Migrant women in business – a focus on West Yorkshire

Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies

Dr Deema Refai is an Associate Professor in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in CEES and is currently Joint Editor in Chief of The International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Deema’s research focus is developed around constrained entrepreneurship, with a particular interest in the refugee and rural contexts. Ewa Lelontko is an employer engagement manager at Migration Yorkshire. Her role focuses on the economic integration of refugees and other migrants in Yorkshire & Humber.

Deema Refai and Ewa Lelontko

The importance of migrant businesses to the UK economy cannot be overlooked. The entrepreneurial capacity of Ethnic minority businesses (EMBs) in the UK as a whole is represented through 250,000 EMBs contributing to around £25 billion per annum to the UK economy – as indicated in a recent inspiring report by the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship ‘Time to Change’. With regards to the Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) of immigrants in comparison to the UK’s life-long resident population, migrants also present with high entrepreneurial potential and are three times more likely to start their own business.  

We explored refugee entrepreneurship in our previous collaborative project, funded by the British Academy, focusing on West Yorkshire. We are now building on this research through the exploration of Migrant Women in Business in the region.  

Despite the importance of migrant businesses, aspiring entrepreneurs from ethnic minority communities struggle to access mainstream business support. In particular, the Yorkshire and Humber – one of the three regions in the UK – presents with below average TEA rate for ethnic minority groups, and more than half of this group are unable to access suitable start-up support. Furthermore, despite the higher TEA rates among migrants generally, EMBs also have higher rates of closure.  

Barriers to migrants’ accessibility to businesses vary, and may include unawareness about eligibility for business finance, childcare problems, language barriers, commuting time and costs, or lack of confidence, among others. According to an online survey by Migration Yorkshire, such barriers have deterred 80% of migrants from starting a business or becoming self-employed.  

Our project focuses on women migrants in particular, given the under-representation of women entrepreneurs generally, where only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female. This low representation has been linked to limited financial resources, which are amplified within the experience of migration. 

Migrant women in business make important socio-cultural contributions. We explore this by delving into support interventions available, and how those can be enhanced to promote employment and self-employment of migrant women. We are keen to understand how such interventions can enhance the livelihoods of migrant women specifically (and marginalised communities more broadly) and improve their integration experiences, while strengthening the British values of cultural diversity more positively.

We endeavour to harness the value that migrant women entrepreneurs can add to the social structure of the UK as well as its economic potential do so, by building bridges between those entrepreneurs and the mainstream support providers, including business support agencies as well as financial institutions. We view these links to be essential for encouraging creditworthy women migrant entrepreneurs to access and attain finance. Such links will also build their trust in financial institutions, in ways that can maximise their support at the very start of their journey, thus, enhancing their chances of creating financially sustainable businesses with extended longevity.  

We endorse an encompassing definition of migrants in our project in order to capture a more holistic understanding of the experiences of migrant entrepreneurs. As such, we include arrivals to the UK through resettlement programmes. We also include Ukrainians who arrived through the Family Scheme, Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme or received Visa Extension Scheme, and Hong Kong nationals who arrived through the British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) route. More broadly, we also include anyone who has applied for asylum at any point and now has the right to work, or those on family reunion and spousal visas who self-identify as refugees. 

We will ensure that our recommendations for migrant women business interventions can be rolled out across the UK efficiently, maximising the aimed-for positive socio-economic impacts of inclusion, cultural diversity and enhanced livelihoods. The project findings will help academics, practitioners and policymakers alike uncover the challenges and promoters of migrants’ entrepreneurial journeys in ways that enable more opportunities for more tailored support and solutions. We will be sharing our findings on the project webpage and via events throughout the project’s duration. 

The project is funded through West Yorkshire Combined Authority as part of the Government Call for Start Up Projects across West Yorkshire. The project is led by Migration Yorkshire (a local-authority led partnership) in partnership with the Dr Deema Refai from Leeds University Business School | University of Leeds, The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) (with a history of enabling refugees to thrive through the power of their own ideas), and Skylight (a community-led fund, set up specifically to meet the current financing gaps for refugee entrepreneurs). 

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