Did you know that a significant number of new immigrants were entrepreneurs in their own countries? When they arrive in our country, they lack information and support to start a new entrepreneurial project. The new PEPA programme is intended to remedy this, so that Brussels can benefit from the positive effects of entrepreneur immigration.
The systems in place in Belgium to welcome new immigrants have been growing for several years to facilitate their integration in their new society. Each person arrives with their own background and many with extensive skills and specific needs with respect to entrepreneurship, which PEPA, the Parcours Entrepreneurial pour Primo-Arrivants, was created to address.
The PEPA project is currently completing a very encouraging one-year test period. Its coordinator, Pierre Gillet, tells us more about it.
CAN YOU PUT THE CREATION OF PEPA IN CONTEXT?
Pierre Gillet: Belgium, and Brussels in particular, need more entrepreneurs. Our entrepreneurial activity rate is fairly low compared to the rest of the EU (source: GEM report). The entrepreneurial spirit is weaker in Belgium than in the rest of the EU, both culturally and statistically. Immigration can provide a way to promote entrepreneurship in Brussels.
WHAT SPECIFIC ELEMENTS LED TO PEPA’S CREATION?
P.G.: The various crises that have occurred over the past years have brought a growing number of migrants to our country who were already entrepreneurs in their country. Some of them were unable to demonstrate their capabilities or to restart their business here and had to move on to something else, whereas others were able to restart their business.
Many of them left their country in a hurry without being able to take their degrees or a certificate of competency in their profession with them. As a result, they face administrative issues which are often related to management and profession qualifications.
Company creation support organisations, including local economy offices like Village Partenaire where I provide support, are very busy and aren’t always equipped to provide support to new immigrants (language issues, longer-term support, etc.). We also see many administrative issues on a daily basis often caused by a lack of access to information or the cultural specificities of the new immigrants: people who are not truly self-employed, erroneous registrations, leases that were signed in haste, etc. It’s true that dealing with government bureaucracy - which is very procedure heavy, centralised and in the official languages - isn’t easy for the new immigrants.
It became apparent through our many contacts with VIA, a bureau d’accueil pour primo-arrivants (BAPA - welcome office for new immigrants), that we were encountering some of the same problems, which we could solve together. This led to the PEPA concept whose goal is to provide a decentralised multilingual entrepreneurial programme in order to provide new immigrants with specific support with the right tools and, insofar as possible, in their mother tongue. PEPA plays the role of “matchmaker” between the regional support services and the new immigrant support offices. The region can get the benefit of all of the entrepreneurial potential in Brussels while reducing the load on the local economy offices.
The support programme must be flexible, decentralised and multilingual in order to meet the needs of new immigrants who may be in an uncomfortable and destabilising situation in a new country they may not have chosen to come to. Being able to start an entrepreneurial project in your mother tongue is much more comfortable and easier.
HOW DO YOU OPERATE IN THE FIELD?
P.G.: The partnership with VIA enables me to focus on financial support and, especially, on a medium-term or even long-term vision whereas the local economy offices are often focused on short- and medium-term support with objectives based on creation, subsidies, etc. At PEPA, on the other hand, the idea is to get involved in the person’s overall experience because the procedures take more time and are more complicated for new immigrants.
All of the local economy offices and the 1819 unit offer information sessions on the entrepreneur’s development path. I’ve adapted them for migrant entrepreneurs and offer them in several languages (French, simplified French, English and eastern Arabic with the help of translators). In addition, we have to expect to soon be confronted with less-spoken languages like Persian, Urdu, etc. I’ve also translated them into photolanguage in order to be understood by everyone and I use a lot of videos and testimonials from entrepreneurs who tell their own story. The challenge for these information sessions is to find a good balance between the motivation of the project leader and the reality of their experience strewn with challenges. I consistently mention this during information sessions because you should never make impossible things sparkle.
We obviously try to end up creating companies, because that’s our reason for being, but it isn’t the ultimate goal. One facet of the PEPA project’s DNA is the “positive exits”. It’s great when a person finds a job, becomes partners with another person or changes their project midstream. For us, company creation is an excuse for finding jobs. This obviously requires more resources, time and patience.
WHAT IS YOUR AUDIENCES’S PROFILE?
P.G.: The term “new immigrant” can conjure up different images, some of which are derogatory. There is a wide range of profiles and different reasons for immigration. Many people were self-employed in their own countries: shopkeepers, restaurant industry professionals, technical field specialists, very different profiles, ranging from the least qualified learning to read and write to an overqualified group. So far, the project has been fairly egalitarian with respect to gender, which disrupts the image of majority male entrepreneurship.
CAN YOU DRAW CONCLUSIONS AFTER A LITTLE LESS THAN ONE YEAR IN OPERATION?
P.G.: We held eight information sessions in 2019 and about 70 people will have been through the programme by the end of the year. Fifteen support projects have been implemented in all. The length of the support provided varies significantly. The sample isn’t very large yet, but the qualitative feedback has been quite positive and makes us want to continue and intensify the project. There is real demand and we hope to facilitate and systematise new immigrant access to regional services.
THE PROJECT PARTNERS
· PEPA (FR) is an initiative of Groupe One (FR), a non-profit which has been active for over 20 years in all aspects of sustainable entrepreneurship. It partnered with the VIA non-profit for this project.
· The mission of the Local Economy Offices (GEL) is to provide free support to anyone who wants to create or grow their own business in Brussels by assisting them with all entrepreneurial requirements. Village Partenaire (FR), which is a Groupe One member, is located in Saint Gilles. It focuses on providing a long-term approach. Contact: Pierre Gillet.
· VIA is a welcome office for new immigrants (BAPA) with two locations (Schaerbeek and Molenbeek). VIA has been active for four years, providing individual support, socio-professional orientation, citizenship training and classes in French to new immigrants. It has worked with over 5,000 people since it opened.
 Any foreign national who has lived in Belgium for less than three years and who has had a residency permit for over three months.