Empowering Refugee Entrepreneurs: The Story of Forward·Inc

Forward·Inc is a foundation dedicated to the empowerment of people with refugee backgrounds through entrepreneurship. Founded by Diederick van der Wijk, David Hwan, and Laura Di Santolo, Forward·Inc started as an idea to bring together university students, working professionals, and entrepreneurial people with refugee backgrounds to work on startup ideas for three days, during intense startup weekends. Today, it has grown into a strong organization offering five different programs and many events.

What is Forward·Inc?

“Our mission is still the same: the empowerment via entrepreneurship of people with a refugee background and newcomers at large.” says Laura Di Santolo, co-founder of Forward·Inc. The foundation provides aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools, resources, and networks they need to turn their ideas into successful businesses. Di Santolo recalls the early days of Forward·Inc as a time of risk-taking and “ignorance is bliss.” She believes that this starting point is still ingrained in the company’s DNA, encouraging the team to always give it their best shot.

Who are the founders of Forward·Inc?

Laura Di Santolo, born and raised in Luxembourg, moved to Rotterdam to study Business at RSM. She met Diederick van der Wijk while volunteering at a startup weekend, which eventually led to the creation of Forward·Inc. “As 3 students, we managed to create a strong and growing organization out of what started as just having a rough idea on providing solutions to the growing issue of forcibly displaced people globally,” says Di Santolo. Today, she envisions Forward·Inc to be the leading newcomer entrepreneurship organization in the world by 2026.

One significant entrepreneurial learning moment for the founders of Forward·Inc was when Laura met with one of their advisors after working on the company for over a year. In a conversation about the business plans of the entrepreneurs in their programs, Laura expressed her exhaustion. The advisor responded with the wise words, “you can burn a candle on both ends but that means it will burn twice as fast and not much will be left very quickly.” Laura realized that she and Diederick had been prioritizing work over everything else, losing perspective and overstretched themselves. She shared, “We believed in our mission so much and wanted the people we worked with to succeed so badly . I never want to go back to feeling anxious, tired and having the impression that I need to make this work at all costs.” Laura reflected that the experience taught her the importance of setting healthy boundaries and gaining perspective on the work that they are doing.

Who is your target group, and what are you changing/disrupting for them?

Forward·Inc’s target group is people with a refugee background and/or newcomers. However, the foundation also provides programs to people from countries that are considered fragile states. For example, Lebanon, currently hosting over 1.5 million refugees, is facing one of the worst socioeconomic situations in decades. “Entrepreneurship allows people to be economically independent, which is a key factor in allowing for a positive integration not just for newcomers but also the host societies,” says Di Santolo.

What is the key driver of your company’s growth?

As a foundation, Forward·Inc is dependent on continuous fundraising to ensure a healthy budget for paying the top team that runs the programs, fundraise the money, manage and connect the community with opportunities. “Continuous innovation is key for us!” says Di Santolo. The foundation has supported 112 companies to date and is continuously looking for money pots that will enable future impact.

What is the best innovation of all time according to you?

According to Di Santolo,

“Coffee, bikes (tyres), and fire.”

These innovations have made significant contributions to our daily lives, from providing us with energy and transportation to warmth and light. However, at Forward·Inc, they believe that the most impactful innovation is the human spirit of resilience and adaptability. “The entrepreneurs at Forward inspire us every day with their creativity, hard work, and perseverance in the face of adversity,” says Di Santolo.

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