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Westpac scholar helps 'migrapreneurs' take flight

01:00pm March 01 2023

2019 Westpac Social Change Fellow Usman Iftikhar is the Co-Founder & CEO of Catalysr, an award-winning startup incubator for migrant and refugee entrepreneurs. (Tahir Hussain)

Like many migrants arriving in Australia, Westpac Social Change Fellow Usman Iftikhar faced the challenge of forging a new life and career when he moved here from Pakistan in 2013.

Frustrated by a lack of opportunities, he took matters into his own hands, taking his passion for entrepreneurship and turning it into a business.

Fast forward 10 years and his social enterprise Catalysr is an award-winning incubator of budding startups, helping migrant and refugee entrepreneurs get established with intensive training programs. 

“The solution was in front of me: if we aren’t being hired for work, entrepreneurship was available as an alternative. Doing this means we can employ ourselves, as well as others,” says Iftikhar, who was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2019. 

“Coming here as an international student, there are a number of reasons why people struggle to find work. It might be because their experience and skills aren’t recognised and valued in a new country, or because there is an underlying expectation for us to assimilate, or perhaps there’s a language barrier that’s getting in the way.”

Westpac Scholars Trust has invested more than $35 million in over 640 scholars since its inception eight years ago, and a new impact evaluation report shows that many of them have gone on to hold leadership positions in business and the wider community.

Iftikhar has supported 800 ‘migrapreneurs’ who have started over 200 businesses across Australia, equipping them with foundational startup knowledge and connecting them to alumni, mentors, and industry professionals through a free-of-charge fellowship program. He estimates that each business has created an average of 10-15 jobs.

His experience is similar to that of many Westpac Scholars, with the report showing that 72 per cent who have set up businesses or organisations have generated new jobs in Australia.

“The fellowship and funding came at the perfect time for Catalysr. We’d just started and had supported less than 100 migrapreneurs. We weren’t sure whether we were going to make the impact we wanted to,” says Iftikhar.

But it’s not just the financial support that Iftikhar believes made a difference to his company.

“We gained huge value from the mentoring and advice offered being part of the program; the guidance in shaping our strategy was key in our success today. I learnt how to scale the business, had the ability to travel and learn, met others running accelerators and incubators, and brought those learnings back home.”

Catalysr's success has been built on fostering a sense of community among the businesses and founders.

“The startups we support have founders coming from 85 different countries, yet it’s amazing to see how the Catalysr community is connected by the collective migrant experience and share the common goal of solving social problems.” 

Professor Elizabeth New, Interim Head of the University of Sydney School of Chemistry and 2016 Westpac Research Fellow. (Flashpoint Labs)

Westpac Scholars Trust doesn’t just support future business leaders. There’s also a strong focus on backing academics who are working on solutions to improve our society and environment.

One of those is Professor Elizabeth New, Interim Head of School at the University of Sydney School of Chemistry, and a 2016 Westpac Research Fellow. 

New’s work uses chemistry to solve medical and environmental problems.

“The vision I had when I applied for the fellowship was to provide a tool for remote communities to sample their waterways and determine whether they contained toxic levels of heavy metals,” says New, who has received over $12 million in grant funding and has had her work reported in five patents, some of which have been progressed towards commercialisation.

New has since expanded this vision to include other applications for chemical tools, having developed novel fluorescent sensors that detect oxidative stress within medical samples. Oxidative stress is associated with a number of diseases including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, depression, and cancer. Medical professionals worldwide are using her sensors widely to learn more about these life-threatening diseases.

Another invention she has recently reported is a blood test for a drug used in almost half of all chemotherapy treatments in Australia. She says this development will be particularly beneficial for remote communities who will no longer be reliant on major hospitals to determine their treatment options.

Because she was awarded the fellowship quite early in her career, New says it has had a significant impact on shaping the trajectory of her research.

It’s allowed her to broaden her horizons, looking beyond just one application for her chemical tools to examine how her work can be applied to help solve a number of real world problems.

“Everything I learnt through the fellowship – in terms of leadership, the skills that I’ve gained, and collaborations – have helped me establish myself as a professor and research leader in the university,” she says. “In academia, we often stay in our bubble and don’t have the opportunity to learn from corporate leaders. I loved being able to learn how to be a leader, how to be effective, and how to network.”

For New, investing in research is critical because it underpins the country’s future growth.

“It’s a sad reality in Australian academia that there is not enough money in research, so this means there are amazing ideas floating around going unfunded. It’s great that Westpac Scholars Trust can fund some of those ideas and back those researchers through its fellowship program.”

Kripa Krithivasan joined Westpac Wire in 2022 as a News Reporter. After starting her career at Westpac in 2016, Kripa took some time off to host one of Australia’s most popular podcasts for South Asian Australians, Uncultured the Podcast, and is passionate about giving marginalised voices a platform. When she’s not at work, Kripa dabbles in a bit of stand-up comedy and Bharatnatyam - classical Indian dance.

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