This article was originally published in June 2016.
Earlier this month, top minds from the Berlin social sector and the Berlin startup scene came together with refugees on the Startupboat to discuss potential fintech solutions for the European refugee crisis. Their goal was to develop lean prototypes based on design thinking methods. (For those who aren’t familiar, fintech is an abbreviation of financial technology and refers to an economic industry of companies that use technology to make financial services more efficient.)
When refugees are on the move or settling in a new country, access to their funds and the transfer of funds between countries, family members and friends can serve as a significant challenge.
Enter Startupboat. Startupboat brings together different stakeholders on open water in order to discuss social challenges linked to the European refugee crisis. The project started at the border between Greece and Turkey, where investors, refugees, entrepreneurs, strategists, politicians and design thinkers from Berlin came together to grow First-Contact.org, an information platform for refugees who are new arrivals in Europe.
After the success of last summer's Startupboat in Samos and Lesbos, Startupboat organizers decided to launch a similar initiative here in Berlin.
Participants on the Fintech boat included NGOs such as the GIZ, Ashoka and UNHCR, as well as the company builders Factor10 and Hitfox Group, who sponsored the event.
The Fintech incubator Finleap with their digital bank solarisBank gave market insights and spoke about product development in the fintech field. Engineers from the REDI School of Digital Integration and Hasso-Platner-Institut, who came to Europe as refugees, shared experiences about their journey and spoke about the biggest pain-points of people who newly arrive.
Discussions during the trip revolved around cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin as a way to transfer money over a longer distance. As one of the outcomes of the trip, a group led by ex-Rocket CFO, Julian Tross, developed a concept to incentivize and showcase multinational teams that decide to become Internet entrepreneurs.
To learn more, we caught with Julian Tross to hear more about his concept. In this interview, he reflects on his Startupboat experience and shares his thoughts for how the Berlin tech scene can play a role in solving social challenges.
What motivated you to participate in the StartupBoat “Fintech for Refugees” in Berlin?
The current refugee situation is changing our society. After having worked in India in the social sector before, I want to support solving the current challenges. The StartupBoat is a great place to learn first hand from refugees about their current problems, meet likeminded and passionate experts, and start or join initiatives to solve concrete problems of the refugee community.
Why fintech? How could fintech solutions help improve the livelihoods of refugees?
Given my prior experience in investment banking, micro-finance, and as Head of Finance at a start-up, I have a strong interest in finance topics.
Next to accommodation, nutrition and education, finance is key to master a safe living and a potential integration. Fintech solutions can, for example, help to bring money without significant fees from refugee home countries to Germany (e.g. Bitcoin), they can provide an easy to use mobile-only bank account and create smart funding options for refugees aiming to start their own business.
Sometimes Berlin’s startup scene and the social scene seem like two different worlds. In your opinion, how can they work together to come up with innovative solutions to pressing social problems?
The startup scene is building great competencies in solving problems and reshaping every-day processes. I am confident that if we find a way how startups can contribute to solving social problems in an efficient and solution oriented way, this would enable the social sector to progress much faster. The StartupBoat is a great way to trigger joined thinking. I hope this is just the start to foster the collaboration between the sectors. Ideally a social initiative would have contact to several established startups and can reach out to them as needed to get advice and temporary support.
On the boat, you developed a concept to refugee entrepreneurship. Can you tell us more about your idea and how it could help improve the lives of refugees?
We have seen that entrepreneurship in migrant community has always been significant and hence key to integration. According to a study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2.2 million employees in Germany are working for companies founded by migrants who moved to Germany after 1949.
We want to support refugees in building their own business, by providing information, coaching and support, a shared office (MigrationHub), and over time also seed funding possibilities.
How can people get involved in your initiative?
The MigrationHub is a co-working space for social projects and refugees. Here, we will develop the project further. We are looking for refugees interested in starting a business, and experienced passionate people who would support refugees in doing so.
After spending 8 hours on the boat, what was your biggest learning?
How a lack of very basic understanding and information is the key problem for refugees. For example, we learned that refugees that have just arrived often don’t have trust in banks and prefer to keep all money in cash with them. So tackling these information problems quickly and effectively is actually one of the most important tasks.