Refugee to Business Owner – A Business Mentoring Success Story

by Erica Jones 6th of February, 2023
Refugee to Business Owner – A Business Mentoring Success Story
Refugee to Business Owner – A Business Mentoring Success Story

Building a life of purpose, participating in the community, and having a sense of belonging can be elements that we easily take for granted – these are things that take place over time, often subtly without us realising it is happening. Our support structure is frequently invisible, growing organically through new connections, events, and learnings. 

Life is challenging, but we often assume that everyone has equal access to tools of self-empowerment and independence, but this is not always the case. People from refugee backgrounds have often experienced trauma, significant upheaval, loss and months or years of uncertainty before arrival in Australia, and once in Australia, they are faced with the added complication of having to navigate the practical and personal challenges of starting a new life, often without that all-essential support structure. 

SCARF, a refugee support service, established in the Illawarra in 2005, by co-founders Sharyn and Kel Mackenzie, was created to facilitate a range of targeted programs tailored to directly help refugee entrants overcome barriers and build a secure, vibrant life in their new home. 

The service is about creating connections, generating opportunities that build a sense of belonging and promoting social and economic inclusion. It is, at its core, about empowerment. 

Today SCARF has over 2100 community members registered with them, representing nearly 400 households. Most have been out of their country and living in camps or other desperate conditions for at least five and, in some cases, up to 20 years. Over 150 volunteers work now with the community through SCARF’s varied programs. 

For MMJ Wollongong’s Business Sales team, this seemed like exactly the right type of organization to work with.  

Refugee entrants often need to overcome multiple barriers to gaining employment. The capacity to start and effectively manage a micro or small business can function as a gateway into further community connection; decreasing isolation and helping them to embed themselves and their families into a new, positive way of life. 

Business Sales offered their consultants for holistic and strengths-based one-to-one mentoring opportunities with individuals who were registered with SCARF and in the process of starting up or managing a small business. 

This program was dynamic, first gauging the mentee’s needs and then developing support mechanisms to further assist in managing those processes. This took the form of individual sessions and has continued on an as-needed basis. 

Justin Bunt, Business Sales Consultant, described it as a dual learning experience ‘I learned a lot; every mentee had a different business and a different approach to managing that business.’  

It also related directly to his core purpose as a business sales consultant. 

‘I enjoy getting to understand anyone’s business – it can be a way of sharing best practices and wisdom gained from our day-to-day engagement with other business owners – and in the end, we know that this will have a real, practicable, positive impact on an individual’s work life.’ 

Martin Lo Surdo, who still meets with his mentor regularly, finds the process itself incredibly rewarding and satisfying; ‘I get to help someone and be part of their network – their support system. It’s an incredibly brave and vital thing – to leave one’s own country and embark on a new life in another – if the least I can do is assist in a small way to make that process easier – then it is well worth it.’ 
The results are tangible too. ‘Focusing on practical solutions to everyday business dilemmas has shown up in increases in sales and customers and revenue’ This in turn helps build confidence and gives the mentee value in real-time. 

For an organisation like MMJ, the concept of utilising a triple bottom line approach as an accounting framework (looking at 3 parts: social, environmental, and economic), is not a new concept. What this does do, however, is ensure that the focus is on more than just financial impact, allowing teams to look for more unique ways to put back into the community.  


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Assessing performance as an organisation from a broader perspective gives the impetus to look at unique and diverse opportunities (like this), that are community focused and builds value in thoughtful ways. 

The Business Sales team are looking forward to this program continuing in the coming year. 

SCARF is an essential and vibrant community program and you too, can help refugee entrants in the Illawarra to rebuild their lives and establish a sense of belonging by joining their community of dedicated volunteers and supporters.

If you would like to donate or get involved go to their website:  


Tags: immigration volunteer coaching nsw sydney

About the author

Erica Jones

Business Sales Consultant

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