How a startup mindset can help the refugee crisis

Startup entrepreneurs have a crucial role to play in building a more agile response to the global refugee crisis and also helping to change the narrative around displaced people, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin has heard.

Speaking during a panel discussing how technology can support refugees to integrate and rebuild their lives, Aline Sara, CEO of NaTakallam said: “I do think that the UN and other large agencies are really looking to innovation, looking to the tech sector to kind of be able to foresee and prevent more damage.”

NaTakallam is a platform that connects people she described as “forced digital nomads” with remote language tutoring work so they can be economically active despite being displaced.

She described the current moment in history as “a moment of damage control” — not just as a consequence of refugees displaced by conflict but what’s likely to be a growing wave of climate change displacement in the coming years.

“We are in a scary time in history with some estimating there will be something like 200M refugees by 2025 due to climate change so it is something we can’t ignore,” she said, arguing that the traditional non-profit sector is not well set-up to meet the scale of the looming challenge — and that’s where tech can help.

“The humanitarian sector is broken,” she warned. “So much time is spent fund-raising rather than focusing on your work. I think that personally coming from more of the NGO background what I see in the tech sector and the startup mindset is a lot more nimbleness and a lot more practicality in the mindset, jumping in and being more free… to move and change your plans.

“So I think the startup mindset and the tech sector has a lot to offer and it would be great to really keep merging these two fields. Because the severity of the situation is so massive that we really do need innovation.”

Discussing her own startup, she continued: “What we really see is NaTakallam is serving as a stepping stone for them to pursue other opportunities and other careers which is really critical because there’s a severe risk of losing such incredible human capital due to what’s going on in these countries and these young populations who really had their futures ahead of them.

“The Syrian population was highly educated… Unfortunately the media and our political leaders aren’t being the best spokespeople for the refugees… They’re completely stuck and cut off and they’re discriminated against. They’re like us. We had one of our students who wrote to us the other day and said his Syrian language partner likes Pink Floyd. So really part of what we feel is important in the work that we do is us changing the narrative and raising awareness around who these displaced people are.”

“I would also say that technology isn’t the solution on its own. It’s always the human aspect as well,” she added.

Also speaking on the panel was Anne Kjaer Riechert, CEO and co-founder of a German startup called the ReDI School of Digital Integration — which began with the idea of helping refugees learn to code but is now opening up to support German citizens needing to upskill to get into (or back into) the labor market.

Their hope is also to help with integration.

“We will also have Germans in the course and for us that’s super positive because integration means people who are locals meeting people who are foreigners and actually talk together, work together, learn to live together,” she said. “So yes we started with teaching refugees but from now let’s get all the Germans in there as well who are also needing access to education and let’s build the tech world together.”

The school is in a handful of German cities so far but Riechert said the “long term vision is to create a social franchise to see if it could work all around the world”.

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She told the story of a 24-year-old student at the school who is now studying and running two e-commerce shops.

Another startup the school has supported is trying to build an app to help navigate local bureaucracy which she also suggested could end up helping local Germans too.

Discussing how the school tailored its initial approach to support refugees she told TechCrunch moderator Mike Butcher: “We apply positive psychology. If you treat people like victims they’ll start acting like victims. If you treat people like tech talent, or if you treat them as transformation experts — it’s a huge word, these are young talented people who have gone through major disruption in their life and now they have to rebuild it and the skills that they’re getting now in their early 20s is building so incredible resilience that I think in the next five years — if they get the support that are necessary — we’ll see them hopefully becoming startup entrepreneurs.”

Riechert added that the school is looking for 150 mentors to offer one hour of support monthly for six months from January. It will also be looking for 150 internships in June.

Six hours support over six months is not a big time commitment “but could change a life”, she added.