For many entrepreneurs with an immigrant background, starting up their own business is not the realization of a long-held dream. It is something they are pushed to do because they cannot get access to the job market. Battling exclusion and passivity they become ‘reluctant entrepreneurs’.
In a seminar room adjacent to the main hall of one of Norway’s many kulturhus (publicly owned spaces for community gatherings), a group of entrepreneurs-in-training had come together for a seminar for immigrants. The program was similar to those of many other such initiatives focused on various skills and technical information on how to start a business, and various tools they could use.
During the breaks, conversations circulated around how difficult it was to get a job in Norway. Their immigration backgrounds varied. Many of them had arrived in Norway as the partner of a work migrant or due to their partner being Norwegian, and most of them had some kind of higher educational background. Several of them had highly competitive jobs before re-locating to Norway – in some instances in multiple other countries. Nonetheless, the common narrative was one of exasperation with long-term unemployment in Norway.
The reason most of them had now turned to entrepreneurship was not because of some deep-seated vocation (an “entrepreneurial spirit” in other terms) or a well formulated business idea that they were passionate about – instead, they presented it as a last resort. Some of them even reported currently running companies they were unable to earn a salary or turn a profit from. What they shared was their status as reluctant entrepreneurs.
In the research project “The Invisible Ceiling: Muslim Immigrant Entrepreneurs Navigate Norway’s Financial Environment” a cross disciplinary team of researchers, industry experts and representatives of religious organizations come together to examine the barriers to, and opportunities for Muslim Immigrant Entrepreneurs in Norway. This blogpost presents some preliminary findings and analysis from the ongoing research.
The last resort
Amna (a pseudonym) was one of the entrepreneurs-in-training at the seminar. Her experiences in the Norwegian job market, perfectly illustrates the obstacles many immigrants meet when trying to get a job.
Arriving to Norway as a so-called “trailing spouse”, Amna had joined her husband who got a job at a Norwegian University. She had spent close to a decade being unemployed and told us of how she had applied for what must have been hundreds of jobs. Leaving her disillusioned she said the process had made her doubt herself and her capabilities. Amna, who was a university graduate with significant work experience in her home country and internationally, had participated in a state-sponsored entrepreneurship training and had met a man she was now business partners with. Amna and her partner had started a so-called “social” enterprise with an explicit commitment to the value of integration. Their business consisted in offering social and educational events in their neighborhood to people with immigrant backgrounds. Amna and her partner had gained funding from the municipality: a pilot grant for two years, which was non-renewable, and other funding for operational costs. Their services were offered free of charge, as the target group were unable to pay, but they had yet to develop a business model to make money on their services. Part of the challenge was that funds to support the social impact of the business were readily available, but the agencies providing the funds never questioned the sustainability of the business model – effectively leaving Amna and her partner to work for close to nothing in order to deliver on the promises made in the grant applications. She claimed that she was happy with the situation even though she did not earn any money from her job (she received benefits from the Norwegian welfare services), as her work gave her a sense of dignity. When asked, however, she was clear that she would rather have worked in her respective field than having spent the last ten years as a job seeker. Amna was running her own business reluctantly and as a last resort to escape the humiliation and passivity of unemployment—and the relentless pressure from the labor authorities to participate in “work-promoting” activities that she felt had no purpose.
In our observational findings from the research project, “The Invisible Ceiling: Muslim Immigrant Entrepreneurs Navigate Norway’s Financial Environment,” we find and meet many immigrants on their way to becoming “reluctant entrepreneurs” like Amna. The type of aspiration this group shares is to find a job, and if need be, create their own company to do so. The tendency in this group is one of low ambition when it comes to business development, and when asked about scalability or prospects for moving beyond self-employment, these entrepreneurs are not interested. From an economic perspective, few of these “reluctant entrepreneurs” are of the opinion that their business will be profitable or even provide a living wage, but many of them cite other reasons for starting a business, such as dignity.
The type of aspiration this group shares is to find a job, and if need be, create their own company to do so.
The “blocked mobility hypothesis” posits that immigrants may be unable to secure employment in their host-communities due to insufficient language skills and the fact that their educational qualifications are not recognized. Further, project partner Diversify (a non-profit organization that provides support to multicultural entrepreneurs) and other actors in the field claim that xenophobia and racism compounds this blocked mobility by making it more difficult for people with foreign backgrounds to gain employment. As a group, immigrants to a larger degree than natives are pushed into entrepreneurship due to this blocked mobility
Indeed, in the experiences of Diversify, stories of humiliation, feeling left out, and being pushed to reluctantly pick up the mantle of entrepreneur are very common among participants at their events. Diversify offers informational, networking and educational events for multicultural entrepreneurs in Norway, and through these they have built a large network of entrepreneurs. Their initiatives were part of the research design, and the project team has participated in some of their events and trainings to learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Norway, and to meet research participants. In addition to Diversify’s events and network the team has also participated in and observed other entrepreneurial trainings.
The reluctant entrepreneurs
Introducing the term “reluctant entrepreneurs” we seek to capture these people who as a last resort turn to entrepreneurship due to blocked mobility (as opposed to the use of the term to denote “necessity” entrepreneurship, or entrepreneurs who branch out independently within their field). We propose this new term in order to truly capture the experiences of these entrepreneurs. Some researchers of entrepreneurship might not even define them as entrepreneurs per se: at best many of them will operate minimally viable businesses that turn little or no profit, providing little or no growth, basically a zero-sum entity from a national economy perspective. We could also term them “necessity” entrepreneurs, but that would not capture the explicit reluctance many of them communicated to us. Reluctance as a concept further speaks to larger theoretical debates on empowerment or even how we understand agency. Discussing necessity, by contrast, gives a sense of survival-entrepreneurship; of people having to start up their own business in order to scrape together a living in a situation of dire need, like for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Introducing the term “reluctant entrepreneurs” we seek to capture these people who as a last resort turn to entrepreneurship due to blocked mobility.
In the case of Norway, some might argue there is no necessity. The state provides a minimum living for the vast majority who are unemployed or in need of welfare. But the type of entrepreneurship we present here is not necessity driven. It is driven by factors like dignity, boredom, or a desire to do better. Actually, some of the entrepreneurs we meet may end up economically worse off than being on benefits. The concept of necessity neither captures nor accounts for the aspects of these entrepreneurs’ desires, which is why we need a new term that captures the experiences and sentiments of those who reluctantly pick up the mantle as a solution to their problems. We don’t imply that all immigrant entrepreneurs are reluctant entrepreneurs (we have also met many enthusiastic and extremely successful immigrant entrepreneurs through the Invisible Ceiling). Entrepreneurship is undoubtedly an important intervention as a tool for economic inclusion, but we need a more critical discussion of how we apply the concept, and the effectiveness of such interventions in varying contexts and claims of leading to empowerment.
There is an irony to what we observe as reluctance: In development interventions and policy, entrepreneurship is often presented as a tool to “empower” marginalized groups, especially in the case of women’s economic empowerment; but also youth, refugees and other minorities. Also in Norway’s social work sector, entrepreneurship has become a popular tool to empower minority and underprivileged communities. Within the framework of Norwegian state or municipal support this is often part of programs to foster and support “social entrepreneurship,” a vague term referring to for- and non-profit initiatives that contribute to social or environmental impact. The assumption is that through entrepreneurship and access to capital marginalized persons will be empowered, and in turn empower their communities. This is not a wholesale criticism of entrepreneurship as an intervention, but of the way we talk about it without actually considering the form it takes. How can entrepreneurship be empowering if it is reluctant?
The assumption is that through entrepreneurship and access to capital marginalized persons will be empowered, and in turn empower their communities.
We have to talk more about how useful the concept ‘reluctance’ is, but it seems necessary to consider it when it comes to understanding how people make the best of a situation they do not necessarily feel able to control. Reluctance is a way to express resistance or disagreement to the paths they feel forced to choose. We believe it makes an important addition to theoretical discussions of the interactions of structure and agency, and how we understand empowerment.
From a structural approach, the aspect of reluctance may also mirror how the Norwegian state, through engaging entrepreneurship as a way out of unemployment or unemployability for immigrants, is engaging in a form of outsourcing. By pushing these reluctant persons into self-employment, the state is effectively moving the responsibility for their employment to the unemployed or under-employed themselves.
By Mari Norbakk, post doctoral researcher at CMI, and Chisom Udeze, economist, DEIBJ Strategist and Founder of Diversify.no
The concept “reluctant entrepreneurs” is part of the analytical framework we are developing for the Invisible Ceiling project, which explores Muslim immigrant entrepreneurs navigating Norway’s financial environment.
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