The entrepreneurial streak found in refugees

After Manny Stul's World Entrepreneur of the Year win, we look closer at the business success of former refugees.

Neil Churchill June 23, 2016

The plight of refugees has been one of the most dominant news topics of 2016. Just this week, the United Nations announced that the number of refugees worldwide has reached its highest ever level – 65 million.

But just recently, one former refugee’s story has shown the entrepreneurial streak that can be born out of such hardship.

Earlier this month, Manny Stul won the 2016 EY World Entrepreneur of the Year award, beating competition from 54 other entrepreneurs who like him had won their national rounds. If you’re hearing his name for the first time, Stul is a toy-making businessman whose personal story charts an inspirational rise from humble beginnings, born in a refugee camp, to conquering the global toy market. Today he is worth $1.24 billion. 

Accepting his award to huge applause at the Ernst & Young ceremony in Monaco, where the plight of refugees had been a theme all week, the 67-year old Stul spoke of his parents and appealed to the crowd to donate money to charitable causes. “You know better than the government what to do with your money,” he said. “Do something positive.” 

In understanding his success it would be ignorant to ignore Stul’s destitute beginnings, and how his story serves as an example of a refugee’s turmoil helping to frame the necessary drive and ambition required of successful entrepreneurs. Given the UN’s announcement it is certainly timely.

In 1945 Stul’s parents fled communist rule in their native Poland to a refugee camp in Germany, where Manny was born. They sought asylum in Australia seven months later. Stul and his family then spent the next three years in an Australian refugee camp before moving into a house that they shared with three other refugee families.

Fast forward a few years, Stul dropped out of university and worked on a construction site to raise enough money to help create his own path. But it wasn’t until 1973 that Stul started his first business, a gift company called Skansen, which 20 years later went public for more than $11 million.

But it was his Moose Toys business, which he took ownership of in 2000, that would eventually become Stul’s billion dollar money maker. Creating popular children’s games such as The Trash Pack, The Ugglys and Shopkins, by 2015 sales at Moose Toys had increased by 7,200 per cent, making it the sixth biggest toy brand in the US. Not bad for a man who didn't have a place to call home until his fourth birthday.

Stul’s story is as inspiring as it is admirable, but perhaps it’s not that surprising. This year’s award marked the second year in a row that a former refugee has won the global entrepreneur accolade – Mohed Altrad the man in question in 2015.

Altrad’s story is equally as impressive as Stul’s. A Syrian émigré, son to a Bedouin father, Altrad was sure to be a shepherd in the deserts of Syria.

But after gaining a scholarship to study at the University of Montpellier in France, and then working for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Altrad bought a French scaffolding company in 1985. Today, Groupe Altrad is one of the most recognised construction names in Europe, employing over 7,000 people with revenues in excess of $1 billion. Altrad himself is worth a similar figure.

On the side he owns professional rugby club Montpellier Herault, who play at the Altrad Stadium, has written three well-received novels and has both a Ferrari and Lamborghini in his garage. Again, this is a man whose formative years were shaped by the harsh realities of a refugee upbringing.

Speaking about his friend Altrad, François Léotard, a former French minister, made the point of how an extremely tough start in life can lay the foundations for an entrepreneur’s success decades later.

“When you’ve known solitude, suffering, hunger, humiliation, there’s potential for extraordinary development,” Léotard said. “I think he’s had a sort of revenge on his youth…because for a man of the desert there aren’t any limits. He always looks beyond the horizon.”

Stul and Altrad are by no means the first former refugees to achieve entrepreneurial success and global acclaim. Their predecessors include a sterling list of names: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Henry Kissinger, Gloria Estefan and many more. 

With 65 million refugees around the world today, it seems entirely plausible that future World Entrepreneur of the Year award winners will too have started life in camps for displaced and vulnerable men, women and children.

In the tough years ahead of them, they won’t find many better role models than Stul and Altrad. 

Kidnapped runner-up

One of the nominees at the 2016 awards earlier this month recalled a more recent negative experience that he claims has driven him onwards in his entrepreneurial endeavours.

In 2005, millionaire Fabian Bengtsson, part of a family owned electronics retail chain in Sweden, was abducted and held for ransom in a soundproof box for 17 days.

Speaking about his ordeal, Bengtsson said: “If you’ve been through hell, everything is positive. Every problem you face in the future can be solved.”

Talk about a silver lining…