7 July 2021

Hrishabh Sandilya: Building the Pillars for Migrants Inclusion Through Social Innovation

How to make the field of entrepreneurship more inclusive to groups that have been historically and systematically left behind, namely migrants and refugees, people with disability, seniors, women and youth? Together with members of the European Business & Innovation Centre Network (EBN), the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) and Caritas organizations, Impact Hub gathered experts and entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups in a series of virtual working sessions – Communities of Practice – to debate, exchange, investigate, plan, prototype and evaluate the activities in the field of inclusive entrepreneurship.

Throughout our Better Incubation working sessions, we were inspired to delve deeper into the participants’ diverse stories and to learn more about the “whats”, “whys” and “hows” behind their efforts to build inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystems. One of the entrepreneurs who greatly sparked our curiosity was Hrishabh Sandilya.

Sandilya considers himself to be “a multipotentialite and systems-thinker” and is committed to a more resilient future, where there’s social, climate and gender justice for all. Premised on the pillars of sustainability, economic empowerment through entrepreneurship and socio-cultural integration, Sandilya’s incredible work at Project Phoenix is dedicated to providing social innovation training for refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers on European grounds.

Besides founding and leading Project Phoenix on the ground in Nicosia, Cyprus capital, he is also responsible for mentoring Project Phoenix’s fellows and volunteers. To learn more about Sandilya’s background, his journey and his plans to keep impacting the world in a positive and lasting way, check our conversation below: 

Q: To get us started, how would you describe yourself in 3 words? 

A: I’d describe myself as a neophile who challenges existing systems.

Q: We definitely need more systems’ challengers like you to keep changing our world for the better. And talking about making this world a better place, what’s your purpose, both in the professional and personal spheres? How do you believe them to be aligned? 

Personally, I want to see a more just and equitable world, where we are more in sync with each other and nature, and a high level of trust within society. Professionally, I want to work towards that goal, specifically in the migrant-inclusion space, through systemic and sustainable solutions,  harnessing the power of social innovation.

Q: In getting acquainted with your work, when preparing for this interview, it seems to us that you’re doing a great job in making your purposes real and tangible with Project Phoenix. Could you tell us more about it? Why does it exist and how did it start? 

Project Phoenix is a migrant-led European NGO and social enterprise dedicated to systemic change of the inclusion ecosystem. It was founded by my colleague Michael Goecken in Belgium and I joined him as a Co-Founder and moved to Cyprus to set it up in mid-2019.

We are currently running a pilot project in Cyprus, where our programming involves an intensive fellowship program focused on entrepreneurship and skills development, the creation of innovative partnerships with other civil society groups for collective action, and solutions-based research and advocacy pillar that aims to influence policy for systems change.

“Courage, as an entrepreneur, is not losing that self-belief that led you to take that step in the first place. It involves trusting your instinct by doubling down on it through hard work when things don’t seem to be turning out the way they should.”

Q: That’s amazing! When looking back on this inspiring two-year journey, what recent achievements with Project Phoenix would you say to be most proud of? 

A: There’s been a few, but the most satisfying ones involve co-creating with our fellows, empowering them and giving them agency. Helping our fellow Laetitia Tchakoute to launch her clothing label Aphrogee, has been a success we keep celebrating, as it goes from one strength to another.

Other recent big wins include finishing a transdisciplinary research study on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees in Cyprus and multiple iterations of online professional English skills and mentoring program for asylum seekers in Cyprus, led by ELT professionals in India.

inclusion of migrants

Hrishabh Sandilya and Laetitia Tchakoute at the launch of her clothing label Aphrogee.

Q: That’s very fruitful for such a short period of time, especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic was taking place for most of it (and still is). Considering all that, what do you think were the biggest forces and drivers of your perseverance and success? 

A: The biggest drivers of our success have definitely been our incredible fellows, staff and volunteers (and extended network of partners, mentors and advisors). Without them, we wouldn’t exist!

As a new organisation, we’ve struggled for funding our entire existence (especially through the pandemic), but they’ve made it possible through their hard work, substituting funds for passion and skills. This has allowed us to have an outsized impact that many better-funded and better-staffed organisations would have failed to have.

Q: In the end, it’s been all about a resilient community driven by a common purpose. Now, when you look ahead, what are Project Phoenix’s goals for the upcoming year? What impact do you aim to make? 

A: Our goal over the next 12 months is to launch Constellation! our refugee social innovation lab in Nicosia, accelerate a few more fellow businesses and further the conversation in Cyprus on addressing migrant inclusion systemically – based on our research and experience with innovation.

Q: This systemic vision you have is really very important to generate real, sustainable and lasting social change. We wish you all the best in these next steps! And on the topic of next steps, we all know that entrepreneurship requires courage. What is courage to you? 

A: Courage, as an entrepreneur, is not losing that self-belief that led you to take that step in the first place. It involves trusting your instinct by doubling down on it through hard work when things don’t seem to be turning out the way they should.

Q: We couldn’t agree more with your words. Thank you very much for sharing your inspirational story and thoughts with us! To end this conversation on a high note, would you like to share what was your key takeaway from the first Community of Practice session? 

A: My key takeaway was that there are so many other great initiatives and allies out there doing the same important work. Connecting to them for inspiration and building on a vision together is what excites me about our Community of Practice.

Follow Hrishabh Sandilya and his impactful work at Project Phoenix on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter

For more interesting stories from the Better Incubation program, enjoy our latest article about social entrepreneur Rut Turró’s and her mission to build an inclusive fashion industry.

Make sure to keep an eye on our social channels, as we’ll be sharing more stories of inclusive entrepreneurship over the upcoming period.