Sitting in Huddersfield’s Jobcentre, Razan Alsous felt that the career she’d spent her life working towards was evaporating into thin air.
Until recently, she’d been a pharmacy student in her native Syria. But that was before the civil war started, after which her trips to market involved walking past plumes of smoke and she feared every morning that her husband “might not be coming back” from work.
The final straw came when her husband’s office was rocked by a large explosion. Within weeks, the couple had fled the war-torn country with their three children, arriving in Yorkshire, England, with their belongings stuffed into a single suitcase.
But, as the Jobcentre staff told her, Alsous’ qualifications meant nothing in the UK; she’d have to start her studies again from scratch. She was crestfallen. “In Syria, I was an active person,” she says. “Now, I was fed up of searching for jobs. But I’d recently been making halloumi for my family using nice Yorkshire milk, so I thought: ‘Why not start a business?’”
Alsous scoured online university papers to learn about cheese-making, and wrote a business plan. That plan helped her land a £2,500 loan from her local enterprise agency, enabling her to set up her business, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, and buy equipment. She promoted the cheese tirelessly at weekend farmer markets.
Yorkshire Dama Cheese won bronze at the World Cheese Awards in 2014 after just four months of production, and won gold two years later. Princess Anne even helped to open the company’s new factory last year – something Alsous describes as an “honour”.
New country, new business
Alsous is one of roughly 456,000 migrant entrepreneurs in the UK. They run an estimated one in seven of all British companies and are responsible for creating 14% of jobs in SMEs.
In fact, migrants are two times more likely to become entrepreneurs than UK natives, according to the Centre for Entrepreneurship. Alsous believes migrants are attracted to an entrepreneurial life because of a hunger that only adversity can instil. “Migrants think ‘Maybe I have another chance of life’, so they want to prove they can do something,” she says. After all, establishing yourself in a new country and adjusting to a new way of life is a seriously enterprising thing to do. Alsous’ story echoes that of Lord Bilimoria, the Indian co-founder of Cobra Beer. Thirty years ago, he was trundling around curry restaurants in a battered Citroen called Albert, which “had a hole in the floor”. Cobra now has a turnover of £57m. As he has said: “It’s hard work and there’s no shortcut.
Whether it’s raining or snowing, you have to do the legwork, be persistent and never give up”.
As with Cobra Beer, some of the most recognisable brands in the world were founded by bright sparks from overseas. Takeaway firm Deliveroo? Co-founded by US entrepreneur Will Shu. Caffè Nero? Started by American businessman Gerry Ford. New Look? Tom Singh from India. Toni & Guy? Giuseppe and Gaetano Mascolo from Italy. Firezza, the pizza restaurant? Edin Basic from Bosnia.
In the US, almost half of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by migrants or their children, and migrants from the Indian subcontinent are a rising force in Silicon Valley – Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, or Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, for example.
Britons who’ve headed abroad have proved successful entrepreneurs too, such as, in the US, Sam Houser of Rockstar Games and Pete Cashmore of Mashable. Ben Elliott-Scott is another example: he’s doing a roaring trade in creating ‘snow rooms’ for wealthy residents in Dubai, through his Desert Snow enterprise.
When you travel around the world, you discover different perspectives, and new ways of thinking and knowledge
Besides their numbers, there’s something else surprising about migrant entrepreneurs in Britain: they tend to launch their companies earlier than native entrepreneurs, with average ages of 44 and 52, respectively.
Italian Antonio Scamardella reflects that truth, having set up accountancy and bookkeeping firm AJSD Group in 2016, at the age of 37. A fitness instructor in his native Naples, he’d arrived in London as a 23-year-old in 2002, with only a basic grasp of English. With a family abroad to support, he found a job flipping burgers in McDonald’s.
Three years later, Scamardella was working as a bus driver. “Every Friday afternoon, I’d see smart people dressed in suits having a good laugh, heading to the pub at 5.30. I thought: ‘When will that day come for me?’”
Envying these demob-happy workers changed Scamardella’s life. Unable to afford an accountancy course at the time, he headed to the local library during his breaks and read everything he could about the profession.
Before long, he was learning acronyms by heart and his book-filled bag was “ten times heavier than those of other drivers”. He pulled together the funds to take the AAT qualifications, and eventually secured his first job as an accounts payable administrator at TUI Travel in 2011, before he climbed the career ladder in various roles to reach his current position.
As Scamardella knows, finding work as a migrant, let alone starting a business, isn’t easy. A 2016 study by the Institute of Directors found that the biggest challenge was a lack of a network and contacts. Having qualifications that aren’t recognised by employers was also deemed a huge impediment, with many migrants forced to take lower-skilled jobs than they would at home.
But successful migrant entrepreneurs are firm in their belief that hard work can overcome anything. Scamardella might now be a boss, but he still rises at 5am every day to read books and study before heading to the office. “If you want to achieve something, you can,” he says. “The secret is education. Just grab books, contact AAT and crack on with studying. Stay off Facebook! Stop playing Candy Crush!”
Yuliana Topazly is another example. Despite having accountancy qualifications from her native Russia, she found getting work “difficult” after arriving in London in 2001. She eventually found work at a betting shop. “That was a culture shock!” she remembers. “You have to deal with difficult [customers]. I just had to deal with it somehow.”
Language was a huge hurdle. When asked to apply for the betting shop job, Topazly assumed working at a bookmaker involved producing novels. It wasn’t until the job interview that she realised what it really meant. In a bid to improve her English, she conversed with customers in the shop, lived with a British family and tried to avoid socialising with expat Russians.
She saved up to attend a business studies course in west London, and landed a business assistant role at the BBC World Service. After then working as an entrepreneurship manager for various universities, she established the London family friendly business centre and co-working space My OutSpace in 2014; her postnatal depression prompted her to help parents like herself. Today, Topazly works with many migrants, who, she notes, “have good degrees from their homelands, which [aren’t internationally recognised] at all”.
Overall, Topazly believes that living and working in a foreign country can give you a competitive advantage in your career. “When you travel around the world, you discover different perspectives, and new ways of thinking and knowledge,” she says.
Tomasz Dyl also overcame the language barrier – and then turned it to his advantage. When he arrived in Southampton, UK, from Poland with his family as a 13-year-old, his English was rudimentary. But, by the time he was 17, he’d founded his own multicultural marketing agency, GottaBe!, funded using wages from his part-time waiter’s job in a Little Chef service station. Dyl started “hammering the phones” and, incredibly, within four days of founding GottaBe!, secured a big deal with Specsavers. Specsavers put its faith in Dyl after he persuaded the optician that GottaBe! could help it target Polish migrants more effectively. “There weren’t many people concentrating on eastern Europeans,” remembers Dyl.
Twelve years on, GottaBe! has a turnover of £500,000, delivering its services in 45 different languages. Dyl is pleased by the positive impact his business has had on the local economy: “I’m proud to say my entire team is British. ”
When working in another country, migrants usually encounter assumptions and stereotyping of some kind. Though mostly fairly innocuous, this can sometimes be a little tiring, says Topazly: “People are always picking up on [Russia’s] political situation with me. Every week, some sort of situation arises – people talking about the KGB, saying that we’re against America… You have to prove yourself all the time.”
On the other hand, Alsous says she has never experienced any discrimination while running her halloumi business: “I am a Muslim woman wearing a hijab,” she says. “We have lots of media against that, but I’ve never had any problem. I actually get people hugging me… If anything, [I get] people saying: ‘You can’t make halloumi in Yorkshire – it’s from Cyprus!’”
Perhaps the most serious barriers of all are bureaucratic. At the moment, Yorkshire Dama Cheese can’t expand because Razan is still waiting for the permanent residency permit that will allow her to access bank loans. Still, as Topazly reminds us, drive and commitment can take you far: “It doesn’t matter what your background is, you can achieve things here. But you have to be respectful, resourceful and prepared to work hard.”
This article appeared in our Mar/Apr 2018 issue of AT magazine.
Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.