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Undergraduate research assistants help expand entrepreneurial opportunities for refugees

Natalie Milan and Faith Zehfuss received King Center funding to research and help facilitate a 10-week entrepreneurship program for refugees in Uganda.

When Natalie Milan, ’24, MA ’24, and Faith Zehfuss, ’24, traveled to Kampala, Uganda, this summer as undergraduate student research assistants for Stanford Associate Professor of Management Science and Engineering Charles Eesley and PhD candidate Zahra Hejrati, they were tasked in part with gathering qualitative and quantitative data on an entrepreneurship program for refugees.

Milan and Zehfuss completed that work and helped facilitate the 10-week course. But they also recommended and implemented changes to the program, which is run through the Management Science and Engineering department: updating the course content with local startup success stories and expanding enrollment to include not just refugees living in Kampala but those who were housed in camps and settlements throughout the country. They also helped establish a partnership with Makerere University Business School to ensure that people who finished the entrepreneurship program would have support to continue their work through clinics at the school.

In part because of the global pandemic, Milan and Zehfuss—whose work was funded by the Stanford King Center on Global Development—were the first research assistants to be on the ground in Kampala since the program began (two smaller pilots in Ethiopia and Uganda were run remotely).

“They exceeded my expectations,” says Eesley, a King Center faculty affiliate, of the pair. “I had given them this charge to be entrepreneurial and build up our relationships on the ground, and they took the baton and ran with it. Now we’ve got a draft paper with some interesting, statistically significant results.”

Eesley and Hejrati—who is a Graduate Student Research Funding recipient—are co-running the entrepreneurship program for refugees, which is being provided as part of a randomized field experiment that is the basis for Hejrati’s dissertation. Hejrati is studying, among other things, how mentorship affects idea development and iteration. Specifically, she is comparing how having a fellow refugee as a mentor compares to being mentored by a local Ugandan with entrepreneurial experience. Early results indicate that refugees who are better connected to their host communities produce higher-quality ideas while refugees who are mentored by peers may have more novel ideas. 

Zehfuss, who took a class with Eesley on Global Entrepreneurship before traveling to Uganda to work on the program, says the work was eye-opening and humbling. 

Milan and Zehfuss holding a feedback session with participants enrolled in the entrepreneurship program
Milan and Zehfuss holding a feedback session with participants enrolled in the entrepreneurship program

“In Silicon Valley startups, people are often searching for the ‘why,’” she says. “That was never a question for our participants. They have obvious problems that they are personally engaged with and need to solve. Many of our participants turned to entrepreneurship because they weren’t afforded other opportunities in Uganda even though a lot of them had great education and job experience in their home countries.”

Milan agrees. 

“Often, the term ‘refugee’ gets thrown around in a pretty homogenizing way,” she says. “Some of these people were surgeons and teachers and lawyers and prominent businesspeople. It’s important to humanize that experience and recognize the whole lives people led before [becoming refugees].”

Eesley has long been interested in entrepreneurship in emerging economies. He, Hejrati, and Medhanie Gaim, an associate professor at Umeå University in Sweden, had been brainstorming ways to work with refugees when they attended a 2019 talk on artificial intelligence and refugee integration by King Center Faculty Affiliate Jens Hainmueller

“We were really inspired by that,” Eesley says. “The global refugee crisis continues to get worse due to wars and climate change. Is there some role for entrepreneurship to be a piece of the puzzle to solve the crisis?”

Some of the participants in the Ugandan program were working on startups that stemmed from their own personal experience: One wanted to start a comedy production venture to ward off boredom and depression in refugee camps; another created a nutrient-fortified flour to protect children from malnutrition; someone else was working on an organic mosquito repellent.

Milan and Zehfuss were tasked with expanding the program’s enrollment, which they did by forging partnerships with existing refugee networks and allowing people living in camps to participate (enrollment went from less than 100 in previous cohorts to more than 200 over the summer). Based on feedback from past participants, they also worked with the Stanford-based team to make the course content more relatable (for instance, they replaced a case study on Airbnb with one on a startup called SafeBoda that began in Uganda as a motorcycle ride-hailing app).

Undergraduate research assistants speaking with the director of the Makerere Business School's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Centre
Milan and Zehfuss speaking with Diana Ntamu, Director of Makerere Business School's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Centre

Both Milan and Zehfuss say they are most proud of helping forge a partnership between the program and Makerere University Business School’s Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Incubation Centre. The connection will give participants in the Stanford program access to clinics run by the university.

“That was probably the most rewarding aspect of the whole job,” says Milan, who is studying sociology. 

The idea for the partnership emerged from conversations with past participants who wanted to know how they could continue building on what they learned in the Stanford program.

“We wanted this program to be a launching point, not just a temporary course,” explains Zehfuss, an international relations student focused on economic development who will continue to work with Eesley and Hejrati with King Center funding in the fall.

Milan and Zehfuss were “terrific”, Eesley says, adding that he believes bringing undergraduate students on to research projects “is building for the future.” 

“I always hope undergraduate research assistants continue this kind of work,” he says. 

Milan and Zehfuss say they appreciated the opportunity to work with and have their input validated by Hejrati and Eesley. 

“They were great about accepting our feedback,” Zehfuss says.  

Eesley says the entrepreneurship program for refugees would not have been possible without the King Center’s support. Some funders he approached early on doubted that refugees would be able to create successful startups given their precarious life circumstances. 

Members of the King Center’s selection committee “were the first ones who believed in us,” Eesley says. 

For Milan and Zehfuss, the King Center’s funding was also transformative.

“Having the King Center support our work is absolutely incredible,” Milan says. “We’re just so grateful.”

Zehfuss agrees.

“Going to Kampala was an incredible opportunity, and that was only thanks to the King Center,” she says. “And if we hadn’t been able to go, it would have been so much harder to really understand what we were doing well and what could be improved.”

Please note that prior to January 2024, the King Center’s Undergraduate Research Fellow Program was known as the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program.