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SINGA Factory – Innovation through Diversity

Bonjour Genève – diversity as a success factor

The project aims to help people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to showcase their skills as part of a start-up programme. Photo: Tim Ott
The project aims to help people from refugee and migrant backgrounds to showcase their skills as part of a start-up programme. Photo: Tim Ott

The pioneering SINGA project has consistently shown that team composition and effective cooperation are the foundation of a successful company. The new company ventured into the French-speaking part of Switzerland a year ago. Which challenges did it face? We met up with the two teams to discuss how things are going.

The team’s working day usually begins with a message on Slack or an on-screen Skype meeting. That was not the case on this mild late summer’s day. Nearby in Zurich’s Josefswiese park children are playing in the fountain, people out for a stroll are sitting at garden tables, squinting in the morning sun and sipping on latte macchiatos. Directly adjacent at Jenseits, an arch of the historic railway viaduct that has been turned into a café, the SINGA Zurich team meet their counterparts from French-speaking Switzerland. “What really helps us to keep in touch are the face-to-face meetings,” pointed out Ella Stuart, who is responsible for project communication.

Somebody from the Zurich team meets up with a colleague from French-speaking Switzerland at least once a month. They also sometimes go on retreats to discuss major issues and to hone their shared vision. On this occasion there is also an anniversary to celebrate: Giordano Neuenschwander has been heading up the pioneering project’s new office in Geneva for precisely one year.

Ella Stuart (centre) believes face-to-face contact is vital. Photo: Tim Ott

One of the greatest challenges was finding a suitable manager for the initiative – the profile requirements were demanding and difficult to define. In addition to the right skill set and experience, the candidate also had to be willing to set up the office from scratch with no guarantee of success. They also had to be able to speak French, English and German fluently. A fortunate turn of events worked in SINGA’s favour – a friend advised Seraina Soldner to work with the Graduate Institute in Geneva and to commission an in-depth student research project to identify whether, how and with which partners the start-up programme could be launched in the canton of Geneva. Here she met Giordano Neuenschwander, a master’s student who became heavily involved in the feasibility study. He carried out over 50 interviews with refugees, representatives of NGOs and the private sector, government representatives and employment agencies to identify where the gaps and opportunities in the asylum support system were in Geneva and the French-speaking part of Switzerland.


“You can’t prepare anyone for that”

Tina Erb

At that point nobody involved knew that Giordano would one day head up the Geneva office. But today they see it as serendipity. Having gained a deep insight and profound understanding of the Geneva eco-system, Giordano opened the new office. “You can’t prepare anyone for that,” explained Erb. “We tried to ensure we pulled our weight as a team, but Giordano initially had to shoulder the lion’s share of the hard graft.”

A homogenous and personal way of working is adopted at the two-day retreat. Photo: Tim Ott

Tina Erb and Seraina Soldner found it very challenging to provide the new office manager with the right level of support and guidance needed for him to perform his duties. The working environment in French-speaking Switzerland was different to that in Zurich, which meant that experience gained there could not be transferred directly. In light of this, the fact that embracing intercultural differences is one of SINGA’s core values was definitely helpful. A further good turn of fortune saw Elody de Brito join the office team. Together they succeeded in securing new partners. They are now also working with the United Nations enterprise development programme and take part in various events and expert groups in Geneva. Through its involvement in such initiatives, the organisation is raising its profile on the national level, where it can represent the interests of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. The team also speaks all official Swiss languages – apart from Romansh – and the website has been available in German, English and French right from the outset.

“Being able to speak frankly and to deal with things on the spot is important.”

Elody de Brito

As well as the entrepreneurial spirit that the team shows, the joint philosophy is also clearly evident in terms of communication. Not only does dialogue with the SINGApreneurs take place on an equal footing, but this also fosters the emergence of new ideas in the team. Showing empathy during interactions plays a key role. “We spend more time together than we do with our friends and families. Being able to speak frankly and to deal with things on the spot is important,” remarked De Brito. The culture of openness is not just reflected in everyday working life, but also in the joint vision – enabling everyone to fulfil their potential and to live a dignified life regardless of their background. The support SINGA provides ultimately comes into play in this respect too because “in the Swiss context this also means making a contribution to society through professional endeavour,” indicated Soldner.

Time to fine-tune that shared vision. Photo: Tim Ott

It is notable that all members of the SINGA team hold degrees in international relations and have previous experience of working with people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. “As far as our personalities are concerned, it’s a miracle that we’re able to work together at all,” revealed Seraina with a twinkle in her eye. Ella Stuart added: “Everyone in the team has different priorities and adopts their own approach but together we cover a wide range of disciplines. Our willingness to listen to one another and embrace the differences is what makes us so creative. Sometimes we have to invest time to ensure mutual benefit, but the differences of opinion are invaluable – the outcome is generally improvement on the starting position.”

Teambuilding with a coach

What might seem very smooth now is the result of a carefully managed process. To develop teambuilding Erb and Soldner worked closely with a coach who was also a qualified psychologist. Together – using lots of Post-its and design thinking methods – they reflected on matters such as the distribution of responsibility, role definition and the assignment of workload and tasks. It was surprising how easy they found it to allocate the tasks amongst themselves. The team now consists of a balanced mixture of, on the one hand, go-getters who are highly skilled in securing partners and participants and, on the other, thinkers who enjoy planning, keeping track of everything and adopting a strategic approach. This allows the team to communicate and work with a network of equally diverse partners and organisations.

Jumping in at the deep end has paid off for Giordano Neuenschwander. Photo: Tim Ott

One particular challenge in running two offices is that the funding applications for each have to be made to the cantonal authority. There is very limited funding available at the national level for which SINGA is eligible to apply as an overall organisation. That is why the management team has now been strengthened by the addition of new members who can provide support with seeking funding in the Geneva region.

“What matters to us is good results, not achieving them quickly.”

Samira Lütscher

“Unfortunately, migration is no longer perceived as a burning issue by the public despite the fact that the challenges we’re faced with will have an even greater impact on us over the coming years,” explained Soldner. Projects like SINGA, which regard intercultural collaboration as vital, are extremely valuable in this respect. “Supporting them may not make millions, but small changes add up and can have a major influence on the future,” she pointed out. Social integration and its long-term impact have tremendous value.

“And that’s exactly what it’s all about,” explained Samira Lütscher, who manages the project at Engagement Migros: “What matters to us is good results, not achieving them quickly.” There is a belief that greater diversity in enterprise will make society richer in both the short-term and long-term and will generate not just new working methods, but also ideas. On the other hand, it also presents a challenge in terms of differences in mentality and interculturalism. On a small scale, this is also reflected by SINGA’s expansion into French-speaking Switzerland. However, Lütscher firmly believes: “With careful reflection on the roles and a joint vision that is so strong that it unites people beyond all differences, the project is on an excellent footing.”

Celebrating the first anniversary of SINGA in Geneva: Ella Stuart, Seraina Soldner, Giordano Neuenschwander, Elody de Brito and Tina Erb (from left to right). Photo: Tim Ott

SINGA – for a society where everyone can fulfil their potential

In April 2019, the Geneva office launched the first round of the SINGA Factory, a start-up programme for people with refugee and migrant backgrounds who want to set up a company in Switzerland. On the part-time programme, the SINGApreneurs – as SINGA calls participants – benefit from workshops on setting up a company, coworking, one-to-one mentoring, advice on legal issues and founding businesses as well as access to a network of mentors, experts, partners and firms. The programme is especially designed to meet the needs of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds who are looking to set up a business. Of the 16 entrepreneurs in Geneva at the outset, 14 have now successfully completed the transition from the concept to the implementation stage with their 11 projects.