Entrepreneurs and Migrants have a lot in common, with Startup Migrants

Entrepreneurs and Migrants have a lot in common, with Startup Migrants

Entrepreneurs and Migrants have a lot in common, with Startup Migrants


Apr 9, 2024

1 min read


Apr 9, 2024

1 min read


Apr 9, 2024

1 min read

Maria Amelie is no stranger to the spotlight, although her reasons are far from striving to become an influencer. Being a minority in her homeland, Russia, Maria’s family sought asylum in Norway. How did her experience from being a refugee to being deported to becoming a public figure influenced her journalism, her message and her mission? And more importantly, how is she shifting the aura around migration by showing how changing countries and starting new businesses is actually intertwined?

According to Forbes, 55% of America’s billion dollar startups from Uber to SpaceX have a founder from another country. Immigrants are valuable as employees as well; Fortune 500 companies are still thriving due to diversity in leadership in spite of the Trump administration. Where does Europe stand? Are we taking notes?

Was journalism something you gravitated towards? Has it been a conscious decision at some point of your career or a rather an organic process?

I have been writing a diary since I was twelve. It was something my mum encouraged me to do, she said: If you can’t talk about it, write it. Writing was something that I’ve done, on and off, so not only in journalism but also when I decided to write my first book, Illegally Norwegian, I felt comfortable, safe.

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From refugee to illegal immigrant to public figure. Listen to Maria Amelie’s story in a nutshell.

How not-your-typical teenage diary inspired a book deal

Your career intertwines a lot with the dynamics of your life. After being deported to Moscow, a new law (Lex Amelie) was created allowing you to come back to Norway as a journalist in a technology magazine. But you found your voice long before that…

If I go back to all those years of writing in diaries I wish I was writing less about having a crush on some guy and more about what was happening around me. But i guess I didn’t feel like any of that would really matter to anyone, so I might as well had written about what bothered me.

But at university — I managed to study technology and innovation, although I was technically still without papers in Norway — there was this one professor who believed in me even before I believed in myself and he encouraged me to write first draft based on the diaries. When ready, I took it to one of the biggest publishers in Norway and was told they weren’t going to publish it.

Where did you turn to after that initial “no”?

My professor then helped me see the value of me telling my story as a part of a bigger social mission. So we went to another publisher, this time a medium sized with a very good reputation for taking up important issues in the society. I was in a vulnerable position, they were taking responsibility for me, my family, my life. They talked to me about whether I was ready to get it out there and as a part of that process I changed names of everybody in that book and they read through it. Non-fiction in Norway has to go through quality checking of sources and quotes.

How has the process of publishing a book been for you?

I worked with an editor for half a year and I struggled, trying to find meaning in it all. It wasn’t until we went back to the first draft that we found parts that were very authentic. She helped me see the stories, some of which were just 1–2 sentences long. I didn’t want to go there as it was all obviously very painful, but I also saw how it was bringing more layers and depth.

When Illegally Norwegian finally got published, it was both very anticlimax but also amazing, I had something that was very real. I had felt exhausted explaining my story to new people and here suddenly I got the book they could read and relate. I got a lot of supporting and positive feedback from people of all ages, ranging from 12 to 80 years of age.

Starting out as a journalist in a new country

How has your relationship with journalism evolved over the years, as you grew through these experiences?

I first wrote the book and then became a journalist, which might be different from other people’s experiences. Writing was natural for me and yet I sucked at it in the beginning. First, I spoke Norwegian well but the actual grammar when writing in Norwegian, that was a whole other story. Second, when you write a book, you try to tell the story one part of the time and save the punchline to the end. In an article it’s more of telling the most important thing in the title. But practice and a journalism course helped.

On what basis were you even offered the job? Because it was offered to you when you were deported to Russia and it was a part of a solution, allowing you to come back.

My case, after publishing the book, became very popular but also very political. As a result, I got arrested and deported to Moscow. I had no clue what I would do as I’ve never lived there. But these people at technology review Teknisk Ukeblad who never even met me in person thought it wasn’t fair. They were like: Not many women write about technology in Norway, which was true at that time, and they believed I should be given a chance.

So I was hired and allowed to come back on a work permit. And not just that, they allowed me to be bad at the job for six months before I got any good. I stayed in that magazine for four full years, got to interview some of the most successful tech founders and learnt a lot about entrepreneurship. I only quit in 2015 to write a book about tech founders in Norway.

Recognizing how our personal theme fits into cultural narrative and building on that strength

That was your second book. How do Startup Migrants — your fifth book, and a company you founded — fit into the equation?

Before I started researching the book, and throughout my whole life, my default setting was: I will never be an entrepreneur. I saw my dad struggle and lose everything pursuing small business. I myself wasn’t neither an engineer nor had an economic background. I was a foreigner and seemingly lacked the necessary skill set to build a scalable business. But as I went off to talk to tens of companies and their founders, I saw how these people, these successful icons were normal people who just started and learnt as they went.

“The lightbulb moment was when I realized how much I went through as a refugee, cultivating skills like resilience, risk-taking, hustle, self-reliance. Why won’t I use them to build something of my own?”

According to this National Geographic’s article, in the 21st century, we are all migrants. Learn who is considered migrant (and how fluid the definition is) here.

Changing countries makes us more entrepreneurial

Can you recall what was the process like, of recognizing that changing countries can be profoundly similar to becoming a leader?

At that time, I was considering several things. I was on the verge of writing that book, I freelanced as a journalist and I visited a lot of conferences. I already knew then that if I was going to write a book about entrepreneurship, I was going to get more out of it.

“I saw many successful founders having a history of switching countries. They were often more entrepreneurial than the local population. What if we told their stories?

I then met my now co-founder Nicolai Strøm Olsen, we got some funding and the first thing he did was book our flights to Jordan. We wanted to learn more about migrants and refugees — and we did, it was very helpful. I love writing down people’s stories and Nicolai is good at looking at policies and data. And we also met our third co-founder Esther Grossman on that trip.

During the book research, you visited 20 countries and interviewed over 250 people mapping the innovation output of migration in Europe and the Middle East. What struck you the most, what are the major takeaways?

I think as a refugee, migrant or even as a woman, it takes a while to understand for us what is our unique perspective, what diversity can we bring to the table. We people tend to be in our own heads, not understanding what other people think or experience. We people are so in our own heads which makes understanding different perspectives and experiences difficult. So not just migrants, but you who have travelled or perhaps lived in another country, are able to create products that are more inclusive, practical and innovative.

For me, it has been a journey of realizing that I have something to offer. That even as an underdog without an MBA in business, I do have knowledge — I have an MBA in life.

When a book turns into a business

How did it lead to founding a company? What is the business side of Startup Migrants like?

We had the idea in mind while writing the book. We didn’t want a typical NGO or social enterprise, nor did we want to consult only. There was a vision of more of a tech company. First and foremost, we are focusing on Europe in helping the public and private sector in cities to enable more migrant entrepreneurs. It is not (only) about changing policies, we need to work with startups, hubs, incubators, investors. We are currently undergoing a pilot in Germany with a couple of cities which want to be more inclusive towards migrants. It is mostly offline, backend work. We are collecting the data. Once we know enough we will build a profit arm.

Here’s an article by Maria’s co-founder Nicolai about the pilot programme being run in Germany: “By launching companies, migrant entrepreneurs open new markets and help make their adopted countries wealthier.”

The media pinpoints the downsides of migration, and finally someone talks about the upside

One of your core beliefs at Startup Migrants is that entrepreneurs and migrants have a lot in common. What are these commonalities and what can founders learn from migrants?

Risk-taking, overcoming adversity, cultivating resilience, feeling like a misfit, not having a place to belong. What is interesting is that the same qualities are perceived and internalized as negative for migrants (you don’t feel like you have much to contribute, you’re an underdog lacking skills and knowledge) and yet so celebrated in startups and entrepreneurship (you’re an innovator, a visionary, the one that learns along the way).

What can founders take as an inspiration, but again is one of the commonalities, is to cultivate the sense of purpose. Migrants often leave homes in pursuit for something bigger than themselves, for their kids, their family, their community or country. To be successful and fulfilled in the long term, it’s not about the money or status, that won’t take you far.

What outcomes have you seen so far, after launching in Berlin, Stockholm, Amsterdam and the like?

We’ve seen loads of people show up. In Berlin we did a launch with this wonderful foundation Bertelsmans Stiftung and they were surprised to see how diverse the audience was at the event. We see that people leave our events empowered and seen. It has also sparked different discussions on migration within both researchers and the public sector.

What’s next for Startup Migrants?

Our pilot customer is Welcoming International, an European part of an American organization Welcoming America. We have also been profiled by Ashoka and Hello Europe. Currently we look into partnering up with German and Nordic cities that need to become better at job creation and integration. We have also tested a new concept Startup Preschool, a 3 day crash course in entrepreneurship with a focus on diversity. We did one in Oslo and there’s one in Malmø on March 12–16th.

We make sure to attune to every story before we help spread it out. Book a 15-minute call to start your journey.

We make sure to attune to every story before we help spread it out. Book a 15-minute call to start your journey.

We make sure to attune to every story before we help spread it out. Book a 15-minute call to start your journey.