28th August, 2018

When business is more than business

The decision to start a business takes an enormous amount of courage and goes to the heart of self-determination — but sometimes it takes a bit of perspective to see that.

We get caught in the day-to-day challenges of dealing with customers, suppliers, balancing the books, forgetting that the decision to start and run a business is an act of enormous courage.

For people who have arrived in Australia fleeing extreme circumstances such as conflict or persecution this is even more true.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Entrepreneurs Program, based in Melbourne, helps people who have sought asylum in Australia start their own businesses.

For those who have arrived in Australia seeking asylum, they can remain in a legal limbo which means that they sometimes can’t seek employment or further study to better themselves.

For some, they’ve left an environment where their destinies are at the whim of oppressive regimes to find their destinies at the whim of bureaucracy.

Tom Uhlhorn, TinyCX founder, has been volunteering for the program for over a year as a coach, and says the biggest challenge facing those who come into the program is realising that they can make a proactive choice about their own lives.

“I think for some people this can be the first opportunity to have agency again in a long time,” he told The Pulse.

“Imagine not being able to make decisions for a year, and then suddenly you’re back in the world. Then the world’s saying ‘you make a decision’. You need someone there to lean on every now and then, when you kind of go ‘s**t, what do I do here?’”

The program helps refugees and people seeking asylum to help build the skills to become successful entrepreneurs or small business owners by orienting them to the local business environment, connecting them with business coaching, industry specialists, funding and networks.

But success isn’t defined as successfully starting a business – in fact, it can be defined by walking away.

Why success means different things to different people

Uhlhorn said he considered any decision taken by a participant in the program as a success – simply because it’s a decision.

“The ability to have agency is what we’re giving these people,” he said. “They can make the decision to come into the program to scale their business, or not.

“Success for us can be if somebody makes an informed decision to say, ‘this isn’t for me, I want to do something else’.”

That’s why coaches and mentors are taught not to give those in the program a set pathway, but rather simply provide them support and ask participants what they want to do.

“When you’re with us, you’re in the driver’s seat, you’re making all of these decisions about your business and you’re just a business person,” said Uhlhorn.

“It’s not a coach sitting there going ‘let me do that for you’ or ’you should do this, you should do that’. It’s asking questions and then helping the person find their own way. I think that’s incredibly liberating for a lot of people.”

All of a sudden, they’re not defined by their past.

“They’re being treated like somebody who wants to start a business. As a result, we mainly talk shop.

“You’ve got a unique set of circumstances to work through, but everybody has their own unique set of circumstances to work through.”

As a founder and somebody who took the leap to head up their own startup, Uhlhorn says the program has provided him a sense of perspective on business – and just how lucky he is to be where he is.

That could be me”

Many people seeking asylum and refugees come to Australia with qualifications in their chosen fields that don’t get recognised.

Week to week, Tom sees amazing people with mind-boggling smarts not being able to make a difference because of pieces of paper which say they can’t.

“That could be me, if I just moved,” said Uhlhorn. “If I moved to another country, and my qualifications weren’t recognised, or I couldn’t speak the language very well I’d be in a similar position.”

Above the satisfaction of helping people achieve self-determination, Uhlhorn said it puts his own experience as a startup founder into perspective.

“It’s something that’s difficult to comprehend, but I have so many safety nets,” explained Uhlhorn. “If this [TinyCX] fails tomorrow I can go get a job. It might be a bit tough, but I’d probably qualify for a loan to get me through.

“Get rid of that safety net, and that’s what these people are facing.”

He said it’s also given him a perspective on the hero startup founder myth.

“You also recognise that you’re not some hero out there, risking it all,” said Uhlhorn.

“That story we tell ourselves about heroic startup founders is a myth, an absolute myth. If that was true, there would be far fewer people doing it and there’d be fewer co-working spaces.”

Invariably, perspective is a wonderful thing.

“It doesn’t make me any less motivated as an entrepreneur but it makes me realize how many safety nets I have in place,” said Uhlhorn.

“Seeing the courage and determination of these incredible people honestly…it puts me to shame.”

The ASRC is on the lookout for prospective coaches or mentors to be part of the program. If you’re interested in having a chat, you can reach program coordinator Glenn Fernandez here.