This Startup Grant For Refugees Sees Immigrants As Innovators, Not Burdens

Given the right resources, refugees waiting for asylum could boost Finland’s economy.


“Welcome. We don’t have jobs. Let’s create them together.” So says a sign hanging in a reception center in Finland, where some of the country’s tens of thousands of newly arrived refugees are now living.


It’s hard to get a job in Finland even if you’re Finnish–the youth unemployment rate hovers around 22%. But a new organization called Startup Refugees is working with refugee reception centers to turn the flood of new residents into an opportunity.

“Immigration is brain gain,” says Camilla Nurmi, project coordinator for the group. “Startup Refugees network wants to harness the human capital of refugees, combine it with crazy Finnish entrepreneurship, and get Finland rising with new innovations.”

As 30,000 new refugees entered the country in 2015–almost 10 times more than the year before–the system was overwhelmed. Asylum seekers ended up sitting in reception centers with nothing to do for as long as a year, even though Finnish law allows them to start working three months after applying for asylum.

“Asylum seekers have left everything but their human capital behind them,” she says. “Now they languish in ‘human containers’ in the reception centers, and with the asylum seeking process stretching from the current six months even up to a year, people will inevitably get frustrated.”

The huge influx of people has frustrated some Finnish people, too. Protestors tried to physically block refugees from entering a small town. Another group, some wearing Ku Klux Klan-like robes, threw rocks and fireworks at a bus carrying refugee children.

Entrepreneurs Riku Rantala and Tunna Milonoff believe that refugees could ultimately help Finland’s economy, not strain it. Two weeks after sharing their idea for Startup Refugees in the media last fall, 250 companies, communities, and individuals had signed up to help.


“We started imagining a Finland that would have new vibrant companies in different fields, from restaurants to technology startups, after a couple of years,” says Nurmi. “This motivated us to do something to harness the potential of the asylum seekers. We started with making the reception centers active and vibrant places, run by the asylum seekers themselves as much as possible. Our network also wants to support the first micro companies inside the reception centers.”

A group of university students began to visit reception centers, surveying refugees to learn about their skills and their hopes for the future. Because of the government’s clogged system, no one had done that. If someone had a skill that can be of immediate use within the reception center itself, the program helped connect them with a local mentor and get to work.

A local barbershop owner who is originally from Iraq, for example, will teach refugee barbers about the bureaucracy of setting up a new business in Finland. He’ll also donate equipment to asylum seekers attending his workshop, so they can set up micro-businesses in the reception center.

“The asylum seekers who have worked in…the reception centers will get diplomas and references, and they will have better opportunities in the Finnish labor market,” notes Nurmi.

Some reception centers already have restaurants, laundry services, and even Persian carpet weaving mill, all run by teams of refugees. “For us it is crucial to start the businesses in the reception centers,” she says. “Most of the reception centers are new and able to provide only the very basic services for the asylum seekers. When the asylum seekers start offering their services first at the centers, also the centers will become more vivid places with different kinds of activities and job opportunities.”

Later this year, the program will use business incubators to help refugees launch businesses in the outside world, supported by a network of entrepreneurs and angel investors.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."