On a shopping strip in Melbourne’s inner west, a group of women are realising their business dreams.
A peek through the colourful shop window of the Casa Bonita Cultural and Empowerment Hub, a social enterprise in Seddon, reveals six businesswomen huddled around a table laden with accessories, athletic attire and homeware.
They are enthusiastically discussing which products to display at the front of the shop in the lead up to Mother’s Day and how best to present them. There is a flurry of suggestions when talk turns to how to package the items for maximum gift appeal.
The collaboration between the women is what the social enterprise is all about. As well as being a showcase for crafts and a space to engage with Latin American culture, other migrant women are also invited to share the space for working and retail.
Liliana Bravo Quiroz knows how difficult starting a business in a new country can be.
Originally from Colombia, she came to Australia as an international student and stayed on due to dangers in her homeland.
The businesswoman and mother says it takes practice to develop confidence speaking in English, that creating networks from scratch takes time, and that not having a family nearby to help look after children can be challenging when trying to juggle several priorities.
She established Hola Bonita, the business model of which the shop is a part, to help female migrants gain practical business experience while developing their English.
“We need to create opportunities for people who have no experience in Australia because they are very talented,” she tells SBS News.
“They can create a whole business that can support other women, that can create jobs.”
A pilot program at the hub has provided five international students with mentorship and hands-on experience of business, including learning about e-commerce, managing an inventory, styling and customer relations.
It gave Colombian participant Brenda Gil the confidence to develop her own plants and handcrafted pots venture in a courtyard at the rear of the premises, called El Boske Botanico.
“I learned how to create your own business, how to manage the inventory, all the other things that you need to do as a business,” she says. “Liliana taught me that.”
”That’s why I was ready when there was the opportunity here to just create my own business.’
Ms Gil is studying therapy and remedial massage and hopes in the future to combine her skills and love of nature in business.
Renting a small, affordable pop-up space at the hub also enabled Indian-born Ridhima Sachdeva to test interest in her products, and tailor her business to the Australian market before committing to a permanent setup.
“You really need to understand the market, it is very different from what we are coming from,” says the creative director of Hemera Labs, which makes handmade embroidered goods.
Having learned embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework in London and established a business designing shoes in Britain, she understood consumer trends in the European and Asian market. But when she moved to Australia two years ago, she had to start over.
“It was just altogether, like, learning from scratch,” she says.
“I had no idea about the basics. What is the accounting system like? It is actually so different. What is the design aesthetic here in Australia?
“So that was also one of my key research areas when I moved here.”
Through events and networking at the hub she learnt consumers really liked silk scarves and so has gradually added them to her inventory.
Barriers to entrepreneurship
It’s not unusual for migrant and refugee entrepreneurs to encounter challenges. Language barriers and a lack of networks can often play a significant role.
Additionally, a lack of recognition of overseas qualifications, plus limited experience with Australian taxation and accounting systems, as well as industrial rules, can all have an impact.
Discrimination based on race and religion can also occur.
Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force data suggests a steady upwards trend in the proportion of women small business owners/managers over the past 20 years up until 2020, with women accounting for more than 35 per cent of such roles.
But migrant business owners are also more likely to have started their business because they could not find other employment, according to CGU’s Migrant Small Business Report.
Those in the industry say women can feel the impacts faced by migrants more severely.
“The challenges faced by migrant and refugee women entrepreneurs are different, and perhaps more than for their male counterparts,” says Associate Professor Afreen Huq, who is part of the Bachelor of Business Entrepreneurship program at RMIT.
“[Women] are having to play a dual role, in the sense of keeping the two feet in the two worlds.”
“They bring with them the cultural expectations and the gender norms that they were born and raised in and were expected to comply with,” she says.
And, for some women, she says, “they have the burden of being the primary carer for the children and the elderly. But also, at the same time, to support the family by generating a supplementary source of income.”
For some refugees, the situation can also be compounded by trauma.
“Refugees arrive in this country without any resources or limited resources, and often have no choice of destination or any assurance of work,” Professor Haq says.
Colombian migrant Luz Restrepo is helping to solve the problem. During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Victoria last year, she co-founded the social enterprise Migrant Women in Business.
“There is a gap in the market to support entrepreneurial migrant women to thrive and grow their businesses,” she says.
The organisation advocates for opportunities for migrant women in business and supports them to make their ideas a reality.
One of the organisation’s first efforts has been the creation of the online marketplace Made by Many Hands, which is exclusively for businesses run by migrant women.
“[It is] designed to be friendly for people with a low level of digital and literacy skills so that they can showcase their products and services,” Ms Restrepo says.
“We also have a help desk to help the women navigate at the back end of their own stores.”
Eighty-five per cent of the money from sales goes to the seller immediately, with the remaining 15 per cent going to Migrant Women in Business to improve the platform.
Once the marketplace is established, profits from the platform will fund skill and literacy enhancing programs to help migrant women become independent entrepreneurs.
“We are not vulnerable people,” Ms Restrepo says. “We are resilient, brave, resourceful, smart people who just need opportunities to learn how to navigate in a new context.”
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