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A Bridge Waiting to Be Built: Rotterdam’s Entrepreneurial Elite and Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurs

As soon  as you  walk  out of Rotterdam  Central  Station,  several  skyscrapers  greet  you  with  logos  of multinational  corporations.  These  buildings  tower  the  city’s  skyline  and  are  emblems  of  the  city’s business successes. After bombardment in World War II, Rotterdam was rebuilt and became known for its  resilience  and  business  prowess.  Rotterdam’s  economic  status  is  illustrated  in  its  current  role  as Europe’s largest port and as one of the three major centers, alongside Amsterdam and Eindhoven, of the Dutch economy. Rotterdam is also a European nucleus for entrepreneurship and innovation. Home to the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship and the Rotterdam Business School, the city of Rotterdam claims to provide a bustling and nurturing environment for both studying and starting new business ventures. Rotterdam’s  business  community,  however,  puts  the  presence  of  its  minority  communities  in  the periphery. With its eyes in the distance, Rotterdam’s  wealthy business community  has overlooked  the entrepreneurial spirit of its minority communities that played a pivotal role in enabling it to be able to see so far in the first place 

Just behind the massive buildings that greet Rotterdam’s visitors as they walk outside central station are also emblems of marginalization and gentrification. Rotterdam is one of Europe’s most diverse neighborhoods,  home to a multitude  of ethnicities,  religious  backgrounds,  and cultures.  These vibrant communities, however, live in the shadow of Rotterdam’s entrepreneurship sector that has insufficiently addressed the needs of many of its local residents. Rotterdam’s business prowess was built on the hard work of the same community that has been unsuccessful  in stitching into its exclusive business fabric. The successes of Rotterdam as a port city and important transport hub made it a popular destination for all kinds of migrants. In the sixties large influxes of low-skilled labor migrants (and later their families) came from Southern Europe, Turkey, and Morocco. After the end of the Dutch colonial period, migrants from Indonesia, Suriname, and the Dutch Caribbean also arrived. Recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia have led to new migration waves of asylum seekers. Since the enlargement of the European Union, migrants from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary have found their way to the port city as well. 

Currently, Rotterdam is home to about 175 nationalities, comparable to global cosmopolitan centers like London and New York. Rotterdam also has the highest percentage of foreigners from non-industrialized nations  in  the  Netherlands.  According  to  data  from  the  Open  Society  Foundations,  47.7%  of  the population is of non-Dutch origins or has at least one parent born outside the country. In addition, 13% of the population,  including the current Mayor, is Muslim. These diverse dynamics  could be a source of economic growth for the city but unfortunately they are also drivers of exclusion. In September 2014 the Transatlantic Council on Migration pointed out that the city of Rotterdam is still segregated. One of the clearest  socioeconomic  and ethnic  demarcations  is the Maas  River  that  divides  the city  in the richer northern part and the much poorer southern part. Most of the houses in the center of the city are of low quality due to the time constraints in which they had to be built in order to keep up with rapid growth. People with lower formal education and with immigrant backgrounds mostly populate the center while the  higher  educated  native  Dutch  inhabitants  are  mostly  found  in  the  suburbs.  There  is  a  strong geographical division between the poor immigrant population and the richer native population.

This  divide  is  reflected  amongst  many  organizations   that  work  in  the  entrepreneurship   scene  in Rotterdam. Many members of Rotterdamse Nieuwe, a community of Rotterdam based entrepreneurs, are unfamiliar with local entrepreneurs with non-native backgrounds. The Rotterdamse Nieuwe community would love to connect with these local entrepreneurs  but they state that they cannot find and/or reach them; some even raise the assertion that ethnic minorities don’t seem to have much of an entrepreneurial spirit. While exploring histories of marginalization  and discrimination  through the Humanity in Action (HIA) Fellowship, we found this to be an odd remark for a city where, according to a local municipality’s report, foreign-born citizens run 70% of the shops.

A short walk from Rotterdam  Central  Station,  the notorious  West Kruiskade  is home to many of the diverse residents mentioned  above. The area has gone through several transformations  in the past few decades.  In the eighties  the area hosted  the most popular  nightclub  of the city and from the nineties onwards,  the  area  was  mostly  known  for  violence,  drugs  and  related  problems.  Anouk,  a  former Rotterdam  resident and a recent graduate from of Amsterdam  University  College, spent her childhood growing up on a side street of West Kruiskade. Anouk was not allowed to bike alone through the street when she was young because of safety concerns. Her friends from school could not play at her house because their parents felt that her house was in a dangerous area. 

A lot has changed since Anouk’s childhood in Rotterdam. Ron van Gelder, a manager for the Woonstad Housing Corporation, has been responsible for the safety and attractiveness of the West Kruiskade since 2010. When speaking to the HIA fellows, Ron stated that the street used to be one of the most dangerous areas in the country. Ron has worked with the area’s revival process and has been a part of multiple projects during the last couple of years.   Both Anouk and Ron have seen West Kruiskade go from an unfrequented, dangerous area to a blossoming multicultural street that is now an example of successful urban renewal. This improvement is the result of the municipality, the Woonstad Housing Corporation, and local entrepreneurs combining their efforts. And so, the former crime epicenter is now is an example of how different cultures can enrich and empower each other and their surroundings by being positive change makers. Among these positive change makers, however, we encountered  several entrepreneurs who complained  about  a significant  gap between  the urban  entrepreneurial  community  and exclusive circles like Rotterdamse Nieuwe. 

To learn more about this gap, we conducted interviews to explore the connection between the business community and urban entrepreneurs. We spoke with Rotterdam based entrepreneurs from different ethnic minority  and marginalized  backgrounds.  Our conversations  over coffee,  tea, and international  cuisine enabled us to gain intriguing insights into the peaks and valleys of urban entrepreneurship along with the many hurdles that still impede the potential success of Rotterdam’s urban entrepreneurs. We learned that Rotterdam's divides have exacerbated significant entrepreneurship barriers, especially for underprivileged communities. Many local entrepreneurs live in the shadows of Rotterdam’s towering business offices that house entrepreneurs from around the world yet ignore the ones residing in their own backyard. 

Our first interview was with a prominent local DJ, Damoon Faroutanian, who has worked part-time on an entertainment  start-up  for the past five years.  Damoon  and his friends  started  their company  without external  funding  which  enabled  them to figure  out their business’s  strengths  and weaknesses  without having to consider debts or the interests of investors. Damoon felt that the lack of funding in the primary stages of the start-up was a facilitator of creative flexibility and experimentation. He also mentioned that the limited requirements allowed his team to figure out which members were willing to put in the hard work and make sacrifices to go from a an idea to an actual business. The early phases also built a bond between Damoon and his team members whom he referred to as his brothers. 

Five years removed from the first phases of his start-up, Damoon mentioned that now his company could benefit from a cash investment that would allow his start-up to scale its market reach and provide more entertainment services for his local community. He added that without consistent funding, his company has had  periods  of inactivity  and  he has not been  able  to concentrate  fulltime  on the business.  It is remarkable that Damoon and his team members have had significant success without investment; there could be huge potential for his company if investors took interest. Although Damoon’s company is poised to  expand,  he  mentioned  that  he  has  no  clue  on  where  to  seek  funding  since  there  are  not  many individuals or organizations, both public and private, that invest in entrepreneurs in his local community. Damoon said that many similar entrepreneurs from his community also don’t know anyone to reach out to in order to gain support for business ventures.

These issues are highly frustrating for entrepreneurs like Damoon who reside in a city with a reputation as a prominent entrepreneurship hub. Identity politics was an additional obstacle that Damoon mentioned. He felt marginalized because of his Iranian  heritage  and  interests  in  the  hip  hop  genre.  He  mentioned  that  there  is  little  to  no  funds  to subsidize  cultural  events  in the hip-hop  genre because  of negative  stereotypes.  Damoon  also felt that entrepreneurs  that are of non-Dutch  origin are often discriminated  against when seeking support from government officials or the private sector.

In  Rotterdam,  a  city  where  almost  half  the  population  is  of  non-Dutch  origin,  discrimination  is  a significant problem for minority communities. Mahasin Tanyaui, a Dutch entrepreneur and consultant of Moroccan  descent, also shared Damoon’s perspective  on funding obstacles  for minority entrepreneurs. Mahasin’s first entrepreneurial success came when she founded a blog, titled “Girls of Morocco”, that is now  followed  by  over  12,000  people.  After  creating  her  blog,  Mahasin  went  on  to  participate  in Rotterdam’s  Enterprize  Competition  for funding to create a swimming pool and community  center for local Muslim women. Although  she was not ultimately  successful  in the competition,  Mahasin gained some valuable perspectives.  Mahasin was the only Dutch-Moroccan  competitor  at the competition  and she mentioned that it was rare for anyone, especially women, from her community to compete in local business  competitions.  It  is  unfortunate  that  little  to  no  residents  of  minority  backgrounds  were  at Rotterdam’s Enterprize Competition, or had even heard about it.

Despite its lack of diversity, the competition enabled Mahasin to process her expectations  and evaluate her business  idea.  For example,  she learned  that  it would  be hard  for her to maintain  the long-term sustainability of the community center even if she was able to attain funding. She also realized that she was not fully vested in the idea of becoming the manager of the center. Mahasin left the competition with lessons  learned  that eventually  lead to a highly successful  business  venture  less than two years later. Mahasin went on to create an event based on Jemaa el-Fnaa, a square in Marrakech,  Morocco that is frequented by thousands of tourists, artists, and business owners from around the world. The idea was for the event came from Joost Maaskant, a prominent Rotterdam businessman and entrepreneur, and Mahasin worked with him to turn it into a huge success. Mahasin re-created the square in downtown Rotterdam by opening  up  70  food  stands  and  events  related  to Moroccan  culture.  The  event  attracted  over  12,000 attendees who enjoyed several days of Moroccan food and festivities. Mahasin was able to use her connections in the wealthy Rotterdam business community to make her idea a reality.

Both her blog and the event launched Mahasin into the spotlight as a well-known female entrepreneur of Moroccan  descent.  When  reflecting  on important  lessons  from  her success,  Mahasin  emphasized  that entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds must use their identity as an asset and not as a limitation. Dutch Moroccans  are  often  marginalized  based  on  their  identity  but  Mahasin  advocated  to  change  these stereotypes through expressing and celebrating Moroccan cultural backgrounds. Mahasin’s businesses are co-lead by other Dutch-Moroccan women who have collectively broken down stereotypes of their communities. Mahasin’s experiences also reflected the importance of exposure to business competitions. She was unable to win the Enterprize Competition but she gained valuable advice and went on to act upon what she learned. Mahasin expressed the need for more minority women to get the chance to compete in business incubators and funding competitions. It is crucial to note that once she was able to bridge the funding gap and access Rotterdam’s business community, Mahasin experienced remarkable success.

Our conversation with Mahasin was followed by the story of another inspiring Dutch-Moroccan  female entrepreneur,  Alia Azzouzi. Along with her husband and her brother, Alia founded Expresso  Dates, a healthy café frequented by Rotterdam’s diverse residents. Alia opened her business two years ago without a loan from a bank or any other form of financial assistance. Alia avoided outside financial assistance because she did not want to be in a large debt. Alia didn’t know anyone else from her community that obtained bank loans to start their own businesses. She mentioned that many Muslim women who wear the hijab are often discriminated against when seeking loans or business advice. 

Despite limited external assistance, Alia and her family gathered their savings and opened a café in the West Kruiskade neighborhood. Alia named the café Expresso Dates and it was an instant success. After two years of working in a rented space, she was unexpectedly evicted by the landlord and had to look for a new space on the same street. She essentially had to find a new location while worrying about losing her clientele. Alia created an online social media campaign and was able to gain the support of many former customers. With the power of public campaigning, Alia was able to relocate and bring her old customers with her.   The new location became even more popular than the initial café. Moreover,  Alia used her café’s popularity to market scrumptious baked goods created by fellow women from her community. Alia also  partners  with  another  Dutch-Moroccan  who  holds  sessions  on  healthy  lifestyles  and  sells  his superfoods that can be added to smoothies at Expresso Dates. Alia’s business was financially sustainable while serving as a source for community entrepreneurship. Alia has also employed about ten locals in her current café. The jobs she has created are especially important since unemployment rates among ethnic minorities are not only a significant issue in her neighborhood but also across The Netherlands. 

The café is a popular spot to grab a coffee or tea and share a story; the atmosphere also formed a magnet to attract  different  ethnic  groups  that lived  separately  with  members  of their own ethnic  community. While interviewing Alia in her café, we saw customers from all age groups and ethnic backgrounds and we heard people speaking Arabic, Dutch, and English. The café even attracted a visit from the mayor and, at times, there is nowhere to sit because of large crowds. In fact, the municipality approached Alia and asked her to create another café in the city and she is now planning for her second location.

Despite her success, Alia mentioned that she still faces problems in receiving support from a bank or the municipality. She has been unsuccessful in getting external financial and logistical support to create her second café location. There is great irony in Alia’s story since the municipality of Rotterdam is trying to present itself as an entrepreneurship  driven community that invests in local business. To date, the only financial support Alia has received is in the form of a subsidy to upgrade her storefront window. Alia has decided to involve herself in the municipality so that she can voice the concerns of local entrepreneurs. She is currently  serving  as a community  advisor  for the municipality  and hopes to pave the way for greater local entrepreneurship and community cohesion in her neighborhood.

After  hearing  Alia’s  story,  we left her café  and went to a Turkish  restaurant  with our host, Malique Mohamud, who kindly arranged our interviews in less than a day. Within a few minutes of walking in Rotterdam,  we noticed  that Malique  was a well-known  figure in his community.  During a short five- minute walk from the café to the restaurant, several people greeted Malique. He had a charismatic aura and a joie de vivre that was contagious. As a cultural entrepreneur, Malique was reforming the way many local  ethnic  minorities  view  their  individual  identities.  Malique’s  work  as  a  stand  up  comedian  and television personality  has impacted local multiculturalism  through a grassroots approach. For example, Malique works to bring together talented spoken word artists from around the city to share their art and connect  with  many  who  share  their  narratives.  Malique’s  work  is  especially  critical  for  children  of migrants who are struggling to discover or balance their cultural identity in Dutch society. Malique is working  to  put  on  cultural  events  at  local  theaters  to  showcase  Rotterdam’s  talent  and  multicultural identity.

Malique has also encountered many gaps between his local community and the business and government sector. Malique has struggled to get his projects financed. Although multiculturalism  is big business, he feels that he is still not able to fully capture the attention of Dutch government  officials who claim to value increasing outreach in ethnic minority communities. For example, Malique mentioned that Refuge Awareness Day is well known amongst government circles yet many of his friends who are children of refugees are unaware of the day. There seems to be a lack of communication between governments and cultural entrepreneurs like Malique and their communities. Malique has worked hard to bridge these gaps by exploring innovative ways to reach out to his community and to the municipality to bring forth more culturally  relative  events. When speaking  with Malique,  we also learned  that local entrepreneurs  face similar  challenges  but come  up with different  ways  to tackle  them.  Mahasin,  for example,  has taken advantage  of  the  opportunities  provided  to  her  by  joining  existing  institutions,  organizations  and networks.  She  participated  in  the  Enterprize  Competition,  a  contest  for  start-ups,  worked  with  Joost Maaskant,   a  well-known   entrepreneur,   and  is  part  of  Rotterdamse   Nieuwe,   a  Rotterdam   based entrepreneurial platform mentioned above. Malique, on the other hand, has a more external approach and chooses  not to follow  the beaten  path. In promoting  urban entrepreneurship,  there are many roads to Rome and several approaches seem to work out for the empowerment  of entrepreneurs  with an ethnic minority background.

Through our interviews, we discovered a common narrative of gaps between groups, such as funders, the government,  and  business  incubators,  and  urban  entrepreneurs  of  ethnic  minority  backgrounds.  The dynamics of this gap were not limited to simply finances. There seems to also be a gap in communication, outreach, and understanding. In a city that has bounced back from war and implemented successful urban regeneration, many bridges in the entrepreneurship  community have yet to be built. The spirit, success, and positivity we witnessed amongst Malique, Mahasin, Damoon, and Alia makes us hopeful that these bridges are in the making.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2015


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