Usman Iftikhar, 2018 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year: Devotion to Helping Others I Equate With Success

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Thanks to Usman Iftikhar, a young Pakistani engineer living in Australia, more than 100 refugees have started 30 businesses and created hundreds of jobs. Usman joined forces with his colleague Jacob Muller and founded a social venture company, Catalysr, that helps migrants and refugees establish startups in different areas. Our work is truly ‘catalytic’ and the biggest reward for us is to see the difference between the people who join our program compared to the fantastic migrapreneurs who graduate – says Iftikhar. Last year, Usman was awarded a top Commonwealth honor in London for outstanding contributions to the community. This recognition came as a welcome boost to his long-term goal, which is to create 10.000 jobs in the next 10 years!

Usman with Prince Harry receiving the 2018 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year Award

Dear Usman, update us on the projects you are working on at the moment?

Currently, I am leading Catalysr, a social enterprise I co-founded in 2016 to support migrants and refugees as they start their own businesses.

I am also developing a new space startup, called Space Is Easy, to democratize access to space. Apart from this, I am on the board of a new non-profit organization called Regional Opportunities Australia, which encourages migrants and refugees to move to regional areas in Australia and matches them with job and business opportunities.

Usman Iftikhar

I also coach young social entrepreneurs and change-makers at the Foundation for Young Australians, FYA’s social enterprise arm. Apart from this, I am involved in the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance, which has recently come under Catalysr’s banner in Australia, and I also volunteer with the Global Shaperprogram (an initiative of the World Economic Forum).

Most recently, I have joined an expert panel at Impact Investing Australiato provide assistance to the team in disbursing grants of $140,000 for capacity-building of social enterprises so that they are able to get impact-investment ready.

How much has the prestigious 2018 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year award impacted your business and future goals?

2018 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year has benefited my work and life tremendously. In particular, it gave a new life to my work at Catalysr, where we are able to scale our reach and impact. We got funded to double the number of migrapreneurs we work with last year and are on track to scale our work across Australia and internationally in the next 12 months.

It has also provided a lot of credibility and exposure, opening many new doors for me to continue on this journey of impact. In particular, our work was profiled as a best-case practice in the UNCTAD, UNHCR and IOM joint policy guide on entrepreneurship for migrants and refugees, which I was invited to launch with an esteemed panel at the UNCTAD World Investment Forum 2018 in Geneva. A lot of other opportunities have also come to us, particularly funding and investment for Catalysr and for my own professional development. I became one of the winners of the AMP Tomorrow Makers grant in 2018, and was recently awarded the Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2019, which is allowing me to travel internationally to study, learn and strengthen my network across the globe to scale our work and impact.

Migrapreneurs are fantastic migrants, who despite all odds, give it a go.

What is migrapreneurship, and how do you see it?

Migrapreneurship is a term that we use to describe migrant and refugee entrepreneurs. The reason we started using this terms is because the words migrants and refugees are often used by mainstream media in a negative way and we wanted to move away from the stereotypes.

For us, migrapreneurs are fantastic migrant/refugee entrepreneurs, who despite all odds and difficulties, give it a go. It is more of an aspirational archetype and a mindset that we are trying to instill in the community of migrants and refugees.

We also wanted to highlight the fantastic work migrant/refugee entrepreneurs are doing in adding significant value to the Australian economy. In a research report by CGU Insurance,  they found that over 1/3rd of Australian small businesses are run by migrants and in a similar vein Startup Muster’s survey of the Australian startup ecosystem found that 36% of startup founders in Australia were born overseas. These are fantastic statistics that need a lot more attention and recognition, therefore we have continued to emphasize the use of this term migrapreneurs.

You have stated about your mission: Our mission is to support migrapreneurs and help create 10,000 jobs in the next 10 years! How far have you come with your dream?

In our first couple of years we have supported over 100 migrapreneurs who have started 30 businesses and created hundreds of jobs. Our work is a force-multiplier, and we are well on our way to scaling our work across Australia and internationally, alongside supporting our migrapreneurs to scale their businesses.

On top of direct job creation, we are also working on creating long-term cultural change using story-telling and creating role-models for future generations. We are doing this work through our new podcast called Migrapreneur stories, which was launched earlier this year. It canvasses stories of extremely successful migrapreneurs in Australia as well as upcoming migrapreneurs who have recently graduated from Catalysr to share with the community that anything is possible.

Technology canvasses a lot more disciplines than software engineering

Usman with the co-founder of Catalysr Jacob Muller and Governor-General of Australia, Sir Peter Cosgrove and his spouse

Within your Catalysr social enterprise, founded in 2016, your teams run intensive entrepreneurship programs for high-performing migrant and refugee entrepreneurs who want to build their own startups. What do these programs look like?

At Catalysr, we take our own medicine and have adopted the lean startup methodology both as something we teach using our experiential programs but also something we apply to ourselves. This means that our programs have gone through consistent iterations based on feedback from our cohorts.

We are launching our cohort 5 in July 2019, and this program will run for 6 months. It will have two phases, each running for 3 months.

The first phase is called Ideate which will support 100 migrapreneurs to join us for weekly workshops on startup essentials from design thinking, lean startup methodology, problem validation, prototyping, legal and financial modeling, marketing and branding, fundraising etc, followed by weekend coaching sessions and community events.

The second phase, called Validate, will take the top 20 startups that are formed as a result of the first phase and provide them 1:1 support and mentoring, connect them with industry partners, provide them with office space, legal, accounting and customer acquisition support and access to capital. It will conclude with a Demo-fair with investors.

What are the key benefits of your programs?

There are many benefits of joining the Catalysr program.

From what we have been told by our migrapreneurs, the biggest thing they get is a strong community of entrepreneurs, mentors and supporters who back them for life. They also get access to great coaching from our expert entrepreneurs-in-residence and access to fantastic content through our partner organizations.

This life of service makes me happy and is something I equate with success.

Despite the fact you are now concentrated on the tech sector, your organization has helped in creating the most unique startups, from AI tools to 3D printed diamonds. Can you share with us the most interesting examples of other startups?

When we say tech sector, our definition of technology is a lot broader than most. For us, technology canvasses a lot more disciplines than software engineering, hence we get startups from all different industries.

Some interesting examples from our last program include: Spiral Blue – a space-tech company which has created a new hardware for satellites to improve their processing capability by 20x; Pluralist watches, who are the world’s first multi-lingual watch company; Green Grid Energy, who are creating a peer-to-peer energy trading system for Africa; Job Spotter, an online platform connecting backpackers in Australia to casual employment; and Yogi Birth, who are creating the world’s first app-based yoga studio for pregnant mothers and their partners to reduce pre-natal depression.

When you help so many people, it must be hard for them to express their gratitude through words. Still, is there a line or a thought some of them shared with you that you will never forget?

Our work at Catalysr is truly ‘catalytic’, and the biggest reward for us is to see the difference between the people who join our program compared to the fantastic migrapreneurs who graduate with a startup. These migrapreneurs have gained skills and confidence and are ready to tackle any challenges that are thrown their way. Not only that, they also come back to give their time and provide advice and mentoring to the new migrapreneurs in the following programs.

We are the ones who are grateful to our migrapreneurs for giving us this opportunity to work with them on their life-journey. One of the most memorable and heart-felt lines that I remember from one of our returning alumni was: Thank you very much, you guys have changed my life!

What do you consider as your greatest life success?

For me personally, the greatest success in life comes from whether you are satisfied with your own life, instead of comparing yourself to others. Can you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and honestly say that you are making the best use of your limited time and resources on this planet? Everyone has their own answer to this question. I am very grateful for all the opportunities that I have been awarded, and for the support that I have received from so many incredible people and organizations. I try my best to share my time and resources with others, to help them improve their lives and live up to their potential. This life of service makes me happy and is something I equate with success.

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