“No doubt”: Catalysr’s co-founder weighs in on Western Sydney’s future as a major startup hub

Usman Iftikhar, Co-founder & COO, Catalysr

After a long, fruitless search for meaningful engineering work in Australia, Pakistanti expat Usman Iftikhar resolved to ‘create his own future’ by starting a business.

Eager to help other highly-skilled migrants overcome barriers to their professional fulfillment, he partnered with Jacob Muller and launched Catalysr – a startup incubator program for ‘migrapreneurs’ located in the heart of Western Sydney.

In its first 18 months of operation, Catalysr has worked with 66 migrapreneurs, with 14 new businesses spawned so far.

The social entrepreneur spoke with Dynamic Business about providing migrants and refugees with an alternative employment pathway through entrepreneurship and his mission to create thousands of jobs.

He also discussed Western Sydney’s startup talent, the qualities migrapreneurs must strive to embody, and the significant contribution they are making to the economy.

DB: What is the elevator pitch for your incubator?

Iftikhar: Catalysr supports exceptional migrant and refugee entrepreneurs, who we call ‘migrapreneurs, to launch startups businesses and create their own future. We provide our members with business mentoring as well as access to our network, office space and funding opportunities. Our members are starting all kinds of businesses, from high-growth tech startups harnessing 3D printing to create ethical diamonds and AI to reduce procrastination through to small businesses such as film studios and food carts.

DB: What motivated you to launch the business?

Iftikhar: After completing an engineering degree in Pakistan, five years ago, I came to Australia to obtain a Master of Engineering Management from the University of Wollongong. Despite graduating with Distinction, I struggled to secure meaningful work here because I lacked local experience and access to networks. Consequently, I found myself working part-time in many areas, particularly hospitality and retail, while pursuing hundreds of job applications. After two years of making no progress in my career, which I found both really terrible and incredible frustrating, I decided to give up looking for jobs and create my own job.

In early 2016, I met Jacob Muller through Youth Launchpad, an incubator program run by School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) Australia and Citi Foundation. Seeing an opportunity to provide unemployed/underemployed migrants and refugees an alternative employment pathway through entrepreneurship, we joined forces to launch Catalysr.

DB: What defines your working dynamic with Muller?

Iftikhar: Jake and I work quite well together. As the resident creative, I’m always seeking to try new things. Jake, on the other hand, is more practical and grounded, and exercises very sound judgment. Consequently, we’re not just able to come up with new ideas, we’re very considered when it comes to implementation and execution.

We debate a lot, keep each other accountable, engage in first principles thinking, test and call out the flaws in one another’s thinking, and maintain a diversity mindset – these activities help us reach the best outcome when faced with a tough problem. Jake has also been a great mentor because he’s had more experience with startups locally as well as a strong lived experience in Australia, which means I can go to him if I can’t work out the nuances of business culture and practices here.

DB: Why did you choose to locate it in Parramatta?

Iftikhar: Parramatta is the central hub for the Greater Western Sydney, which is where the migrants and refugees we target predominantly live, so it made sense in terms of accessibility.

Attending the ZEST Awards night a few week ago, I met some incredible young people working on new and exciting projects and was reminded of the incredible, entrepreneurial talent we have out west.

I have no doubt that Western Sydney can become a leading startup ecosystem in the future; however, it will require continuous effort and investment from partners in the community, businesses and governments to ensure its sustainability.

DB: How critical are migrapreneurs to the economy?  

Iftikhar: Various pieces of research, from Startup Muster’s 2017 Annual Report to CGU’s Small Business Report, show that migrants are highly enterprising, accounting for more than a third of Australia’s startups.

Due to the wealth of knowledge and experiences they bring from their countries of origin, migrapreneurs excel at identifying gaps in our prevailing systems as well as opportunities to make improvements. They are also resilient, resourceful and willing to take calculated risks – traits synonymous with exceptional entrepreneurs. Therefore, we believe an investment in migrapreneurs is an investment in a better future for Australia.

DB: What are the key barriers migrapreneurs face?

Iftikhar: Through our work at Catalysr, we’ve found that migrapreneurs face three main barriers to startup success. One, a lack of networks. Two, a lack of confidence in their own ability to pursue a startup. And three, poor access to funding opportunities due to their perceived high risk.

DB: Has Australia’s visa system been a barrier?

Iftikhar: At Catalysr, our work has predominantly been with migrants who already have permanent visas, so visas have been less of a barrier. But, yes –in a more general sense, it can be a barrier. For instance, the 188 Entrepreneur visa doesn’t suit a lot of early-stage founders who cannot meet those criteria listed. I am currently the Australian Lead of the Entrepreneur Visa Working group of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance (YEA), and we are developing a white paper to suggest alternatives to and the development of a more inclusive Entrepreneur Visa.

DB: What mindset do migrapreneurs need to succeed?

Iftikhar: Organisations like Catalysr exist to support migrapreneurs to overcome key barriers; however, they must find ways to maintain a can-do attitude. I urge any aspiring migrapreneur reading this to give things a try, embrace failure and don’t give up. I understand that life as a migrant can be difficult, but you can give it meaning by thinking about your purpose and how you can make a positive different to other people’s lives. I also recommend you to subscribe to our new podcast stories called Migrapreneur Stories, where we will be sharing tips and tricks from world class migrapreneurs.

DB: What are some of Catalysr’s early success stories?

Iftikhar: Here are five…

DB: What are your long-term ambitions for Catalysr?

Iftikhar: We are working on some new and exciting plans, with a view to scaling the impact of Catalysr beyond Western Sydney. Leveraging technology, we want to go national and then global. Our mission it to create 10,000 jobs in the next 10 years!

DB: And what about your ambitions as a migrapreneur?

Iftikhar: I have a few side projects I’m working on. For instance, I’m assisting EnergyLab with their cleantech accelerator program. Additionally, I have received a scholarship at Singularity University, NASA to work with global leaders on harnessing SpaceTech to develop scalable solutions to the climate crisis. Catalysr is, of course, my core focus.

Related: Study sheds light on the ‘untold story’ of the nation’s enterprising, job-creating migrants and One in five startups founders have ‘no more runway’ after 2018, says Startup Muster CEO.