Starting a business is tough. It’s even tougher if you’ve recently arrived in Australia as a refugee – which is why Marjorie Tenchavez set up Welcome Merchant, an online directory and social media page that helps promote businesses run by refugees.
Since launching in 2020, Welcome Merchant has promoted more than 130 refugee-run businesses across its channels, and sold hundreds of hampers filled with products created by refugees.
Welcome Merchant has also held more than 40 events, from pop-up markets to dinners, speed-friending nights to art exhibitions, showcasing the vibrant talents and products of refugees.
Here’s how it all began…
Tell us about the moment that changed everything…
It was 2020 and I found myself just constantly buying from online stores, especially from Buy From The Bush [the Instagram account that encouraged Australians to purchase gifts from rural businesses].
I was at my old job [at community services agency Metro Assist] just sitting at the office and I had a lightbulb moment. Why can’t I create something like this for refugee entrepreneurs? My second thought was: I wish I’d come up with this six or seven years ago!
When did you know it would be a success?
When I decided to hold events. Before that, I’d been paying for everything out of my own savings, but the events helped make it [financially] sustainable. And I love events and eating out – it’s a great way to bring people together and connect the general public to the refugee community through food.
During lockdown we put together a GoFundMe page for the entrepreneurs who were affected – a lot of them were caterers and chefs. We had a goal of making $5000 and we reached that in three days. That’s when I knew we were making a real impact.
I’ve always been community-minded. I’ve always had an interest in giving back and community development.
When did your passion for refugee rights begin?
When I was at university, I met this lovely person who was running a volunteer group called Villawood Vollies, and they organised community visits to the Villawood Detention Centre. I volunteered for about a year, visiting once a month.
But I’ve always been community-minded. I’ve always had an interest in giving back and community development. After I finished my degree [in social sciences] I ended up working at Amnesty International and then Metro Assist [which supports diverse communities] and then Welcome Merchant.
What three words sum up the journey of building Welcome Merchant?
Tough! Running a social enterprise that relies on events is tough. But it’s also rewarding and fun.
What is the one thing you wish that more people understood about refugees?
That refugees are just human beings. They might have come here as refugees, but they are so much more than that. A lot of people have never met a refugee before.
When you’re not running Welcome Merchant what do you love doing?
Eating out. It’s basically where most of my money goes! I eat out three or four times a week. I’m a big fan of Sri Lankan food and I’ve learned a lot more about Syrian food, which is very, very delicious. And then Malaysian food as well. I love them all.
Who inspires you?
My mum. She’s a single parent and she came to Australia with a 12 year old and 10 year old and restarted her life. She had a very good job in the Philippines, but she came here because she wanted to give my brother and me better economic opportunities. We didn’t have an easy childhood.
A lot of people have never met a refugee before.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Keep a journal. Whenever I’m feeling frustrated and anxious, I just write it all out. And then when I’m having a good day I can go back and read about that too.
What’s the one thing we should cherish more?
Time well spent. It’s easy to say yes to everything but it’s important to spend your time wisely, with people who nourish you and share the same values as you. That’s something I’m learning.
What’s your worst habit?
Doing three things at once!
Finish this sentence: Nothing feels better than…