Welcome Merchant is a social enterprise doing great things. The group helps asylum-seeker and refugee entrepreneurs navigate the digital world, grow their brands and tell their stories. Founder Marjorie Tenchavez joined us to discuss the company’s history, future ambitions and the special power of community.
With us today is Marjorie Tenchavez, founder of Welcome Merchant, a platform dedicated to helping elevate and promote businesses run by refugees and asylum seeks in Australia. The company achieves this by working to remove barriers and connect emerging entrepreneurs to a wider audience. Marjorie, welcome to AMR.
Marjorie: Thank you for having me. Can’t wait to get into it!
I’d like to begin with how the company started. What’s the story behind Welcome Merchant and your unique business model?
We initially launched on Instagram in March 2020. Like most people at the time, I was doing a lot of online shopping. I kept buying from businesses with a positive social impact, such as Buy From The Bush and Spend With Them. And then, I thought, why shouldn’t I start one for refugee and asylum seeker entrepreneurs as well? I’ve been working in that sector since 2011, I knew of restaurants around Sydney that were owned by former refugees, I knew of their products, but unfortunately not many people do. I really wanted them to have an online platform, such as Instagram or YouTube, so they could promote themselves for free and help reach a larger audience.
Then organically we became a social enterprise! I joined a business accelerator programme called Catalyzer in August 2020. It was targeted at people from a migrant background, meaning it could be really anyone as unless you’re first nations, you are a migrant in Australia. As a first-generation Filipino Australian who’s been here since they were 11, I wasn’t sure that I’d be eligible, but they quickly pointed out that I’ve got migrant parents and fortunately I was able to join! Initially I’d looked into getting some insights into turning Welcome Merchant into a charity, however coming from the community sector I soon realised that the charity model might not be the right fit. There’s a lot of paperwork involved and that’s fair, because they should be held up to scrutiny. But by the end of the three-month programme, I settled on an enterprise model, that seemed more feasible.
The decision came down to wanting to be able to sustain ourselves and not having to rely on people donating money. We could still provide a service that’s free for the refugees and asylum seeker entrepreneurs, which is the online directory listing, and the social media listing as well. And then those services would be funded by money we make from the events that we’ve run in partnership with the chefs from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds, then later on we developed gift hampers as well. And that’s how Welcome Merchant started. That was a really long answer, sorry!
Thank you for providing that context! You’ve now worked with many businesses as the company has continued to grow and evolve. What are some of the common issues facing migrant and refugee-founded businesses here in Australia?
I remember thinking how difficult it would be if English wasn’t a first language. Many just give up and decide to operate in the dark.
The main, the big one, is financial access. Unless you’ve migrated here with quite a lot of savings, most refugees, people seeking asylum, don’t have much savings to start a business, and they don’t have the financial history that they can provide to a typical bank when applying for a loan. So that’s a huge issue and often they have to borrow from friends, from the community or other family members. Then there can be a language barrier as well, especially with the large amount of paperwork that you have to do when starting a business. Even I had to go through that process when starting Welcome Merchant, and I found it really annoying! Fortunately, I can speak fluent English and have good literacy skills. But I just remember when I was doing it, thinking how difficult it would be if English wasn’t a first language. Many just give up and decide to operate in the dark.
I can completely relate to that. It can be quite intimidating, even if English is your first language. Registering a tax file number, a business number, it’s quite the process, especially if you don’t know where to start with it all.
Exactly! Even then you might think, oh, yeah, sure, I’ll just get an ABN, then you need a domain as well, then this and that and an ASC and it all just adds up, right? It goes back to the finances again.
Yes, and many of those aren’t one off costs, are they? For example, having to renew a domain.
And then you may actually get some third parties, who are not government entities, implying they are government entities and asking for renewal fees. And if you don’t know any better, you might go with them.
Exactly, yes! I get all those e-mails every year, maybe three months before my domain is to expire, like how are you finding me? I’m sure like some of the merchants we’ve featured have probably fallen for that.
We’ve discussed how Welcome Merchant helps to empower migrant entrepreneurs to overcome the financial and language barriers, but what other ways can your company help? Do you work with other organisations?
Our mission is for the businesses that we feature to be able to scale up on their own too.
We mainly promote businesses that are already established. I mean, we’re a mostly volunteer run outfit and we have relied on a few other organisations to help find and support businesses, beyond what we already knew of. The first is called Thrive, they provided microfinance in the form of micro-loans to entrepreneurs from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds. And then the other one is called Ignite, both are based in New South Wales and there are similar organisations we work with in Victoria. We worked with these organisations as a starting base to find the businesses and contact them. Lately that finding process has been mostly through word of mouth. Entrepreneurs that we’ve already featured will connect us with their friends who already started businesses, or some of them, I find through the media.
Then there is digital marketing support, which is huge and something we’ve helped with for most of the businesses that we featured. We’ve reached about 118 since we started, and most of them, I’d say about 60, or 70%, don’t have a website, or are inactive on social media, they still don’t quite understand the value of social media marketing, like it’s still such a foreign concept to them. And it’s really just a matter of continuous education. Again, the language barrier falls into that as well. Some of them might have businesses that they don’t think would benefit from social media marketing, but for example, many tradespeople pay quite a lot to be listed in online business directories and for us, it’s free. Of course, we know that we’re not the biggest directory, we’re not the go to directory yet, but that’s what we’re hoping for in the future. There’s also the matter of boosting SEO and all that.
And then we also run skilled building workshops for the entrepreneurs and that’s free, every two months we run one. We’ve done Social Media Marketing, we’ve invited an accountant and run a business basics accounting workshop for the entrepreneurs. And run them hybrid as well, so people from across Australia can join them. We have a lot of entrepreneurs based in Melbourne, like Aida from Sassy Organics. Just this week, we ran a public speaking workshop as well. We work with a lot of artists and fashion designers, and they get invited to speak at these events or run workshops themselves. So, we want to help them run these events better. Our mission is for the businesses that we feature to be able to scale up on their own too. Because really, if you’re a good community organisation, you don’t want to exist! You want the people that you’re helping to not be relying on you.
Teaching others to be resourceful, not just providing resources. Speaking of providing, you also sell gift hampers. Could you tell us more about that?
We started selling gift hampers, and collaborated with nine refugee business partners, which was a pivot for us during COVID lockdowns in Sydney, when we couldn’t run any events. People were very excited for them during that time, and we still get the occasional order.
The gift baskets are not our biggest source of income, and these days we focus more on our events, which are focused on dining and eating out. All forms really, pop-up lunches, dinners and even cooking classes in partnership with chefs from refugee or asylum-seeking backgrounds. We’ve also held a few markets in Sydney and in Melbourne, and we’re doing another one in Melbourne in November, a Christmas-style market. That will be Saturday the 26th of November at Abbotsford Convent and we partnered with the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. They are a much larger organisation than us and have helped to secure the venue and help with funding. Through the partnership we’ve been able to make the event equitable for everyone, including our stallholders, who only require a small deposit of $20 to take part. We’ve got other events happening as well.
Since that’s in our neck of the woods we may have to come down and say hello! With the events you’ve been running and the support you’ve provided to these businesses, do you see second order effects in the community based on what you’ve been doing?
For sure. We have around 20 skills-based volunteers right now, which is amazing. We make money from the events but are still very reliant on volunteer support, I still have a part time job myself. We put the call out, though many also joined us through the events that we have run, contacting us afterward and wanting to help. I’m very grateful for our volunteers! And then of course, the merchants are seeing an increase in their businesses, especially the caterers. One of our business partners, Racha’s Syrian Kitchen, was hired by NBC Universal to cook lunch during refugee week. They were initially booked through Welcome Merchant and have been hired for another event. We’d love for them to be their go to for film shoots and production, wouldn’t that be amazing?
Beyond the cooking events we’ve also worked closely with some artists, with gallery spaces in Sydney, who are now doing solo exhibitions and interviews. We are definitely seeing really good ripple effects.
Also, we have been really lucky to have an amazing partnership with Canva. They have a beautiful venue space in Surry Hills in the inner city in Sydney, with a commercial kitchen, bar and everything. They let us run an event there and one of the featured stallholders was Palestine Fair Trade, who work closely with Palestinian merchants, selling mostly olive oil, Safir and beautiful, bright, hand-embroidered cushions. Afterwards they told us they were not only able to make money on the day, but that they also got three new volunteers. I love to hear that and it’s such a good example of what we can do.
That’s awesome, such a positive outcome. Migrants and refugees come to a new country for many different, often stressful, reasons. With that in mind, do you think that more needs to be done to help address the mental health challenges and needs of migrants and refugees that come to Australia?
There’s also stigma in these communities about reaching out to a counsellor. Many come from a culture where it’s seen as, ‘no, you just have to get on with life’, or it’s just not talked about.
Yeah, absolutely. As someone that came from a community organisation that worked closely with refugees and people seeking asylum and migrants, the sector is severely underfunded and they are all fighting for the funding that’s available. Many work in silos and there is a lack of collaboration and support. It’s very sad. And I know that they these services are severely underfunded.
There are services in Sydney and Melbourne, such as ASRC and STARTTS, that provide a counselling service specifically for refugees and migrants. Then there’s also stigma in these communities about reaching out to a counsellor. Many come from a culture where it’s seen as, ‘no, you just have to get on with life’, or it’s just not talked about. It’s definitely an issue. There can also be intergenerational trauma as well. For us, working with volunteers, we do our best to help them navigate these issues as they can quickly end up becoming an accidental counsellor, and they’re not trained to be one. I tell them to refer back to me, because I’ve been trained in that, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, and then we refer them to a counselling service.
We also check in on our merchants, especially when there are significant world events, just to see how they are going. Even at the beginning, we are aware that the process of even explaining how you even migrated to Australia, that in itself can be re-traumatising.
We’ve covered some important topics so far and I’d like to circle back to how your platform operates. What is the Directory and how can businesses be featured?
Our Business Directory is a free service we provide to index and list migrant and refugee-founded businesses. It’s also going through a huge makeover right now! We are introducing search functionality and better categorisation to make it even more user friendly. Our team member is currently migrating all of the businesses over from the classic directory to our newly built one. We are also including physical locations and mapping for the brick-and-mortar business locations, which we are excited to roll out.
Sounds like you are working on presenting a richer user experience to help people discover these businesses. What’s the process behind getting listed?
There are several ways. We have a contact button on the Directory page, our contact us page, call or you can email us directly. I also have a community engagement team now. Previously, that was just me. We have two awesome community engagement volunteers, based in Melbourne and Perth. Being based in Eastern Australia, we are looking to increase our reach in Perth and working with local refugee support organisations. Then of course there will be other entrepreneurs that we don’t know about, discovering them and making social connections. Emma in Melbourne is also working through a huge database of businesses here in Melbourne too.
Earlier you spoke of overcoming digital barriers. Do you find that comes into play even when simply connecting with business owners?
Absolutely. There are big, diverse communities around Sydney, like Auburn. All kinds of nationalities there. You have a big Afghan community, big Turkish community, a Chinese Australian community there as well. Early on I had friends help translate the various business cards I’d collect and I would contact them, tell them I’d want to meet with them. It was a big process and having community engagement team members is a huge help now. Because it does take time. We email them and send them consent forms and of course explain how it all works at every step of the way. The information we gather helps us with social posts and placement into our online directory.
How does your community engagement team or perhaps you previously, how did you handle the language barriers, dealing with so many people from so many different backgrounds?
That’s another big challenge! Interpreters are very expensive, even more so if it’s face-to-face interpretation. Beyond languages, there are so many different dialects too and regional differences! An Egyptian, Arabic speaker may not be able to understand someone who’s speaking Lebanese-Arabic. We do work with volunteers, but yeah, that’s still a big, big, big issue! There’s only so much that we can do as well. I mean, we’d love to have the funding to have interpreters. Applying for translation grants is still our future plan.
At the beginning we touched on the events you’ve held around Australia. How did the idea first come about and what form do you see them taking in future?
It’s been really good, right from the get-go. Our first public event was a Syrian dinner and since then our dining events have remained fairly small, quite intimate, around 20 people. Now that we have our new space we can expand and recently we held a large one for Refugee Week, a sit-down, three-course lunch for about 50 people. Then our big Palestinian event I mentioned with around 100 people, which went well.
More people are becoming ethical and socially conscious, in that consumers are more open to pay $90 for a three-course dinner. But trust me, the chef’s that we work with, you are getting so much value for your money!
We’ve been lucky and managed to sell out our other events, except for the markets of course, but we are really happy with the fact that both markets had a few hundred people come through each. In Sydney, many of them were our social media followers and we knew that because the market location was in an area where you’d have to purposely plan to get there, a converted warehouse. Through our events we’ve built a very good relationship Broadsheet and Urban List, so shout out to those two! They’ve been so supportive of Welcome Merchant, posting about our events or writing standalone articles. It helps as people are curious about what we’re offering, the different cuisines, Syrian, Sri Lankan, Ethiopian Malaysian.
Most people haven’t tried this cuisine and at the same time more and more people are becoming ethical and socially conscious, in that consumers are more open to pay $90 for a three-course dinner. Especially with the knowledge that it’s a social enterprise. You’ll find that you will pay even more at some restaurants. But trust me, when I tell you this, the chef’s that we work with, you are getting so much value for your money! It’s more like a five-course meal, because they come from cultures where they just pile on the food! And I have to keep reminding them about portion control.
Got to make the people want to come back for more.
Exactly! Like I said, I’m not a business person, I’m an accidental entrepreneur. So, I’m still working on how to make it more sustainable. And that’s through grant applications. We also offer Pay It Forward tickets on all our events, for people wanting to support and shout a community member in need.
What do you love most about the work that you do?
Welcome Merchant allows us to shed a light on the positives, the joy of seeing our merchants being celebrated.
Being able to meet some really amazing people, hearing their stories as well. What I love, is coming from a refugee caseworker, the job itself can be quite mentally taxing, especially the negative aspects, what you learn through casework. Instead, Welcome Merchant allows us to shed a light on the positives, the joy of seeing our merchants being celebrated. And then, of course, being introduced to all these incredible foods! And seeing their successes motivates me and motivates the rest of the team as well.
Throughout this journey have you come across any other sources of motivation?
There is an Iranian chef based in Melbourne. She is a cooking instructor and a trained translator. Her goal is to publish a memoir, and a cookbook as well, which she pitched but it wasn’t picked up. We invited her to join one of our team meetings, because we like to meet our merchants, get to know them and get some feedback, see what’s working, if we can do anything else to help, that sort of thing. So, we invited her along, she told us that she decided to self-publish the cookbook, and I just thought that’s amazing! Yeah, she got a rejection but she thought, I’m just going do it myself!
She is a temporary visa holder and despite being featured on cooking shows here it didn’t lead to a permanent job or restaurant placement for her. She still works to support herself, her family back in Iran and has put a lot of her own savings into publishing this cookbook, because she’s so passionate about her culture, her Persian cuisine. The book is called Taste of 1001 Nights and the cookbook is not just pictures of food, but the stories attached to it as well, because that is a big part of the Persian culture.
I still think, yes, I spent some of my savings when I was starting Welcome Merchant and it’s just beginning to pay for itself, we’re just breaking even and that’s with all the community support. I remember thinking, she has real, real courage, in that she doesn’t have that safety net. I’ve still got savings, I’ve got a partner here, I’m a citizen of Australia, I can access funds if I ever lose my job. But she can’t. Yet she’s so passionate about what she does that she had to just go and do it! We’ll be helping her with her cookbook launch soon.
That was a very touching story and another clear example of what you mentioned earlier about financial barriers.
She will hopefully have a stall at our upcoming Christmas market. There are lots of hidden costs for merchants, even once offs like event insurance. And it can be expensive, right? Like, I’m going to the Social Enterprise World Forum in two week’s time. And the ticket itself is several hundred dollars, so it’s not very accessible for smaller social enterprises and nonprofits. I spoke to my team and we said, let’s just do a GoFundMe. And we did. And we actually reached the target within 24 hours! That included the flight and accommodation. It’s validation of what we do and what we’re doing to get the community support. People really wanted us to go to this forum. So yeah, that was awesome, a real highlight.
What actions can people take to better support migrant and refugee-founded businesses?
Just buy from them! Go to their events. If money is tight, you can just promote their businesses, share them. Not everyone can afford $90 for a three-course meal, especially in these times with inflation, right? Even just sharing our event, telling your friends about it, is a big help already. Or volunteer! Lots of our merchants need volunteers for sure, a lot of them are really struggling with social media, a lot of them need help with technology. It all helps.
Looking beyond these upcoming events, what’s next on the horizon? Any secret plans that you could share?
Then it won’t be so secret anymore!
Of course, this entire conversation is just between you and me.
Ha! Well, hopefully, we hope to be running more events in Melbourne, we want to scale up and have like, we want to have a travelling fair. That’s the plan. That’d be cool to see.
Would you be taking that all around Australia? How do you see that sort of coming about?
Yeah. We’ll take it all around Australia, but start small, maybe just do New South Wales and Victoria to begin and go through regional areas as well. There’s a lot of rural entrepreneurs out there that we haven’t been able to reach, right. The audience is out there and we’d love to connect with them. We’d love to do that. And then I know, I’ve had a few people asking, when will you run your events in Canberra and Brisbane? Soon! We are working on hiring an Events Manager. Hopefully, we’ll have some grants coming our way. And we’ll be able to hire people.
There’s a question I like to ask all our guests, to gain some insight into the inner workings of changemakers such as yourself. Every day we are faced with challenges, both as individuals, as a society and even on a global level. What do you see as a modern remedy to these issues?
Community. Really. There’s so much going on. But it all comes back to community, it really comes back to that. And I’ve seen first-hand, with our little Welcome Merchant community, when people come together, we can overcome so many things. And I know that probably sounds very cliche, but I really think that that can solve many challenges!
Undoubtedly, you’re seeing the effect of that, through all the great work you are doing at Welcome Merchant and the goodness you are putting out into the community being repaid in different ways. Marjorie, it was a delight to speak with you and looking forward to attending one of your events in future.
Thank you so much! ■