customized service for refugee women to address their unique socio-economic challenges and barriers.

Why do refugees require customized services? Imagine a refugee claimant trying to start a business with no credit history, no permanent address, and no network. How will they get a bank loan? How will they bootstrap?

How the program works

The program offers business training, communications skill-building, and mentorship to support refugee women navigate the Canadian workplace and entrepreneurship environment. All participants in the program receive employment coaching, networking, and connections to employment opportunities. After months of training, those with business ideas participate in a pitch event with a panel of esteemed judges. The winning team moves into a one-year incubation phase where they receive access to industry experts, business consultants, and guaranteed seed funding from generous supporters such as Islamic Relief Canada, Shopify, and hundreds of crowdfunding donors.

One of the key features of this program and its success during the first year has been offering our participants vital wrap-around services such as childcare services and transportation tickets so that refugee women can attend the training. One woman came to class with a 6-week old newborn in tow, taking public transportation from Brampton to downtown Toronto twice a week. That’s the kind of client dedication that inspired us to go above and beyond to make sure these women received top-of-the-line training and customized support.

This year’s cohort consisted of women with various educational and professional backgrounds, including an eye surgeon, architect, business manager, teacher, and graphic designer. The women were diverse, arriving in Canada from Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Columbia, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Dealing with the pandemic and its consequences

When COVID struck, we realized our clients would be disproportionately affected by the pandemic as they sit at the intersections of being women, refugees, and racialized. Some participants struggled with digital accessibility; others lost their jobs, faced financial hardship and potential homelessness. Several participants were single moms who were navigating virtual education with their children for the first time.

With the new challenges and barriers, we knew our participants would need support to launch their business while navigating a new reality. Some of our initiatives included providing participants with laptops and tablets to promote digital accessibility, securing leases, and connecting them to employment opportunities. We created a support system and our employees worked tirelessly and around the clock to ensure that participants can focus on building a successful business without worrying about putting food on the table.

I’m deeply proud of the four incredible women who rose through difficult challenges, and won the pitch event, unlocking $100,000 of seed funding to launch their business, Karegaroo, an AI-powered technology app solution connecting parents to affordable and licensed child care services. The app matches well-trained, nurturing caregivers with parents who need flexible, reliable, and affordable childcare options.

At SCF, we strongly believe in the HER Startup program and have delivered an exciting proof of concept. We have seen the ways HER Startup can economically and socially empower vulnerable refugee women and their communities, and we are looking to our funders to support us in expanding HER Startup to serve refugee women across the country. Every graduate from our program is committed to hiring other refugee women in their businesses and to giving back 5% of profits to HER Startup to contribute to a perpetual circle of giving back.

Learn more about HER Startup and connect.