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Andrea Contigiani - Researching the power of entrepreneurship among refugee communities

May 23, 2023

Andrea Contigiani - Researching the power of entrepreneurship among refugee communities

Andrea Contigiani

Original article appeared on the Fisher School of Business website.

While there are organizations focused on assisting refugees with integration, most of this support centers on job training and financial literacy programs. A team of researchers at The Ohio State University and Columbia University, however, is looking at another avenue to help the refugee population succeed: entrepreneurship.

Specifically, the researchers are examining how entrepreneurship-focused programs can improve ways in which refugees can better integrate into a local community.  

“We hope to rigorously understand whether entrepreneurship training has a positive impact on the well-being of refugees,” said Andrea Contigiani, assistant professor of management and human resources at Fisher, and principal investigator for the team.

“More broadly, we view this study as a step toward understanding how entrepreneurship can help other underprivileged individuals in our society fully realize their potential.”

In addition to Contigiani, other researchers include: Arati Maleku and Sehun Oh, assistant professors of social work at Ohio State, and Fabrizio Dell'Acqua, a PhD candidate in management at Columbia University.

“Our team is deeply interdisciplinary. Out of the four core researchers, our backgrounds cover areas including business, economics, social work, demography and statistics,” said Contigiani.

The study will utilize the large influx of diverse refugee populations that have settled in central Ohio in recent years. The researchers will partner with a series of refugee-supporting organizations — including US Together, the Bhutanese Community of Central Ohio, Elevate Northland, Community Refugee & Immigration Services and Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services — to recruit local refugees to participate in an entrepreneurship training program.

The research project not only draws on the interdisciplinary expertise of academic thought leaders and the network of refugee support programs, but it will provide an opportunity to engage a coalition of partners throughout the region, including the Tim and Kathleen Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship at Ohio State, Rev1, and the City of Columbus and its Department of Development.

In addition to better understand the challenges facing refugee populations, the project intends to provide valuable learning opportunities for students affiliated with Keenan Center, who will serve as mentors to the study’s participants and research assistants.

“This is a community-oriented study,” Contigiani said. “We plan to combine research with positive impact on the community. It is impossible to do that without a close collaboration with partners on the ground.”

The study was made possible by a Knowledge Challenge grant awarded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation based in Kansas City, Mo., that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. It is based on a program piloted by the researchers in Trieste, Italy, that worked to provide more than 40 refugees from the Middle East and North Africa with access to an entrepreneurship course.

“I love that for the first time I feel one of my research projects has both research potential but also social impact,” Contigiani said. “In most studies I have done so far, the outcome would primarily be of interest to the academic community. In this case, the outcome — if all works out — would be interesting to a lot of people outside academia.”  

The three-year project, which began in fall of 2020, will offer policy implications for stakeholders and policymakers looking for new ways to help refugees and other migrant communities find success and stability in new locations. Additionally, the researchers hope the project will provide lessons and solutions scalable to other vulnerable populations in the U.S., including individuals experiencing extreme poverty, post-prison reentry and opioid dependence.

“These populations are exactly what we plan to work on in the near future,” Contigiani said. “While each of these populations is different, the common trait of these individuals is that they face much harder barriers to education, work and ultimately wealth than most of us. “The goal is to understand how entrepreneurship can help them overcome those barriers.”