Since 2015, Austrian society has been learning to coexist with an influx of migrants, and although there has always been a mixture of ethnicities, religions, genders, races, and nationalities in the city, the 2015 crisis threw a spotlight on what it meant to try and become a more inclusive society. But the evolution has been bumpy, to say the least. It’s left a lot of social entrepreneurs questioning whether or not innovative business ideas are capable of helping to better include marginalized communities, or if our society is doomed to become more siloed and biased.
Last month at Impact Hub Vienna, we invited a panel of social entrepreneurs to speak at WineDown: Inclusive Societies. We looked at two often marginalized communities, women and migrants, and explored how the attitudes towards them have evolved. Each panelist had a unique perspective on what (if anything) had actually improved over the years, whether or not startups in Vienna can be successful in building a more inclusive society, and why our communities seem to be becoming more biased.
The founders shaping a more inclusive society
The founders on our panel had a variety of different experiences with the marginalized groups. All panelists were female entrepreneurs, and two of them were migrants themselves having come to Austria from Eastern European countries. They were also in different stages of growing their businesses, some later-stage founders and some just starting out. Additionally, each social business focused on supporting migrants and/or women in some way. Based on their unique backgrounds, personal experiences, and individual perspectives, here are a few of the insights they had to share:
Annamaria Tolvaly, founder of Bags with Legs: “With the right support, migrant women can be empowered and grow.”
Annamaria Tolvaly, founder of the atelier and shop Bags with Legs and a migrant herself, believes that we need to change the narrative we have surrounding migrants and in particular, migrant women. “I grew up in communism in a system where you had to use your own hands to create something. I use the knowledge passed down from my grandmother today in my business. I work with talented and skilled women from Syria and Afghanistan who went through unbelievable [challenges] and are here to learn. They don’t want to just stay at home. That narrative our society gives to migrant women doesn’t reflect them, and we need to change it. We need to show that refugee and migrant women coming from different cultures can adapt very quickly to this dynamic environment.”
When asked if social entrepreneurship had the potential to change this perception, Tolvaly responded, “Yes, there is still so much to do. My job as a social entrepreneur is to do my work and create a new energy and attitude toward women with a migrant background.”
Andra Weiss (Slaats), founder of Younited Cultures: “ It is time to engage the public and corporates more.”
Andra Weiss (Slaats) is the founder of Younited Cultures, a fashion brand that highlights positive aspects of migration by telling migrants’ stories. During the panel, Andra Weiss (Slaats) argued that we as a society have the wrong perception of migration, which she considers to be an inevitable social phenomenon. She remarked, “It is worrisome to note that we are still discussing migration as a negative trend. Refugees and migrants are mostly young people who will invest in the economy. Journalists and the media play a major role in driving negative perceptions around migration.” She argued that social entrepreneurs can improve the lives of the migrants we support and can spread a positive message within that bubble, but there are sectors of society who simply aren’t open to changing their perception. “They aren’t willing to have a dialogue.”
Katha Schinkinger, partner at Habibi & Hawara:
Katha Schinkinger, another of the panelists, is a partner at Habibi & Hawara. Habibi & Hawara, a restaurant and catering service whose employees are refugees and migrants. In addition to employment, they also have the opportunity to acquire professional training which can be useful once they become independent entrepreneurs themselves. When responding to whether or not she believed that social businesses could be part of changing the perceptions around migrants she said, “We never thought that a little girl from Sweden could change the narrative of the climate crisis. Young people are deeply interested in politics, and they are pissed off. We need to empower them. It is hard, but we need to keep fighting for it.”
Recognizing our own bias to foster deeper conversation
During the event, our panelists often recognized the very liberal bubble that social entrepreneurs live in and the difficulty of changing perceptions outside that bubble. Francis Rafal, an entrepreneur who is currently running a variety of different ventures, shared an exercise with the audience to help them understand their personal bias and break their filter bubbles.
He asked the audience to answer questions anonymously using their mobile device. He asked, “How biased are you compared to the average Austrian?” The result of this brief survey showed that just over 10% of respondents considered themselves to be more biased, 40% of people considered themselves equally willing or less biased and willing to express their affection based on their own opinion compared to the average Austrian. Those opinions are formed based on their experiences of the world, and we need to be open to hearing all sides of the conversation. Based on these results, as well as other indicators confirming such results, Rafal concluded.
“Become aware of your bias, audit your environment and think of the five people you spend the most time with. Those people influence you the most. In the end, make active contact with people outside your own filter bubble because everybody wants to be loved and appreciated. If you listen to other people, they might also open their ears to you.”
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