Every Thursday Refugees Forward will profile a Coach who has worked with a Newcomer.

Dr Neil Thompson is an Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Organisation Studies at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. He received his Master’s degree in International Economics and Business from the Utrecht University in 2009 and a Doctoral degree in Entrepreneurship from Utrecht University in 2013. His research focusses on positive and negative emotions during the entrepreneurial journey, social entrepreneurship, creativity and imagination in collaborative teams, entrepreneurial learning and refugee entrepreneurship.

Diederick, the co-founder of Refugees Forward, was invited to give a guest lecture on social entrepreneurship in Prof. Thompson’s class in January 2018. Their discussion afterwards brought Prof. Thompson into the Refugees Forward fold, particularly volunteering in the Start-Up Weekend and then the Incubator programme in 2018. Prof. Thompson, an American citizen, notes that newcomers taking up entrepreneurship has always been a real path towards empowerment, and not unusual in America’s history. And thus, for him to volunteer his time with Refugees Forward seemed to be a natural fit by providing an opportunity to share his expertise to help a newcomer who needed practical advice. Additionally, he had befriended a newcomer during a different volunteer event and had become acquainted with his difficult road towards employment, which added to the entire mentoring process.

Given his academic research on entrepreneurship, when asked about how it reflected with his time spent mentoring a newcomer, Prof. Thompson mentions it links with his research on two forms of entrepreneurial anxiety. The first is the ‘Fear of Failure’ that occurs before the entrepreneurial venture is undertaken. It effectively deters one from trying. For newcomers, the lack of knowledge about markets and the high barriers to entry causes such anxiety and prevents many from entertaining the idea to start their own company. However, once this hump is overcome, a newcomer experiences similar anxiety as other entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship is messy, and when one gets their hands dirty with business modelling, one makes big assumptions. That’s when an entrepreneur feels that they don’t know as much as they should, which can cause doubts and worries.”

However, he says this anxiety can have positive effects as it drives entrepreneurs to put more hours into developing the business as well. However, he further states that entrepreneurial anxiety among newcomers may be amplified due to concerns about family and their legal status.

“That opens floodgates for other anxiety” Prof. Thompson adds.

Prof. Thompson researches entrepreneurship from a sociological perspective, which contrasts to psychology and economics, which focuses on the actual activities and relationships undertaken when building a company. He candidly admits that his experience with Refugees Forward has reaffirmed his thoughts about the exercise of building businesses.


“Entrepreneurship is a collaborative process, and this process depends on the relationships that practitioners form.”


The mention of building relationships takes the conversation towards cultural barriers to entrepreneurship for newcomers. Prof. Thompson contends that cultural differences are perhaps overstated when it comes to refugee integration.
“Integration is a two-way street and is not static. The assumption that newcomers are not capable of learning is wrong. They start out actively learning. Dutch citizens are also capable of learning. Newcomers are people and starting a business is a human process of building relationships. Cultural divides are overcome by working together and communication.” Prof. Thompson further adds, “Refugees Forward brings this discourse to the human level.”

Prof. Thompson also notes that newcomers seem to have particular barriers. He asserts that for entrepreneurs who have home advantages, the venture becomes something they want to pursue while knowing that they might have other options around them. However, newcomers have or perceive fewer opportunities, which increases the risk of entrepreneurship due to apprehensions about visa status, being unaware of expectations, and remaining outside key social contacts.

Prof. Thompson further says that Refugees Forward’s selection process ensures that the boldest of the lot come forward to attempt to create businesses in the country. Yet, given the knowledge gap that continues to exist for newcomers, the ideas they bring to the table have difficulties in adding value to the knowledge-driven Dutch economy.

“I think it’s a big challenge for newcomers to think of disruptive ideas because they don’t know the industries to disrupt,” Prof. Thompsons states matter-of-factly. “And so, their business ideas are typically about culture-sharing because that’s what comes naturally to them. This holds true for my students who come up with ideas around food, entertainment, and music for business ventures because they consume these things. For newcomers, it is hard to recognise gaps in the economy that need high technological ideas.”

As the conversation begins winding down, Prof. Thompson deliberates on the policy challenges newcomers face in this country while setting up businesses. While declaring he is not an expert in migration, Prof. Thompson recognises that there seems to be a misalignment of incentives between municipalities and newcomers.

“The municipality is checking boxes and is looking more into getting newcomers to begin jobs to get them off social aid. It does make newcomers resentful.”

In his closing remarks, Prof. Thompson is probed about advice for mentors and students. Forthcoming as usual, he says a mentor is a sounding board for ideas and a person with whom entrepreneurs can reflect on topics, doubts and worries. However, he warns mentors are not co-founders, and that such expectations need to be clarified early.

“As for students, they need to realise that managing people and building a business is asking a lot out of a newcomer. And so, it is best not to be passive and reactive. Be enterprising, use your intrinsic motivation to participate in the process and don’t wait for structure and deadlines coming from the entrepreneur.”

He closes the conversation with a reminder that entrepreneurship is an uncertain process and it is best to be an active player; a thought that wisely remains continuously present during the dialogue.