How are business schools coping with the refugee crisis?

The UNHCR – the United Nations refugee agency – predicts that there are nearly 80 million internally displaced people worldwide, or about 1% of the world’s population. A discouraging figure, and one that becomes even more disturbing when you hear that this number has nearly doubled around the world in the past ten years.


The hardships and adversity that many of these refugees faced were caused by natural disasters, economic hardship, war and persecution. And although many have managed to find refuge in other more stable countries, their journeys have not been easy, with many facing difficult displacement, long periods spent in temporary camps, and little or no assistance. support from governments.

To coincide with World Refugee Day, Poets & Quants this week featured refugees who have used business school to forge new lives and opportunities for themselves and for others.

Help local refugees start businesses

“The refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of our time,” says Linda Tuncay Zayer, PhD, professor and chair of the marketing department and new associate dean at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University in Chicago. “People going through the relocation process in the United States and other countries have to navigate a complicated process, including finding a job and earning an income. “

The refugee crisis is something Professor Tuncay Zaher experienced on a humanitarian trip in 2016, where she encountered devastating effects in Lesvos, Greece. “When I got home I felt it was important to help in any way I could. I attended an event where I met the Executive Director of the Syrian Community Network (RCS), Suzanne Sahloul, who heads a self-help organization for Syrian refugees. She explained that there was a group of refugee women who wanted to start a catering business. I brought the idea to my graduate students in my consumer behavior class, as well as to the Graduate Women in Business organization ”.

The Quinlan School of Business then set up an initiative in which students from the business school helped refugee entrepreneurs in the Chicago area start their businesses. Students work with entrepreneurs from the start of their business ideas, including a project where they developed a business plan that included marketing, operations, legal and logistics for Sweet Syrian – a catering company offering Syrian sweets. Another involved 100 students working on a consumer research and social media project with Loom – a social enterprise of Catholic charities, where refugee women make handicrafts such as jewelry and scarves.

Training new skills for start-ups founded by refugees

However, it is not just the business schools of local refugee entrepreneurs looking to provide support, advice and guidance. At ESMT Berlin, through the school’s social impact project where management master’s students spend five weeks as an economics or management consultant for an organization with specific social impact goals, from many students are taking the opportunity to use this project to help those who need it most.


A group of ESMT students took this five-week project opportunity to work with SINA, a global NGO that provides seed funding and incubation programs for refugee-founded businesses. Through this collaboration with SINA, the students worked with Generous Designs Africa (GDA), a start-up founded by refugees that aims to employ young women by reducing the impact of environmental pollution in Africa. GDA collects old plastic waste in Bidi Bidi, the second largest refugee camp in the world, and turns it into new products.

“The overall aim of the project was to help GDA succeed, ensuring that it can continue to exist,” said Filippo Poggiato, ESMT MiM graduate and member of the project team. “Ultimately, it would be reduced to obtaining financing from impact investors. To achieve this goal, we had to overcome fundamental challenges in every department of the company, such as marketing, sales, finance and production.


The impact of the project on the refugees has been both professional and personal. Whether it’s helping the business get financing by preparing them for an investment pitch, or teaching them basic tutorials on how to write an email or market products online. and end with sophisticated financial planning and forecasting. From a personal perspective, the refugee-founded start-up team shared their satisfaction in learning new skills from ESMT students, and felt inspired and motivated to reach out to the ESMT students. main to do more.

“A surprising part of the project,” says Peter Smedås, another ESMT MiM graduate and project member, “is how much we take things for granted and how much time we save by making sure that technology is replacing tedious textbooks. job. For many entrepreneurs who also face challenges, the daily chores of cooking food on firewood, hand washing clothes, and walking far to get food and water take so much time. time that they leave less time to focus on building an entrepreneur.

One way to pursue social projects

In many business schools, students get involved in social impact projects during their studies and then re-enter the workforce and their busy lives, often leaving those projects behind. At Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, academics saw this gap in the projects and created the Young & Bold initiative, alongside business school students and alumni.


Young & Bold is a community of students and professionals who continue to work on these projects having a positive impact on society, and last year the initiative focused on projects for refugees and collaborated with an organization called Movement On The Ground (MOTG).

“MOTG aims to educate people in refugee camps and leave the camp with a set of new skills that help them feel more confident and prepared for the challenges of life,” says Désirée van Gorp, founder of Young & Bold and professor of international business. at Nyenrode Business University. “Different teams worked on various projects for MOTG, including educating refugees to help them prepare for the job market. Together with several Nyenrode MBA students, the Young & Bold Foundation network is helping to shape the Movement Academy curriculum – a MOTG initiative helping people prepare for integration into European labor markets.


Professor Van Gorp says the initiative is not only helping refugees through the social projects that Young & Bold members are working on, “these initiatives also help students and young professionals looking to develop and grow. in areas of societal impact, and support companies in their search for new ways to address societal challenges using new and innovative perspectives.

Improve access for refugees

It’s not just student and school-led projects that improve the lives of refugees in a local context. Many schools directly seek to improve the lives of refugees by improving direct access to business training. The Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, for example, partnered with the charity Theyworld in early 2020 to offer full scholarships to refugees and Lebanese nationals residing in Lebanon.

The program offers up to 20 people the opportunity to study online for a Masters of Business Administration in Arabic and is aimed at people who hope to use their skills to make a positive contribution to their communities and the economy, whether in the country where they currently live, or after moving elsewhere or returning home.


Edinburgh Business School Executive Dean Professor Heather McGregor emphasizes the importance of “removing barriers to education and empowering individuals as they seek to build a better future for themselves and their families “. Professor McGregor believes the Online MBA is the ideal mode of study to do so, as it is suitable for “professionals and people who, for various reasons, might not be able to relocate and engage. in full-time studies ”.

Should Business Schools Do More?

In recent years, business schools have increasingly developed initiatives based on social impact, often focusing on sustainability, the environment and climate change. But could business schools do more to help these people who face hardship, adversity and displacement?

“Business schools have a responsibility to educate the next generation of leaders who have a responsibility not only to do no harm to society, but also to contribute proactively and positively to society… – including combating corruption. poverty, ”says Professor Van Gorp.


And for Maciek Nowak, PhD, associate dean and professor at the Quinlan School of Business, it’s important that business schools “provide advice to those with an innovative mind but don’t have access to the same resources that most American companies are used to it. Projects like Quinlan’s level the playing field for these refugees and provide them with the expertise they need, ”he says.

Comments are closed.