Stepping Stones – a micro enterprise program for women of refugee and migrant backgrounds.
In 2011 the Brotherhood of St Laurence launched Stepping Stones, a micro-enterprise program for women of refugee and migrant backgrounds, with the financial support of the AMP Foundation (formerly AXA). Stepping Stones offers mentoring, training and support to refugee and migrant women to develop skills which increase their participation in small business and in the community. Building upon participants’ strengths and experiences, the Stepping Stones program aims to enhance women’s understanding of the implications of starting a small business in Australia. The aim is also to inform mainstream services and policy makers on alternative models of delivery for more inclusive and effective micro-enterprise facilitation programs to refugee and migrant women.
The Stepping Stones program also delivers a series of small business seminars open to the wider community in partnership with stakeholders exploring topics such as finance, marketing and small business regulations. These seminars attract refugee and migrant entrepreneurs from all over Melbourne.
The Stepping Stones program focuses on women who arrived in Australia as a refugee or migrant. Over four years, a total of 335 refugee and migrant women have been involved with the program.
Self-employment is a flexible employment option for refugee and migrant women who may have caring responsibilities or cultural requirements that make it difficult for them to engage in the mainstream labour market. Furthermore, many refugee and migrant women have entrepreneurial skills from their country of origin and Stepping Stones helps to adapt their skills to the Australian context.
Stepping Stones operates on three levels:
- at a micro level, working directly with women;
- at an intermediate level, facilitating increased networks and relationships for Stepping Stones participants and also engaging with a wide network of stakeholders;
- at a macro level, by advocating for changes to mainstream vocational education policies and programs and promoting the strengths of refugee and migrant women.
Highlights from the 2014 Stepping Stones program include:
- Delivery of 70 hours of small business training.
- Provision of support to 156 Stepping Stones program participants, including business support to 102 entrepreneurs and 54 Stepping Stones alumni.
- Provision of support to 43 active mentors.
- Development of an alumni support strategy, including the development of a business directory, an active Facebook community, providing 6 market opportunities, and negotiated retail opportunities for 2015.
- 58% of participants currently engaging in business activities.
- 24% currently in the business development phase.
- 18% have made an informed decision not to pursue their business idea at this time.
- 21% gained work or better jobs.
- 23% entered further education or training.
Stepping Stones is a unique micro enterprise program. It is a proactive way for participants to become job creators rather than job seekers and increase both financial and social inclusion. Currently, the number of referrals and the requests to participate in the program outweigh the capacity of the program to deliver.
Starting and building a business in Australia is demanding and Stepping Stones participants face additional barriers including cultural and linguistic challenges. The program has found that the best outcomes for the women come from intensive, long term support from both the program and the volunteer business mentors.
Advice for others
- Women from refugee and migrant backgrounds have a great deal to offer, and with the right support can achieve their goals.
- A strengths-based, gender-aware practice framework is essential to enabling economic and social participation.
- Innovation in program design requires constant reflection and learning.
- Cross-sectoral collaboration is a key to program sustainability.