Laura Di Santolo
Program Manager & Relationship Manager
Laura Di Santolo was the first hire for Refugees Forward where she is now the Incubator Manager. A recent masters graduate from RSM University; Laura came into the organisation with a deep foundation in social causes that she attributes to her parents. Recognising the fact that she studied in a global institution with varied international students with homogeneous values, her decision to come on board Refugees Forward was to combine her education in international management with a socially conscious venture that can breach international borders. Using the discipline learnt as a ballet dancer, Laura has been instrumental in successfully setting up the first Refugees Forward incubator in 2018. Apart from educational adventures at the University of Taiwan, Laura has worked as a Research Analyst Intern at the Luxembourgish Ministry of Economy and as a business consultant for ESA.
When Laura is not engaging with new partners, creating content for the upcoming incubators, or interviewing prospective newcomers, she indulges in yoga and hopes to earn her diving instructors license. Laura is also a linguist. She is fluent in Luxembourgish, German, French, and English while managing smatterings of Dutch, Spanish, and Mandarin.
What interested you in choosing to work for Refugees Forward?
I grew up in a family where being socially active and vocal about our choices and opinions was encouraged and ever-present. It was demanded of my brother and me that we become socially engaged members of the society. Yet at business school, due to the demands of the education, I was surrounded by a certain type of people, and while students came from across the globe, we were still a homogenous club when it came to our aspirations and values. Working for Refugees Forward has a brought me to the forefront of diversity; be it social or cultural or even ideas, not just for businesses but of how life must be lead. Additionally, I get to see how our work has a tangible impact across the board and that satisfaction cannot be undermined.
How did your education help you serve the needs of newcomers who are beginning their entrepreneurial journeys?
I studied international management at both my bachelors and masters levels. The international aspect of my education fascinated me the most, and also inspired me endlessly. I met several interesting people from various backgrounds during my higher studies. That meant returning home to Luxembourg to pursue professional experiences was never an option. And so when the opportunity at Refugees Forward came, I could not help but jump on board. Of course, my studies also facilitated an in-depth understanding of current business environments, but not a day goes by where I do not learn something new from the newcomer entrepreneurs we work with.
Give us a brief overview of the experiences of working with Refugees Forward in the first few months.
When I started working for Refugees Forward in February 2018, I was the first “employee”, and we focussed on getting the first incubator program off the ground. At the same time, we were on tenterhooks awaiting news on the many applications we had made for funding our organisation. It made for a fun start to my innings here, but most importantly it was also quite chaotic.
Why do you think entrepreneurship will empower newcomers over other options?
Entrepreneurship allows people to leverage their past experiences and skills in the present and it does not put them in a rigid box where the absence of a certain diploma means doing work that is not suited to them. As an entrepreneur, people are in charge of their lives and are not dependent on a supervisor or a company to see their value. I find that notion empowering.
What has your experience been with working with newcomers, students, and mentors during the first year? How have you changed throughout Refugees Forward’s work given you have a front-row seat with newcomers and their struggles?
The newcomers impressed me deeply. When I joined the startup weekend, it was emotional for me to see so many potential entrepreneurs with talent, skills and experience being on social support. They want to get started and rebuild their lives, but they lack the playbook of the Dutch and European business environment. This has been a great challenge for them. Here the mentors and students come in as valuable knowledge providers. It was clear to us that the mentors would bring a lot to the table, but I was amazed by the hard work of the students that were in most cases still very young and inexperienced professional, but their passion and ability to grind through the tough moments made all the difference.
I think I became more humble and sensitive towards people in general. The personal stories of these newcomers impacted me in my way of thinking and how I look at the world. It made me realise that we are all the same in our essentials and that the other differences can be bridged with dialogue that is empathetic and compassionate. I have also learned how to be patient, and that change does not come overnight. Most importantly I have understood that people learn and change mindsets at different speeds. Finally, I learnt to appreciate true diversity and I now clearly see how valuable it is to bring people from all kind of nationalities and experiences together.
How do you see Refugees Forward progressing in the future?
I see us being present all over Europe, and I hope that globally people make use of our methodology. Our first program is proof that diversity works and I truly wish this would influence policy setting at a European level. People need to be uplifted and forcing newcomers to engage in work that does not fit their competencies will not allow for positive integration.
If you could change one small thing about your community, country or the world, with regards to newcomers what would it be?
In my opinion, the media play a crucial role in how negative the refugee “crisis” is. It is disturbing to see how the media builds on the resentment against newcomers with every piece of news. We need to remember and understand that refugees have come to Europe in the last few years to be safe. We all need to do better knowing that refugees have arrived here fleeing violence and to secure for themselves and their families a better future. I understand it is not all fairytales, but we need to deal with the fact that the number of newcomers will only increase, and that we need to find viable ways to use their skills to integrate them with the national economies. I hope to one day invite a diverse group of people to Refugees Forward to see the reality we see every day, and hopefully, that will make them understand the value of our peaceful existence in Western Europe.