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SINGA Factory

Inspiring collaboration for both sides

“Michael’s CV inspires me,” says Louai Riefaa (left) about his mentor Michael Kästner. Photo: John Patrick Walder
“Michael’s CV inspires me,” says Louai Riefaa (left) about his mentor Michael Kästner. Photo: John Patrick Walder

SINGA Factory, the start-up programme for people with a refugee or migrant background, focuses on the collaboration between people who have different experiences and strengths. What kind of energy is released when contrasting perspectives, expertise and views come together? Coaches, mentors and SINGApreneurs offer insight into their experiences.

For more than 100 days, nine SINGApreneurs have been attending the six-month programme facilitated by Engagement Migros, where they are developing their business idea for a technical company. In addition to work-intensive meetings with their respective mentors, the participants attend workshops, exchange ideas in workgroups and pitch their business ideas.

In deciding which mentor will be assigned to which SINGApreneur, the co-founders of SINGA Factory, Seraina Soldner and Mirjam Walser, considered the following factors: “In addition to professional expertise and experience, we also paid attention to personalities, interests, and needs such as language skills and availability,” explains Soldner. The founders’ gut feeling also played a role. “Assessing someone’s personality after knowing them for a relatively short period is not easy. But most matches turn out well,” says Soldner. “However, having to face a few challenges during the mentoring process or workshop is normal, and hopefully an experience that will benefit everyone involved.”

SINGA Factory connects people with different strengths and backgrounds. Co-founders Seraina Soldner and Mirjam Walser (at right) have proven their good instinct for bringing together mentors and mentees. Photo: John Patrick Walder

SINGA Factory connects people with different strengths and backgrounds. Co-founders Seraina Soldner and Mirjam Walser (at right) have proven their good instinct for bringing together mentors and mentees. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Inspiration and field research

The backgrounds of the volunteer mentors and workshop instructors who take part in the start-up programme are various, as is the source of their motivation. Nik Clayton, a software developer at Google, came to an information event hosted by SINGA Factory. Google’s corporate culture encourages its employees to volunteer for 20 of their working hours per year. Clayton, who himself came from England as an expat 10 years ago, was quickly convinced the idea behind SINGA Factory was a  good one: “In all the years I have lived in Zurich, the city has always been an inspiring place, thanks to lively exchanges between locals and expats. This is where the mentoring programme steps in.”

Nik Clayton is a mentor coaching Dessy Anggraeni, an agricultural economist from Indonesia, who is developing an online service for farmers who can ask agricultural questions and receive information via their mobile phones. The collaboration between mentor and mentee works. The software developer, who has coached a variety of people during his career, has a lot of experience in this area, and benefits from it personally: “When I see the technological hurdles that Dessy still has to overcome in her project, I realise that cutting-edge technology still has a long way to go. This is important field research that I can take back to my daily work.”

Coach Ata Tisli introduces SINGApreneurs to the fundamentals of financial planning. Photo: John Patrick Walder

Coach Ata Tisli introduces SINGApreneurs to the fundamentals of financial planning. Photo: John Patrick Walder

New setting, new challenges

Ata Tisli, Head of Market Risk Control at Bank Vontobel, heard about the programme through a business contact and spontaneously decided to join in: “I know what it means to integrate into another culture. And I wanted to contribute to making the process easier for the participants.” The financial expert, who came to Switzerland from Turkey at age 11, is heading up two workshops on financial planning during the current start-up programme. He has prepared himself thoroughly and informed himself in advance about the individual participants and their business ideas. Still, he was a bit nervous. The SINGApreneurs come from Syria, Indonesia, Afghanistan, South Africa, Kosovo and Eritrea and each has very different prior experience – which was a challenge for the financial coach. “When I give a workshop within the bank, I can make a pretty accurate assessment of the participants’ previous training. This is a different setting. It’s an enriching experience for me.”

“It’s an enriching experience for me.”

During the first workshop, Ata Tisli had to explain some basic concepts such as equity and debt. Which sounds simpler than it is. “In my professional life I work with people from the same professional context. Physicists. Mathematicians. It is often me who asks the questions. Or I am able to explain my area of expertise to them by building on their own specialist knowledge.” So it was first necessary to think back how he had learned the basics himself. The financial expert believes it is important to give the participants concrete tips and to let them benefit from his personal experiences. And he encourages them not to be intimidated by technical jargon and to ask persistently if anything isn’t clear. “It’s important to believe in your own projects. Even if it doesn’t go as expected. You always learn something about yourself.” Just like Tisli, who is leaving his usual way of thinking behind him, getting a fresh look at his profession, and receiving motivating stimulus, thanks to the change in perspective.
 

Staying dedicated through enthusiasm

This is how the weekly meetings of mentor Michael Kästner, economist and IT specialist at Helvetia Insurance, and Louai Riefaa, who fled from Syria to Switzerland, take place: they open their laptops, take out their notebooks, pull out their pens, and get to work. Without a break, fully concentrated. Riefaa, who had already established a company and advised other companies in Syria, now wants to launch an innovative web shop for Swiss quality products. Kästner supports Riefaa in part on very specific topics, such as issues about the Swiss tax system. But he often also acts as a kind of translator. “Because of our origins, we are two very different types,” Riefaa explains. “I come from an Arab country, Michael from Switzerland. Sometimes he has to translate my Arab approach into a Swiss one, explain to me why certain things work differently in Switzerland,” Riefaa says. It soon became clear to him that working with his mentor would be fruitful: “Michael’s CV is impressive. It inspires me. Now I want to prove not only to myself and the world that my business idea works, but also to him.” And Kästner carries his mentee’s enthusiasm back to his daily business: “It’s contagious!” So he doesn’t mind if Riefaa sometimes sends him a text message with a new idea in the middle of the night. There is passion. On both sides.