Do Migrant entrepreneurs do things differently? Well, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that companies led by founders who have crossed one or more borders may well outperform their native counterparts. To take just one example, a survey carried out in 2021 by the Open Political Economy Network found that eight out of Britain’s 23 unicorns were established 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? Back in late March, I spoke to Ramzi Rafih, founder of No Label Ventures, a VC fund established to invest in migrant-owned companies. In his view, the experience of making long and often difficult journeys tends to foster an entrepreneurial mindset and a will to succeed.
It was a compelling narrative but I was keen to hear more on the subject from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Is there an X factor and if so why?
So, earlier this week I got a chance to speak to Mesbah Sabur, co-founder of Circularise, a Netherlands business-to-business startup enabling supply chain traceability. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sabur moved to Europe in the late 1990s. Although he has since taken the perhaps conventional route of going to university and then starting a business, he says his earlier migrant journey played an important role in shaping his approach to life and business.
In the early days at least, finding a new home in the Netherlands wasn’t easy. “It was a long journey,” he recalls. “In times of war, you can’t just cross borders and there were some dramatic scenes as we crossed between countries.”
Once in The Netherlands, the family faced a five-year wait in a migrant center while the powers that be decided on whether or not to grant asylum. “That sort of thing lives with you,” he says.
From that point on, Sabur’s life took a more conventional course. He completed his school years and went on to study at university. But there was a sense that he was journeying without a map.
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“One of the things you find is that there is no one to tell you what you should be doing,” he says. So while the parents of other students were aware of the career paths post-university and might, for example, advise their children to study hard and then join a big consultancy, Sabur’s parents were outside that loop.
But in a way that was liberating. Nobody gave me advice. I had a blank sheet. I started a business in my second week at university.” That felt like an unusual choice. While peers through themselves into extra-curricular 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 simply because it is a business -and thus creates jobs – but also because it is part of a movement towards greater environmental sustainability. The software allows companies to track the materials and component parts that come through the supply chain and end up inside products. This creates a transparency that makes it easier to recycle and reuse materials.
Sabur and de Vos began by identifying a problem that didn’t have a solution – at least not one that they were in possession of – and began to research the topic. The commercialisation of the solution itself began in 2016, with the help of funding from the European Union’s Horizon program. In the intervening years the company continued to draw on EU support while building its own revenue streams. In 2022 it secured €11 million in Series A funding.
A familiar journey, perhaps. But Sabur says he had a slightly different perspective from at least some of his peers. “There are companies working in similar spaces to us that focus on local markets first,” he says. “We never looked at 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 a foot in the door?
“You have to have vision. Even billion dollar corporations need to be led by the hand when they look at sustainability. I spent many years understanding the problem and that has helped enormously.” However, he acknowledges that while some potential customers are relatively easy to approach, others are not. “In some years, it has taken years to find out who to speak to,” he says.
The market is changing. Sustainability has risen up the corporate agenda, driven by regulatory change, customer demand and concern about reputational damage. That has made things easier.
You could argue that the experience of Sabur simply echoes the journeys of other b2b companies. So is there really a migration factor. Every migrant story is going to be different, but perhaps it is the background ethos rather than the day-top-day approach to running a company that characterizes migrant owned (or part owned business). That knowledge that “you have to earn your place.”