Tech entrepreneur takes smart approach to EU migrant crisis

Berlin-based Paula Schwarz uses network and experience to build ‘Migration Hub’

Startup Boat founder Paula Schwarz: ‘The people who come are already entrepreneurs, in that they take their fate into their own hands.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Startup Boat founder Paula Schwarz: ‘The people who come are already entrepreneurs, in that they take their fate into their own hands.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

 

As Europe’s leaders scrambled to address the growing migrant crisis in July of this year, a month in which more than 107,500 migrants crossed the European Union’s borders, one Berlin-based entrepreneur decided to take it upon herself to make a change.

Paula Schwarz (24) reached out to her network to see if anyone would join her, and within days she had put together a team of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and executives from Facebook, Lufthansa Innovation Hub, McKinsey and others.

“My friend in Greece had called me. I found out tourist numbers had dropped. About 50,000 people had cancelled because of the migrant crisis,” Schwarz said. At the same time she wanted to help the migrants and do something that was less about business and more about social impact.

The team she put together spent some time on a boat, dubbed the Start-up Boat, examining the issues facing migrants.

“We went around the islands off Greece to assess the situation. We decided to focus on the beginning, and what migrants should do when they first arrived.”

They focused on the lack of information available to refugees when first arriving at a location. Their solution, First-Contact.org, was launched in September. The pan-European site provides vital information on where refugees can access food, shelter, medical aid and transport. It also provides a communication platform for migrants to connect with other refugees for support. Within days of going live, more than 8,000 migrants had used the site. But Schwarz didn’t stop there.

She founded Migration Hub, a co-working space in Berlin and Athens where anyone dealing with aspects of the crisis can work rent free for the next few months. The hub has since expanded to London and will soon be launching on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“We want to set up different migrant hubs around Europe. The hubs are open to anyone with an idea to help solve the migrant crisis but we don’t accept people or ideas with a religious focus. At the hub, people have access to tech investors, consulting, and our network around Europe,” she says.

“We got investment offers, but we’re bootstrapping until we get a foundation set up. Then we’ll use the investment.”

In Dublin for the Web Summit, Schwarz told the tech conference that refugees that come to Europe are entrepreneurial and want to work.

“The people who come are already entrepreneurs, in that they take their fate into their own hands, they walk for days or weeks and spend huge amounts of money. They want to work.”

She also noted that refugees all have mobile phones, and so can use sites such as First-Contact.

“They hold on to them with their life as it’s the only way they can communicate with people back home. The first thing they do when they arrive in Greece and other places is ask for wifi. They want to use Whatsapp or call home to say they arrive safe.”

Her next move is to do another start-up boat trip to identify other issues facing migrants, and to continue to expand the migrant hubs, developing solutions to the crisis.

“We bring people together across Europe to develop tools and work on tools (for refugees). We have to act now. The solutions have to work quickly as winter is approaching.”