Until the end of September in London, an exhibition looks back at the place of immigrants in Britain’s economic history. From the most famous success stories to more anonymous journeys, the stories of these entrepreneurs make it possible to “think about the current debate on immigration in a slightly different way”, hopes the London Immigration Museum, which is behind this event.
From the co-founder of the giant Marks & Spencer to the designer Jimmy Choo passing through neighborhood restaurateurs, an exhibition at the Museum of Immigration in London traces the tracks of immigrant entrepreneurs. In addition to their individual stories, these life stories tell a lot about the history of Britain.
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 life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the apps we have on our phones, Matthew Plowright, director of engagement and communications at the Museum of Immigration, told AFP.
Located in a shopping center in Lewisham, south London, the museum has replicated a typical British urban district, with each building showcasing businesses from one industry: restaurants, technology, furniture, beauty products, fashion, etc.
the first coffee chain in the country Costa Coffee was created by two brothers Sergio and Bruno who arrived from Italy in the 1950s © Isabel INFANTES / AFP/Archives
Along the way, the visitor can discover the origins of companies known to all Britons, such as Marks & Spencer, co-founded by Michael Marks, born in a Polish Jewish family who arrived in Leeds in 1882, or the first chain of cafes of the country Costa Coffee, created by the two brothers Sergio and Bruno who arrived from Italy in the 1950s.
The journey of dozens of anonymous immigrants
But the exhibition also traces the journey, often strewn with pitfalls, of dozens of anonymous immigrants who came to Britain to escape oppression, poverty or simply to study, and who created their own businesses there.
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 their old counter for the exhibition, behind which she and her brothers have long helped their parents, who do not speak English.
Chinatown in Soho, June 18, 2023 in London © HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP/Archives
“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 country’s history, “and perhaps it helps us (…) to think about the current debate on immigration in a slightly different way”, Matthew Plowright would think.
Nomshado Michelle Baca arrived as a 7-year-old with her mother from Zimbabwe in 1996. She grew up in Kent (southeast England), and after a business school and several years in fashion, she created “The complexion” in 2018. company”, a company of beauty products and nutritional supplements tailored to 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 forgetting this is not only harmful for immigrants, but also for Britain,” she emphasizes to AFP.
Three of the six richest Britons are immigrants
“Often when people talk about immigration in the media or in the political class, it’s very impersonal debates about numbers, numbers” and we want to “evoke the personal stories behind the headlines”, explains Matthew Plowright as the ruling Tories 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 rankings.
“It’s no coincidence”, according to Matthew Plowright, because “when you come from abroad you don’t have the network, the connections to easily fit into the job market and so 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 financing.