In London, the journeys of immigrant entrepreneurs who shaped the United Kingdom

From the co-founder of the giant Marks & Spencer to the designer Jimmy Choo, via neighborhood restaurateurs, an exhibition at the Immigration Museum in London traces the journeys of immigrant entrepreneurs who, beyond their individual stories, tell a lot about the history of the United Kingdom.

Entitled “Migrant Entrepreneurs and the Making of Britain”, this exhibition, which runs until the end of September, aims to “explore the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs (…) and the many ways in which they have shaped our lives, from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the applications we have on our phones”, explains to AFP Matthew Plowright, director of engagement and communication of the museum.

the first coffee chain in the country Costa Coffee was created by two brothers Sergio and Bruno, who arrived from Italy in the 1950s (AFP/Archives – Isabel INFANTES)

Nestled in a shopping center in Lewisham (south of London), the museum has reproduced a district of a typical British city, where each building presents companies from a sector of activity: restaurants, technologies, furniture, beauty products, fashion, etc.

As you wander around, visitors can discover the origins of companies known to all Britons, such as Marks & Spencer, co-founded by Michael Marks, born into a Polish Jewish family who arrived in Leeds in 1882, or the country’s first coffee chain Costa Coffee, created by the two brothers Sergio and Bruno, who arrived from Italy in the 1950s.

– Humanize the debate –

But the exhibition also retraces the journey, often strewn with pitfalls, of dozens of anonymous immigrants, who came to the United Kingdom to flee oppression, poverty or simply to study and who created their own business there.

Chinatown in Soho, June 18, 2023 in London (AFP/Archives - HENRY NICHOLLS)
Chinatown in Soho, June 18, 2023 in London (AFP/Archives – HENRY NICHOLLS)

Like Gary and Jin Hui, who came from Hong Kong in the mid-1980s and owned a Chinese takeaway restaurant in South Wales. Their daughter, Angela, 31, has reproduced for the exhibition their old counter, behind which she and her brothers have long helped their parents who did not speak English.

“British history is so complex, especially through colonialism, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that” when it comes to immigration, she explains.

Caribbean immigrants, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Indian students or students from former African colonies, the paths of these entrepreneurs join the history of the country, “and maybe that helps us (…) to think about the current debate on immigration in a slightly different way”, wants to believe Matthew Plowright.

Nomshado Michelle Baca thus arrived at the age of 7 with her mother from Zimbabwe in 1996. She grew up in Kent (south-east of England), and after a business school and several years in fashion, she created in 2018 “The complexion company”, a company of beauty products and food supplements suitable for black women.

She regrets the current debates around immigration, which according to her “lack perspective”. “The United Kingdom has always been one of the most important trading places in the world and to forget this is not only harmful for immigrants but also for the United Kingdom,” she told AFP.

– “Not a coincidence” –

“Often when people talk about immigration in the media or in the political class, it’s very impersonal debates about numbers, figures” and we want “to evoke the personal stories behind the headlines”, explains Matthew Plowright, while the Conservatives in power have made immigration control a priority since Brexit.

According to research by the Center for Entrepreneurs, one in seven UK businesses was started or co-founded by an immigrant.

And three of the country’s six richest people were not born there, including the first, Gopichand Hinduja and his family, Indian-born owners of conglomerate Hinduja Group, according to the Sunday Times 2023 ranking.

“It’s not a coincidence”, according to Matthew Plowright, because “when you arrive from abroad, you do not have the network, the connections to easily integrate yourself into the labor market, and therefore often you start alone, out of necessity”.

But the exhibition also highlights “the complexity, discrimination, challenges and difficulties that many business leaders and people continue to face today”, he warns. For example to obtain funding.

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