Immigrants fuel upswing in company start ups

Foreign-born residents of Sweden are helping to boost booming figures of new business start ups across the country in recent years, a new report indicates.

Foreign-born small business owners account for 11 percent of all businesses with fewer than 50 staff and a turnover in excess of 200,000 kronor ($28,591) currently in operation in Sweden.

Of the 54,000 small businesses run by foreign-born residents, 38,000 were owned by men.

In 2008 the group classified as “foreign-born residents of Sweden” accounted for 13 percent of new start ups. In many counties across Sweden, they are over-represented in relation to population demographics, according to the report compiled by The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket).

While the agency underlines that the similarities between owners of small businesses born outside of Sweden and those born in the country were greater than the differences, the report details some divergence in the respective groups.

Foreign-born business owners are often more highly educated than their Swedish counterparts.

They are also more often engaged in the retail, hotel and restaurant sectors while Sweden-born business owners are more commonly found within manufacture and construction.

Almost two-thirds of foreign-born business owners are based in the larger city areas and in the counties that surround them.

The county of Västmanland has the highest proportion of foreign-owned small businesses, with 16 percent, while constituting only 12 percent of the population.

Foreign-born business people are over-represented in relation to population demographics in the counties of Örebro, Dalarna, Gävleborg, Västernorrland and Värmland.

While most small company start ups by Swedish-born and foreign-born owners are backed by personal savings, the report concludes that foreigners run a slightly greater risk of being refused loans.

The report is based on statistics presented in a survey called “Företagens villkor och verklighet” (‘The realities and conditions of business’), compiled by the agency together with Statistics Sweden.

The survey asked business owners about the extent of challenges they faced, divided into ten criteria, when setting up a business.

Swedish-born and foreign-born business people had similar views on eight of the criteria but differed when it came to “loans” and “external capital”, with the latter experiencing a greater obstacle to growth.

To work independently is the most common factor cited by foreign-born residents for starting their own businesses. They also cite the risk of unemployment more commonly than their Swedish-born counterparts as a reason for going it alone.

Among the younger generations in Sweden the entrepreneurial spirit of foreign-born residents is most strongly illustrated. 5.6 percent of those aged 18-30-years-old and born outside of Sweden run their own businesses, while only 3.7 percent of the Sweden-born in the same age group do so.

The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, which replaced Nutek in March 2009, has been commissioned by the government to work for an improvement in the conditions faced by foreign-born residents of Sweden seeking to start up a business.

The programme will run from 2008-2010 and will, among other things, address financing, business development networks, guidance and the compilation of statistics and knowledge about the situation on an annual basis.

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”