Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background are leading the way

“To be voices for the voiceless, to restore dignity and hope to those who have lost everything. This is the moral challenge of our time. Nearly 26 million people forced from their homes, their lands and their lives – through no fault of their own. They need us to act.”

Hamdi Ulukaya

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of social enterprise Chobani, hires people from marginalized communities and integrates them into the workforce by putting their needs at the forefront of business. In 2015, he started the Tent Partnership for Refugees to mobilize other private sector actors, such as Airbnb and Starbucks, to do the same and implement concrete commitments to support refugees. He has received the 2019 Oslo Business for Peace Award for his efforts to solve the global refugee crisis. Hamdi Ulukaya is a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey based in the United States and a great example of a social entrepreneur with a migrant background. Our study shines a light on how social entrepreneurs with a migrant background, migrants themselves like Hamdi Ulukaya and their descendants, address migration issues by taking the perspective of migrants as an opportunity instead of a threat to see what we can learn from them.

The urgency

Necessity is the mother of invention. People with a migrant background from less stable and economically developed countries face numerous adversities due to their marginalized position in host countries. They are stigmatized by being negatively labelled and/or victimized. Too often their voice is not included in the development of policies and solutions at the institutional level leading to negative outcomes (e.g. exclusion, psychological stress). Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background overcome these challenges and implement solutions based on their own experience. In doing so, this makes them more effective. They are at the center of the issues they aim to address and, therefore, are driven by strong intrinsic motivation to elevate the status of the migrant community. In the process, these social entrepreneurs reclaim their own identity and become role models for the younger generation.

A unique approach

Humans at the center

Because of their own experience social entrepreneurs with a migrant background understand the position of migrants in host countries and adopt an empathic approach towards solving migration issues. For example, they provide access to the labor market by building on migrants´ existing skills and knowledge. Recognizing that migrants do not arrive in host countries as blank slates, they give them the opportunity to become valuable members of society. In addition, they prioritize migrants´ wellbeing before any language requirements allowing them to be part of their community and learn new skills on the job. Humans are at the center of the approach of these social entrepreneurs; this leads to long-term benefits for migrants themselves as well as to host countries.

Building bridges

Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background are able to recognize opportunities that people embedded in a single country cannot. This unique characteristic allows them to build bridges between the grassroots-level and the policy-level, between different cultural understandings, and between different actors in society. They realize that it takes a village, and pro-actively engage in partnerships. Their approach is geared towards building inclusive societies by connecting people from various backgrounds and promoting the value of diversity.

How can we amplify their impact?

We need to build an eco-system that supports the work of social entrepreneurs with a migrant background, as well as learn from their approach to change the existing practices of institutional actors. The needs of social entrepreneurs with a migrant background partly resemble that of migrant entrepreneurs (or newcomer entrepreneurs). They would benefit, for instance, from access to finance, access to legal expertise, and social capital. Thanks to the efforts of various actors (e.g. researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, businesses) there´s more consensus on the benefits of migrant entrepreneurship on host countries, and the talents of (mostly high-skilled) refugees in the international workforce. However, people with a migrant background are often still viewed as beneficiaries and not as problem solvers. It´s time to remove this victimizing stigma and to recognize these social entrepreneurs as experienced professionals who deserve a seat at the table based on merit.

Migration is now managed as a crisis that can cause negative ripple effects in the unforeseen future. Our study reveals the importance of changing perspectives on the role of migrants in society. We should not forget the potential of people who come to build a better life. Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background are leading the way by showing how we can build societies where migrants are an opportunity instead of a threat. 

Learn more about the research

This study is the result of a collaboration between ESADE Entrepreneurship Institute, Institute for Social Innovation, and Ashoka Hello Europe in order to generate new knowledge and build solutions for the most pressing societal challenges we face in the world today. If you want to know more about the research or know more about the report with recommendations for the migration field, please contact Asma Naimi (

Author: Asma Naimi

Asma is a PhD Candidate at ESADE Business School who is dedicated to creating knowledge that makes a positive impact on society about the role of social entrepreneurs in tackling societal challenges that span borders: migration, poverty, inequality, and injustices. She is passionate about stories, music, and food to connect people around the world.

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