BE BOLD FOR CHANGE – that was the motto of this year’s International Women’s Day. In its honour, we pledged to celebrate women’s achievement. That’s why we have started an interview series, where we talk to inspiring women who change our world for the better.
One of them is Emily Elsner, co-founder and general manager of Capacity Zürich. Capacity supports people from diverse backgrounds to develop new models of co-operation and interaction. The association runs a mentoring programme for people with refugee and migration backgrounds living in Switzerland to help them set up their own businesses or initiatives.
We met Emily to find out all about her project and what motivates her to do what she does.
Elizabeth: What is Capacity’s single biggest purpose?
Emily: We set up because there’s a lot of untapped potential in the migrant – particularly the refugee – population. A lot of energy, passion, and knowledge. And we wanted to make that more open and available to everybody here in Switzerland. We help these people to use their potential, to give back to society, but also to fit in better. Why isolate them in the corner when they could be contributing so much?
So, our purpose would be focusing on releasing the personal and professional skills, expertise and overall human potential of individuals.
What different strands does your programme have?
Our mentoring programme, which has been going for 2 years, has 3 pillars: personal development, professional development and engagement with society.
In terms of personal development, we help the participants to become more confident in their skills and to understand their own potential. A lot of them come in and think they’re worthless, they’re “only” an unemployed migrant or refugee. But they’ve actually got a lot of talents and should be proud of that! We also help them to develop confidence in networking and engaging with people.
Then there’s the professional development side: supporting them to gain new skills, and to identify gaps.
And then, the focus on society: by showcasing these participants, we show other people what they can do. We try to change the narrative of the “poor little refugees needing help” and turn it into, “Look at these kickass people, see what they can do!”
The Swiss mentors and trainers also get hands-on experience of working with our participants and being inspired by them. And they, in turn, help the participants, some of whom have got – after many negative experiences – critical opinions about being in Europe. The mentors can help them leverage their negative experiences and turn obstacles into opportunities. This is a 2-way street: mentors can also learn from this process and the journeys of their mentees. It’s about breaking down barriers on both sides.
How do you call the people you work with? Do you call them clients, entrepreneurs, job seekers? What role do these “labels” play?
We run the mentoring programme for entrepreneurs who happen to have a refugee or migrant background. We try to call them either participants or entrepreneurs. We want to get away from labels that box people away. And we think that by talking about entrepreneurs or participants, we highlight that they’re active, they’re engaged, they’re dynamic – all the things that refugee implies they’re not.
The word refugee also instantly calls up, “Oh, are they okay? Do they need a blanket?” It’s a nice response but not very egalitarian. It doesn’t focus on the person but it implies a refugee camp full of people all of whom need blankets. Refugee is a very broad label for a very broad community of people. And they themselves don’t necessarily all identify as refugees. Some of them over-identify, they come to internalise this label and think that as refugees they’re helpless. So, we work quite hard on empowering them, helping them take ownership of their ideas and implementing them.
What’s the gender split on your programmes? How diverse is your group of participants?
We look at migration through an intersectional lens. Therefore, we see the ways in which gender, migration, nationality, religion, etc., shape our participants’ experiences and journeys. We take as many aspects of diversity as we can into consideration. Last year, there were 6 women and 5 men. And this year, I think it’s similar – in terms of gender, it’s pretty even. Our participants are incredibly diverse in other ways: out of 21 participants who joined our programme this year, we have people from 17 nationalities. The age range is quite broad as well. Last year, the youngest participant was 23 and the oldest was in her fifties, very similar to this year. We’re really delighted to have that diversity.
Is that diversity something that you try to engineer when you select the participants or is it a case of who applies?
It’s a case of who applies. Our two main criteria are actually not things like where they’re from originally, but whether they are able to speak German or English to a good standard and whether they have a work permit. Because without that, it’s very difficult to operate. We had one lady from Iran with a really interesting idea to make cakes. She didn’t speak a word of German or English. There was nothing we could do to support her because she could not have joined in the workshops, the mentoring, and everything else we do. It was really unfortunate.
Work permits are incredibly important. Almost all of our participants have a permit that allows them to work in Zurich because otherwise it is almost impossible to found a business like a GmbH, an Einzelfirma or any other legal form of registration. Even setting up something like a Verein or charity is much easier to do with the work permit. So if someone has a great social or for-profit project and the right permit, why not? Why not support them?
Do female migrants have particular needs compared to their male counterparts?
I think that for our participants one specific challenge is if they have children. Entrepreneurship is by default flexible: it requires considerable personal commitment but also often involves working from home (no office!) and being your own boss – which makes it attractive if you have other commitments that are not compatible with a traditional 8-6 working day as is typical in Switzerland.
It is a fact that there are evident systemic disadvantages in the labor force for women in Switzerland. Female founders in Switzerland are no exception. Despite the fact that women entrepreneurship is on the rise, and there seems to be not much of a statistical difference between male and female start-ups, there are massive hurdles when it comes to staying at the top and securing funding. We have really noticed that those participants who’ve got kids struggle a lot more to have the time to develop ideas – whether they are men or women. They have trouble with childcare for attending events, there are holidays when they have to look after the children all the time, and the nature of Swiss schooling, with children coming home for lunch and not having afternoon school is very incompatible with spending afternoons and early evenings at meetings or networking events. We very much encourage them to bring their kids if they want to, but obviously it’s not always that practical for them.
We have also observed in our 2 programmes so far that typically, it’s either older Middle Eastern women or younger European and Latin American women that join the programme – perhaps reflecting different education and life experiences, not having children (or having grown-up children) plus different social expectations around the role of women. Having said that, this year we do have a young Eritrean woman in the programme, who has initiated a youth outreach project in her town. We would love to reach out more to particular cultural communities such as Eritrean, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern women, and work with them to develop programmes that would suit their particular needs and interests
Regarding our programme and its focus on developing businesses or social projects, the main challenges for all of our participants that emerge through questions at our workshops tend to focus on the practicalities of setting up a business or social project: how do you do it? Can you do it? How do you get the funding to do it?
What kind of projects have you supported so far?
Gosh, we’ve really had everything! Last year we had an Afghan caterer for example. Catering is quite popular because it is about heritage and sharing that with others.
We also had a person who had lost his mother while he was a refugee. He couldn’t go home to her burial and was really upset by that. When he came to Switzerland, he realized that he’d come from a culture where elderly people are very much part of the family to a culture where they are often put in elderly people’s homes. And he found that utterly isolating for them. He had this motivation to set up a project to connect young refugees, whose families are far away, with elderly Swiss people, whose families are far away. We just love this connecting of different communities.
This year, we’ve got everything from 3D visualisation ideas, to sustainable fashion, to catering. There’s a platform to bring together architectural ideas around how to create spaces that are more community-oriented and more connected, and another platform to connect Middle Eastern craftspeople with European consumers. So we have very diverse projects, some for profit, some not for profit. And we love that combination.
You could have started any number of initiatives. What was it about this idea that motivated you?
As a new migrant to Switzerland myself, I had the usual struggles of working out what I was going to do. I went to a networking event on sustainability in early 2015 , where my co-founder to be was pitching an idea to support refugees in Switzerland to find jobs. And I thought, well, that’s something I’ve been struggling with – how much harder must it be for them? I got to know the lady pitching, Alexa Kuenburg. She is a medical doctor who had spent many years working in the area of dealing with victims of war and torture. So she’s really seen the worst side of refugee life. And she’d also seen the mental health consequences of not being able to integrate to the workplace. People come here, they’re safe – brilliant. But the next step, finding something to do to support themselves, is the difficult one. They would become depressed and issues like posttraumatic stress would start to return. Alexa wanted to do something to fix this and this idea resonated a lot with me personally.
Of course, the government and other organisations already do work in the refugee sector. We were trying to work out what we could add to that community. In this process, we met a lot of refugees who had good ideas but didn’t know how to implement them. So eventually after months of talking to refugees, start-ups, business people and migrants, Alexa and I had the idea to do a mentoring programme. We thought, let’s start with supporting those individuals who are already passionate about something to implement that passion. And in January 2016, we got the funding to do the first programme.
The theme of this interview series is Be Bold For Change. Did this move – founding Capacity – feel like a bold move?
Yes, definitely. Although Capacity started in 2015 with a big group of interested people, by the end of the year there were only 2 of us – Alexa and I. Neither of us had ever founded a business or a non-profit organisation before. The whole mentoring programme set-up process, designing a programme for a stakeholder group that we were not directly part of was not easy. Both of us happened to be migrants to Switzerland and both of us had struggles with that, so we could somehow sympathise. But to offer something that we didn’t know if people would take, to get money from the government, to recruit participants – that was all very uncertain and unknown. So both of us felt that it was a huge jump to make. And a risky one because it could have backfired! We worked hard and got lucky, though– we recruited some great team-mates, found some wonderful participants, and this has carried on into 2017 with a larger team and more participants – all of whom are highly engaged, passionate individuals who want to create a community of support and foster an environment where anything is possible, regardless of where you come from.
Which woman’s achievement should we be celebrating next?
Do you know Heather Kirk from Social Fabric? I find her very inspiring – it was through her that I met my co-founder Alexa, actually. Heather showed me that it is possible to be an academic, move out of academia and then become something different – and that setting up a business as a migrant is not impossible. Her social business Social Fabric is a really welcoming community space that also works to support people with refugee backgrounds through training.
And I have to mention some of our participants: they have often arrived in Switzerland with challenging backgrounds, but have overcome these to set up their idea. Emilce Gubser arrived in Switzerland and almost immediately ended up being primary carer for her ailing mother-in-law. However, her design training in Argentina and Chile meant that she was alert to the possibilities of second hand furniture that many Swiss people put out on the street with ‘Gratis’ labels. She founded her business, AMUNEMI, using second hand leather rescued from old furniture and turned into fashionable handbags and multi-purpose clothing items.
Similarly, Dahiana Parra experienced a difficult early life, but on arrival in Switzerland was determined to make the most of her opportunities here, founding a wedding dress label that supports Colombian craftswomen, especially single mothers.
Finally, Nafissa Saya left her career as a doctor in Afghanistan, and, on her travels through to Europe as a refugee, learnt to cook. She is now a full-time caterer, offering Afghan and other specialties, and loves the community atmosphere produced by cooking.*
Emily, thank you very much for sharing your passion and your stories with us!
* Check out more projects of the Capacity Graduates here: 2016 Grads & 2017 Grads.