I am a migrant from Brazil. I moved to the UK at the beginning of 2002, aged 21, to learn English – I knew a little, but wanted to become fluent. A couple of years later I started my first business, a letting agency. I didn’t become an entrepreneur because I’m more ambitious than most; I became an entrepreneur because no one would give me the job I wanted.
When you move to a new country, your qualifications often aren’t familiar to employers. I had worthwhile experience: I’d worked for Microsoft in Brazil and had a technical diploma in website development. But this wasn’t enough to get me a job in the UK tech industry. I fell short of British candidates who had UK-based experience, and I didn’t speak the language well enough to compete with migrants whose first language was English.
After several years running my own business I decided I wanted to help other migrant entrepreneurs. Between September and December last year I ran a pilot programme called migrant business accelerator to understand the challenges migrants face when trying to set up a business in the UK.
The most common barriers were sourcing funding (because of lack of credit history), networking (as they lacked a social history in the UK), limited knowledge (lack of experience of working in the UK) and culture shock (lack of integration).
I’d faced these challenges myself. When I arrived in the UK I couldn’t find the work I wanted but had to find something to pay my bills. I worked in a succession of low skilled jobs including as a kitchen porter, a cleaner and a glass collector. I took language classes and later, when my English had improved, I began working for a merchandising agency, spraying perfume at department stores and giving away food samples in supermarkets.
I was living in a flatshare and I thought: “What if I looked after the house, organised the renting and kept it clean and in working order.” My flatmates were moving out, so I proposed to the landlord that I find replacement tenants and manage the rent on his behalf and split it. But the rent would need to be paid at the end of each month whether it was just me living there, or all five rooms were occupied.
I realised this arrangement was a good way to make money, so I saved to rent a second house and approached another landlord with the same deal – he agreed and I sublet the rooms there too.
I wanted to extend the service to more properties, so I got in touch with more landlords and joined networking groups.
In 2005 I created a limited company, letting and managing rooms in flatshares. In 2014 I had 50 houses on my books, 15 employees and a turnover of £1.2m. But, by then, I wanted to try something new, something that could help people like me who were new to the UK and wanted to start a business.
In December 2014 I sold the business to a competitor. I split the money between buying a house and starting a new venture, a migrant entrepreneur support service.
When I first started in business in the UK I felt inadequate, and that people would be put off by my strange accent. Public speaking is a fear for many, but as a migrant you have added layers of fear. Some thoughts that crossed my mind were: “I don’t speak English well”; “They won’t understand me”; “They will laugh at me because of the way I speak”.
At one networking group I attended there was a British guy who used to tease me about the way I spoke. One day I challenged him in front of the group and asked him to translate what I had said in English into Portuguese. He went quiet, so I took the opportunity to make a point. I said that even though I have an accent he could understand me. I speak three languages, whereas he only spoke English. But that was an unusual experience for me. In 14 years in the UK, I’ve found Britain to be a welcoming nation.
I’m now setting up a coworking space where migrants will be able to rent a desk, gain an office address and receive mentoring. While waiting for the space to open, I’ve been organising a migrant business show in April. My advice to migrants who want to start a business in the UK is that they should gain experience first. Work for an entrepreneur, learn how to run a business, and then go and do it on your own. It will save you a lot of time and money in the future. And don’t forget to network with people in your industry, build your list of contacts, be generous and give a lot of help – it will pay off later.
Rafael Dos Santos is the founder and managing director of mi-Hub and the Migrant Business Show.
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