Every Thursday Refugees Forward will profile a Coach who has worked with a Newcomer.
Mr Stephan Stergiou most recently co-founded Openclaims, an organisation that is on a mission to reinvent insurance. Prior to this, Mr Stergiou founded two other companies, one of which continues to build user-friendly software for account managers, salesmen and sales managers. Mr Stergiou holds a Master’s degree in International Management from the Community of European Management Schools and International Companies (CEMS) and a Bachelor’s degree from the Erasmus University.
At Refugees Forward, Mr Stergiou worked with Manar Aburshaid.
Mr Stephan Stergiou has been a serial entrepreneur whose first brush with refugees happened as a student while working in a restaurant where he came across a pair of Afghans who had fled from the Taliban.
“They worked very hard, and no one bothered to interact with them. Imagine my surprise when I realised they were doctors who could not find medical jobs because of permits,” he says shaking his head. “Refugees can bring such change. Look at the Vietnamese food trucks. They are all over the city. Vietnamese newcomers brought this with them.”
With that experience behind him, he was looking for an opportunity to do something for newcomers in Amsterdam by using his extensive network when a Refugees Forward team-member contacted him. Consequently, he attended an introductory session followed by another where newcomers made their initial pitches. Inspired by the talent pool and the enthusiasm of the newcomers, Mr Stergiou came on board to assist Manar Aburshaid.
He confesses he feels lucky to have coached Manar who he found full of conviction, energy, with a particular talent to see ideas.
“He sold me his initial idea of a healthy snack bar in train stations so very well… Of course, the idea changed later, but that was a good start.”
However, the smooth beginning brought along with it a substantial set of challenges.
“Manar always thinks big. I like that about him, but we also needed to test an idea, and so the first challenge was to see the most valuable bit of the final proposed idea,” Mr Stergiou smiles as he recollects the initial meetings. “The final idea needed real estate, good amount of investments. And so, we needed to make the idea smaller.”
He goes on to recall how in those early days the team where Manar ’s infectious energy pulled them through the first of these hurdles. The challenge was to respect the idea, but also to bring down the scope to test the concept.
“Once the idea was settled on, the fun part was conducting the market research for the business.”
During the field trips that followed the online market research, Manar impressed Mr Stergiou with his fearless ability to engage with as many people as possible overlooking the barriers of language and culture to understand the market. It is also during this time that Manar lost his full-time job that was sustaining his family. He had been promised by his then-employer time to work and continue in the Refugees Forward program. However, with the promise taken away, the team rallied around him and asked him to take his time before returning to the entrepreneurial fold.
“I know we learn every day and one must keep the door open for it. I think having coached Manar; I became a better entrepreneur, a better colleague, and manager.”
“I think it relieved him. An entrepreneur needs to be 100 per cent there to have the business take off. I believed in his idea and confident that it was going to develop. And so it was natural for me to tell him that I was available when he was ready to begin working on the idea again.”
Soon, Manar received another job opportunity. Mr Stergiou again made himself available to Manar during the process.
“I hope I helped him with the negotiations, and I am glad to see him succeed.”
As focus turns to the process itself, Mr Stergiou reflects on his time in the incubator. He sees his role in Manar’s progress as someone who made the idea formal and more structured. He used his marketing background to make the concept as strong as possible.
He also acknowledges that he should have prepared himself better for coaching. However, given his Greek and Dutch heritage, Mr Stergiou faced little cultural problems, and that facilitated his learning during the period.
“I know we learn every day and one must keep the door open for it. I think having coached Manar; I became a better entrepreneur, a better colleague, and manager,” he says with a smile. “I just wish I knew about the progress of the other ideas to contribute my network to other entrepreneurs. I intend to do this when I come on board the next incubator.”
When asked about advice for upcoming mentors, Mr Stergiou candidly suggests that every incoming mentor meet those who coached in the past year to understand the entire process. He also believes that other mentors can bring a lot to the table for entrepreneurs they are not coaching.
“I think the math suggests newcomers do better when given money for entrepreneurship than just aid. So, if not support them directly, support Refugees Forward.”
“The most important step, however, is that the first few meetings should lay the foundation for expectations and roles in the team.”
As the interview winds down, Mr Stergiou contemplates how can the government best help newcomer entrepreneurs.
“I think the math suggests newcomers do better when given money for entrepreneurship than just aid. So, if not support them directly, support Refugees Forward,” he smiles. “I always talk about newcomer entrepreneurs and their ideas to others. No numbers, no money, just the idea and the accomplishments of their past. It helps take the assumptions away.”
In his final word, Mr Stergiou suggests the ideas and enthusiasm of the newcomer is what matters. There is little to argue against this belief.