Immigrant Women’s Entrepreneurship

Making Space for Good Services – Immigrant Women's Entrepreneurship in the Care Sector in Sweden

– Do they become self-employed in order to get a job and escape unemployment? This question was often posed to us when we described the research project upon which this article was based.

The prevalent image here is one of immigrant women becoming entrepreneurs out of necessity and in order to create a job, and perhaps an income, rather than being motivated by the wish to realise an idea and work independently, motives often stated to be found among entrepreneurs in general.

This article builds on 20 in-depth interviews with immigrant women entrepreneurs, from different countries, living in the Stockholm region. We have chosen to study the care sector due to it being the largest labour market for both foreign-born and Swedish-born women in Sweden. A growing number of municipalities and county councils are at the same time, through political decisions, making it possible to start private businesses in this sector. The question is why have these women become entrepreneurs?

Our analysis reveals that out of 20 women only two started their own firms because they had difficulty gaining alternative employment. Consequently it seems other factors motivate them. The vast majority of the women interviewed had worked in the care sector, in both municipal and private organisations, before becoming entrepreneurs. Our analysis indicates that the care sector is undervalued in society as many of the jobs there are low-paid, low-status, female-dominated and hold few opportunities for development.

Many of the women have reacted against this subordination through their choice for entrepreneurship and want to offer better care services. Negative experiences suffered as employees, the experiences indeed that motivated them to become entrepreneurs, include continual economic and time pressure. They exemplify this to the customers as having had to 'run in and out'. A woman puts it like this:

"So I decided to start my own company. I had already become rather dissatisfied with my work in XX municipality in the municipal home help care sector. Because you run all the time there is no quality. We have constantly to 'step on the gas' and try to use the time as best we can. And I didn't think that was my thing. I thought that the old people seemed very lonely and needed something else, they needed some company".

Such negative experiences are turned into a motivation to work in another way in her new home help service firm. Another motivation for the choice for entrepreneurship among these women is to offer care services in other languages than Swedish, since many discovered that this is simply not provided by other care service providers. The women thus reinterpret the very meaning of care and as a result create a new and innovative service product.

In addition, many of the women seek to improve the situation of their employees – themselves often immigrant women – for the better. For one of the women interviewed this implies a clear ambition to create ethnic equity and gender equality. She says:

"It is great to see how the personnel we hired in 2001 have grown as persons. I have had some Somali [women], who have never had cash point cards before. Who have never had money in their own bank account: Have never been to a party for the personnel. And now I see how they grow, and it gives me great joy. Next year I will put my efforts into helping young people".

In conclusion we see that the women interviewed create space for a better care product at the margins of the subordinated care sector where working conditions are often difficult.

By Katarina Pettersson, Senior Research Fellow, Nordregio and Charlotta Hedberg, Researcher, Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University