Immigrant entrepreneurs are becoming a vibrant part of Ireland’s indigenous tech scene but they are being hampered by funding and language issues.
Turkish entrepreneur Hakan Guzelgoz was working as head of research and portfolio management for an Italian asset management firm in Ireland when he and his current business partner, Stefano Rocco, developed a new software product for the financial sector.
When they approached the company with this software idea, they were told that it wasn’t the company’s core business. They were not deterred but took the plunge and set up their own business, Koelo Solutions, which is based in the IFSC.
Guzelgoz and Rocco are typical of the emerging trend of immigrant entrepreneurs in Ireland – innovative and fearless.
A recent survey from Bank of Ireland revealed that IT companies are currently the third-most popular type of start-up applying to them for funding, yet according to First Step Microfinance, ethnic entrepreneurs are being overlooked.
The first ever Immigrant Entrepreneur Survey, carried out in Ireland last year, commissioned by First Step, found that the single biggest barrier to non-national start-ups is access to funding.
Rachel Dalton, spokesperson for First Step, said, “We really do fulfil a unique gap in the market. We pick up where the banks leave off. It’s really for those entrepreneurs who can’t get funding through the conventional banking channels, and their loans are around the €25,000 mark.”
Although First Step made recommendations, based on the results of its survey, for the government to adopt a national entrepreneurship policy, organisations such as Enterprise Ireland do play a significant part in supporting and developing entrepreneurs in the technology sector.
Jacqueline Foley, marketing unit manager for the high-potential start-up (HPSU) division of Enterprise Ireland, said non-nationals qualify for exactly the same assistance as nationals do. Funding for a HPSU, however, does have very strict eligibility, including being based on technological innovation and having export potential.
Hakan Guzelgoz said the support and funding his company received from Enterprise Ireland was invaluable.
Earlier this year Guzelgoz and his business partner, Stefano Rocco, who won the Shell LiveWire Young Entrepreneurs of the Year 2006 for their export potential, received R&D funds from Enterprise Ireland for their research activity in the middle- and back-office trade flow management.
High-potential start-ups aside, there are still small ethnic IT businesses that have to fend for themselves, like James Anderson, the Nigerian owner of Pegas2000.ie, a successful online computer hardware and accessories store with computer repair and maintenance services provided from its premises in Blessington Street, Dublin.
Anderson was employed at Gateway until its departure from the country made him redundant. He then decided to set up his own company, but found it difficult to get funding, and ended up financing the business himself.
The Immigrant Entrepreneur Survey didn’t just find funding to be the only obstacle for non-national entrepreneurs. It also highlighted the absence of ethnic trainers, consultants and mentors available for those who don’t know where to begin. Krystian Kozerawski, a Polish web designer living in Carlow, says he finds this to be very much the case.
“The main barrier to us non-nationals is language. I have no problems with communication but I found it quite difficult to prepare for my potential customers, my business plan and press releases.”
Kozerawski has as yet received no funding, and is self-financing his web design business, Drakkart.com. He has already launched a Polish community portal for Carlow, www.Carlow.pl, and is currently working on one for Nenagh.
Although there aren’t any official organisations that help the growing ethnic communities in Ireland to settle, integrate and congregate, there are two Irish-run internet portals that are providing this service, www.pl104.com.
Christine Donaghy, CEO of Vaveeva.com, describes it as a survival guide to Ireland, with information on everything you possibly need to know to live here. For immigrants who have just moved here, this site covers everything from how to organise your taxes to workers’ rights, essential information for an ethnic start-up as well as worker.
Roughly half of the site’s visitors are from Poland, and, as Donaghy points out, there are a large number of Polish with skills in the IT sector coming to Ireland in the past few years.
“We’ve been very impressed at the number of self-employed entrepreneurs coming here. There’s a significant number of Polish photographers, journalists, IT and internet people,” said Donaghy.
Jill McGrath, founder of PL104.com, an offshoot of Dublin community radio station FM104, also saw the need for an online portal for the growing Polish community in Ireland.
Kamila Lizis-McKay, the content editor for the site, makes a point of visiting a different county each week to locate Polish entrepreneurs across all sectors. McGrath says this is vital for creating a cohesive online presence for the Polish community.
Chinedu Onyejelem, editor of Metro Eireann, a national publication for the Irish immigrant community, noticed that there are many non-nationals interested in running their own businesses but didn’t have access to information or resources.
This year he organised the first ever TSB Ethnic Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, attended by President Mary McAleese.
He sees these awards as “an opportunity to encourage members of other minority groups to start businesses in the country”.
Rita Shah, founder and director of Shabra Plastics/Recycling, won the overall award for Ethnic Entrepreneur of the Year as well as receiving the title of Technology Entrepreneur of the Year.
Shah says the awards have definitely raised awareness of the emerging ethnic entrepreneur sector in Ireland but that she feels the business environment is also friendlier now, with banks being more lenient, compared to when she started out in the Eighties.
Despite the obvious barriers identified in First Steps survey such as funding, access and communication difficulties, it’s clear that there are champions in both the national and non-national business community that are actively enabling inclusive entrepreneurship.
As Shah said, ‘Be positive, we are here to stay!’
Case study: Spirit of adventure
Roamal Perera is an outstanding example of the entrepreneurial spirit. Originally from Sri Lanka, Perera used the unfortunate redundancy from Irish company CPT in 1984 as the impetus to begin a new career path that led to his becoming chairman of software company Valista.
“Often being laid off is the best trigger. It forces you to think about what to do next because in many cases you’re comfortable in a full-time job and you really haven’t time to think about starting something new.”
Perera is not one to rest on his laurels and finds that the key to success is to be fearless when it comes to trying something new.
“On this side of the Atlantic entrepreneurs very rarely start to do new things, they take something to a successful exit and then they’re off. In the US, however, with the likes of Steve Jobs and others, they start things, and then they start another, and another one.”
Perera says he personally found that being a non-national was never an issue for him when it came to setting up a business here, but that when he co-founded ISOCOR in 1991 there were hardly any foreigners in the country. He adds that the advantage of being a different colour was that as he was out meeting people, pushing to build a new business, he stood out more and was remembered.
His advice to immigrant entrepreneurs in Ireland is to get out there, do some research and press some flesh.
“I would say to try to get as many contacts as possible and for me the first port of call was going to Enterprise Ireland.”
Networking, and profile building, Perera says, is essential.
“One of the things I used to do was to be seen at everything, just go to functions, meet people, even if it’s briefly, and people would recognise the fact that you’re there, and that is an advantage.”
Perera feels that, with the advent of the internet, the process of finding information for setting up your business is a lot easier. He recalls when he and his partners managed to make some excuse to find access to the Enterprise Ireland library.
“We used to spend hours at that library, just reading and researching,” he recalls. “I guess that’s what entrepreneurs are; they go out and find ways to get answers, because if you’re not like that, you’re not the person to build a business.”
By Marie Boran
Pictured – Jill McGrath, founder of PL104.com, with Kamila Lizis-McKay, content editor for the site