Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Usman Iftikhar

Usman Iftikhar was the Entrepreneurship category winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

Usman Iftikhar is the Entrepreneurship sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

Arriving in Australia from Pakistan in 2013 at the age of 29, Usman Iftikhar’s struggles to find employment befitting his skills and expertise lead to the co-founding of a unique business model that empowers migrant and refugee entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses despite cultural and economic hurdles. As CEO of Catalysr, a Parramatta-based startup pre-accelerator, Usman has supported over 400 migrant and refugee entrepreneurs from over 40 countries. Since 2016, Catalysr has enabled the creation of 150-plus businesses with products and services ranging from 3D-printed ethical diamonds to water filtration initiatives for developing countries.

In late October 2020, Usman was awarded the Entrepreneurship sector winner of the 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards which addresses the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (under 40 years-old) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. Appointed the Commonwealth Young Person of the Year (2018) amongst 53 Commonwealth nations just five years after arriving in Australia, Johnson Partners (JP) interviewed Usman to discover what motivates his strategic zeal and to discuss the greatest threat to the global refugee pandemic – climate change.

JP Can you explain how Catalysr operates and how you help migrant and refugee entrepreneurs (aka migranpreneurs) develop ideas, form networks, source capital and develop promotional and social media campaigns?

There are 2 key ways in which we are currently supporting migrapreneurs. Firstly, our incubator is designed by migrapreneurs for migrapreneurs, and consists of our pre-accelerator and accelerate programs. Our Pre-Accelerator program is focused on ‘startup education’ and runs for 3 months. It includes masterclasses on startup essentials, mentoring from industry and startup mentors and an experiential learning approach through community sessions which gives migrapreneurs an opportunity to connect with and learn from each other.

Our Accelerate program is focused on ‘execution’ and also runs for 3 months and offers intensive 1:1 mentoring with our world-class entrepreneurs-in-residence to help our migrapreneurs launch their startup. The migrapreneurs do intensive validation of their startup idea, launch in the market, and get supported through introductions to investors and industry mentors who help them with growth.

Secondly, we showcase the incredible work done by migrapreneurs in Australia through research, advocacy and story-telling. We have partnered with CGU Insurance who conducted research and advocacy to support migrant small business in Australia, and have also worked with Wise (formerly Transferwise) on the Faces of Australia campaign.

We have also been interviewed by various media publications such as ABC Lateline, SBS in Australia and others internationally, where we are constantly sharing the incredible work done by migrant and refugee entrepreneurs, and we also run our own podcast Migrapreneur Stories which highlights the work of Catalysr alumni and other incredible migrapreneurs in Australia.

JP What’s the eligibility criteria for people to get on board and what financial commitments are they beholden to?

The eligibility criteria varies depending on the program. As our pre-accelerator program is focused on startup education, we aim to be as inclusive as possible. Therefore, our eligibility criteria ensures that the startups are led by migrapreneurs (i.e. at least one co-founder must be a first generation migrant or refugee entrepreneur), that they are at an idea/early stage, and that the founding team is based in Australia. We can currently support up to 200 migrapreneurs through this program annually.

For the Accelerate program, the key eligibility criteria remains the same as the pre-accelerator program with additional conditions due to the competitive nature of this program. We look for early-stage tech startups or social enterprises that have already validated their idea, have built a team, registered their business, and are now looking to grow.

Catalysr Foundation – the entity under which we run both our programs – is a not-for-profit (with DGR status). Due to this, both of our programs are FREE for participants, thanks to the generous support of many of our amazing funders and partner organisations providing in-kind support. We currently do not charge any fees nor take any equity position in the companies we support.

We are currently recruiting for our 2021 Accelerate program and more information can be found here on our website.

JP Since launching Catalysr, how has its focus altered? Also, what is the ratio of men to women that you support and has it altered in recent years?

When we launched Catalysr back in 2016, we were supporting all types of businesses founded by migrant and refugee entrepreneurs in Australia. However, because of the rapid growth of the support infrastructure for migrant and refugee entrepreneurship ecosystem in Australia, with organisations such as SSI Ignite, Thrive, Global Sisters and others focusing on SMEs/Micro-businesses, we decided to focus on our niche in the ecosystem.

After a lot of deliberation, we decided that Catalysr can leverage its resources to have the most impact by supporting migrapreneurs who were dreaming big and building tech startups (which continue to innovate and grow rapidly to create high-skilled jobs) and social enterprises (which have a social mission at their core).

In our earlier cohorts the majority of our migrapreneurs were men, however, since 2018 more than half of the participants have been female migrapreneurs. This is due to our programs being more accessible for female migrapreneurs and because of support from our amazing entrepreneurs in residence (EIRs) team with a majority of  female founders including: Jeanette Cheah, Pratibha Rai and Winitha Bonney.

JP Do you offer mentorship for Catalysr alumni to ensure they have continued support, and if so, can you outline how it operates given that startups can take five to ten years to reach initial success?

Yes, since the beginning of our work, we have been providing ad-hoc mentoring and support to our alumni. Last year, we also launched an internal ‘Alumni Hub’ which connects all the Catalysr alumni through a community slack group, gives alumni an opportunity to book in-office time with our team and our large network of mentors, plus access to an ever-growing resource database including videos, blogs, podcasts about the startup journey. In addition, discounted deals/perks for startups are offered by our partner organisations.

JP According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics report in November 2019, 68% of ‘recent migrants and temporary residents’ were employed, with a labour force participation rate of 72%. What it fails to address is the underemployment of refugees and migrants in Australia. To your knowledge, what’s a more appropriate statistic for those who possess tertiary qualifications yet are unable to utilise them in Australia? And how biased is Australia in its discrediting/non-recognition of certain international qualifications which inevitably prevent refugees from acquiring fulfilling employment?

When we conducted our research, back in 2016, we found that over 60% of migrants and refugees were either unemployed or under-employed in their first five years of being in Australia. To put that into perspective, Australia was taking in 190k migrants and 13k refugees annually, so over a 5 year period that is 600k migrants and refugees who are either unemployed or underemployed.

For us, however, these aren’t just numbers. In fact, each one of those migrants and refugees are individuals with the capacity to contribute to Australia in many different ways. There are quite a few barriers to entering meaningful employment in Australia, and they vary depending on your profession, but generally include: skills/qualifications not recognised, language and cultural barriers, lack of access to professional networks and in some cases racial-bias/prejudice by employers.


“Back in 2016, we found that over 60% of migrants and refugees were either unemployed or under-employed in their first five years of being in Australia. For us, however, these aren’t just numbers. In fact, each one of those migrants and refugees are individuals with the capacity to contribute to Australia in many different ways.”

JP Clearly, supporting cultural diversity drives your MO. Winding back the clock, you moved to Australia to complete a Masters degree. Can you tell us about your studies and what hurdles you confronted in your first years here?

I moved to Australia back in 2013 from Pakistan after studying a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering to complete a Masters in Engineering Management at the University of Wollongong.

Although I was top of class with a distinction average in my Masters Degree and had multiple Australian internships under my belt, I was unable to secure an engineering industry-related job.

Instead, I worked as a casual worker in 7-Eleven, BP etc. and applied for hundreds of jobs for over two years, but was not successful. This is what led me to decide that I wanted to create my own job. I applied to a social enterprise incubator for young people, organised by School for Social Entrepreneurs Australia (back in 2016), and that’s where I met my co-founder, Jacob Muller, and we co-founded Catalysr.

JP You’re a 2020 Stanford GSB alumnus, were a delegate in 2019 for the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program (attended by over 200 leaders from over 30 nations), and delivered the keynote speech at the UN World Investment Forum 2018. Amongst other notable achievements, you’re a 2019 Westpac Social Change Fellow, a 2018 AMP Tomorrow Maker, and are the Commercialisation Facilitator for the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. How have these achievements and roles altered the visibility of your business and in turn prompted greater professional support and alliances plus financial aid from the government? 

Both Catalysr and I have been extremely fortunate to be backed by some incredible organisations and people, and we would not have been able to do our work without them. Each opportunity has enabled us to expand our network and also continue on our mission to support migrapreneurs to create their own businesses, jobs for themselves and their communities and ultimately create a better, more inclusive Australia.

JP Your work has been recognised as ‘best-practice’ in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) joint policy guide on entrepreneurship for migrants and refugees which you had the privilege to co-launch at the UNCTAD World Investment Forum in Geneva in 2018. What were some of the key pressing issues addressed at this forum regarding the Asia-Pacific region in relation to supporting the refugee crisis?

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to meet not only with the UN officials, but also with other organisations running similar programs such as Catalysr across the globe, learn from each other and strengthen our alliances to support migrants and refugees through entrepreneurship.

There were many different issues discussed and case-studies explored, however, the key take-away was that migrant and refugee entrepreneurship has been positively contributing to sustainable development and has the potential to play a pivotal role in not only the integration of migrants and refugees in their new homes, but also to power strong economic growth.

JP What are your hopes for Catalysr? Will it expand from its Parramatta HQ with initiatives across Australia? Are you perhaps mentoring organisations abroad to found similar support organisations for refugees?

When Covid-19 hit, we saw it not only just as a crisis but also as an opportunity to expand and grow our programs and reach using digital tools. Since last year, we have scaled up the Catalysr programs nationally in Australia and this year we have also joined the Iti Rea Rea Collective to conduct our first pilot in New Zealand, supported by Foundation North.

We know that the work Catalysr is doing has global relevance. I am one of the founding members of the Refugee Entrepreneurship Network set up by the Centre for Entrepreneurs in the UK and currently chair their Programme Design and Delivery working group to co-ordinate knowledge sharing and collaborations between international programs supporting migrapreneurs.

A study by Cornell University in 2017 projected that we could have up to 2 billion climate refugees around the world by 2100, which would be a x100 increase on current numbers and could represent up to 20% of the global population. Society needs to re-think its mindset and approaches to migration in the 21st-century and support new and innovative initiatives to help us serve as many people as possible while reducing suffering.

I believe that Catalysr and other organisations like us can play an instrumental role in solving this problem. In fact, I led the global discussion on the role of migrapreneurship in a changing climate through a roundtable discussion on this topic at the 2020 Social Enterprise World Forum and look forward to tackling these issues in the next few years and decades.

JP Lastly, knowing what you know now from assisting hundreds in starting their own company, if you were to launch your own for profit business, what would it be and what would warrant its success?

The two key industries that I am interested in are CleanTech and SpaceTech, so if I decide to launch my own business it would be something in those sectors. The key thing that I will do is to ensure that I administer ‘my own medicine’ – i.e. follow the same concepts, frameworks and tools that we use at Catalysr to start and scale-up my business. My starting point would be to start with defining and understanding my target market and developing a compelling value proposition, rigorously test it, and build a viable business model and operations that can scale and grow quickly and efficiently. One of the best resources that I would consult is the book Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet at MIT.

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