Working, networking and sharing your story

With its new incentive scheme, ABN AMRO is supporting three social start-ups a year to the tune of 10,000 euros each. The start-up behind GoOV was announced the winner earlier this year. Most recently, the prize was conferred on Makers Unite, an organisation that helps newcomers to the Netherlands integrate into Dutch society.

The new incentive scheme allows ABN AMRO to lend a helping hand to social enterprises. These businesses place a premium on the common good, supported by a solid revenue model. For every social entrepreneur who is a client, ABN AMRO deposits EUR 100 a year into the scheme. Three times a year, the bank donates 10,000 euros from the fund to a new social enterprise. The latest winner is Makers Unite, an initiative pioneered by Thami Schweichler. Last year, the platform won the What Design Can Do – Refugee Challenge Award from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Ikea Foundation. Schweichler explains what Makers Unite does and what its aims are.

What does Makers Unite do?

“Makers Unite is a social enterprise that enables newcomers to the Netherlands – be they refugees, migrants or asylum seekers – to make products in collaboration with local stakeholders. At the moment, those products include laptop sleeves and mobile phone covers. This experience helps them develop skills, create a network and share their story with others. Participants make the products from life jackets which have washed up on to the beaches of Greek islands. Makers Unite is also committed to sustainability, helping to reduce the threat to the environment posed by all those discarded life jackets.”

How did Makers Unite come about?

“We started to develop the idea at the beginning of 2016. The initiative has its roots in a Dutch organisation called The Beach whose main focus is co-design and co-creation. I was working there as a volunteer at the time and was excited about creating a link between this type of collaboration and the integration of newcomers. We also wanted to do something about the environmental problem in Greece resulting from the used life jackets.

“The fact that our products are made from these life jackets also makes it easier to open a dialogue about the way we approach migration in Europe today. After all, we don’t know if a particular jacket did or didn’t save the life of someone looking to build a new future in Europe. We don’t want to avoid or gloss over these difficult conversations. In the end, the whole point is to turn them into something positive. That’s why we’re transforming the life jackets into beautifully crafted products.

“We offer a six-week programme to our participants during which all newcomers can work on their own creative skills and build a network with the local entrepreneurs who also participate. The aim is that each participant will be able to take the next step in the creative sector after those six weeks.

“I should point out that co-creation isn’t our sole activity. We also hold workshops which are led by a participant and cater for businesses. So far about 500 people have participated. The workshops give the participant the chance to share their personal stories as well as their skills. We also support them with training in creative and leadership techniques.”

Why does your organisation put an emphasis on creative products? There must be lots of people who come to the Netherlands with other talents.

“Of course there are. We chose this focus because of our own background. Our network consists mainly of stakeholders in the creative sector, so it was a natural choice for us to start here. Our aim, though, is to expand rapidly into other sectors, cities and countries.”

Is the programme open to anyone?

“We’re really looking for people with a creative background. They also need a residence permit so they can work if the opportunity arises once they’ve completed the six-week programme. So far about forty people have participated in the programme. But as I said, we hope to expand quickly – we’re already in talks to start similar programmes in France and Germany.”

The incentive scheme jury – made up of Erik Buckens (Manager of the ABN AMRO Social Impact Fund whereby ABN AMRO invests in social entrepreneurs), Nery Anderson (Director of ABN AMRO’s Western Region and head of the Small Businesses segment) and Harry Hummels (Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Utrecht University) – said in its report that one of the reasons Makers Unite was chosen as the winner is that its business model is so flexible and dynamic that it will prove resilient in the face of any unfavourable economic developments.

What do you think the jury meant by a flexible and dynamic business model?

“I think they meant that the programme is easily scalable. We can focus the programme on other sectors and in other countries, too. The ultimate aim is to sell the products our participants make and to use the proceeds to fund the programme. At the moment, we’re still looking for the right distribution channels. We’re planning to sell the products online, but we’re looking at museum gift shops and designer boutiques as well.

“Our start-up has just completed the seed phase. Now it’s all about whether we can make a go of it. Winning the incentive scheme award has been a major boost – it means there are people out there who believe in our business model. At the moment, we need support from multiple funds, but we’d like to get an investor on board with whom we can work in the long term.”

What do you plan to do with the incentive scheme prize money?

“Marketing is a major priority for us right now. Initially, our main focus was on the participants. But now we need to ship a lot of products, and that will take time and attention.”

Want to learn more? Check out the Makers Unite website at