With ReDI School, Anne is bringing together a community of business leaders, IT professionals, and migrants to co-create a new integration process, one that fosters intercultural exchange, learning, and understanding. This not only creates economic opportunities for refugees, but also builds the necessary mindset for companies and society as a whole to acknowledge cultural diversity as a resource, rather than a burden.
The New Idea
Anne’s work is grounded in the understanding that integration is a two-way process: not only do newcomers get included into another culture, but also the receiving society needs to become open and inclusive in its orientation towards diversity. Recognizing the need for a bottom-up, community-led approach to integration, she has developed an alternative to traditional education and training pathways for refugee integration that enables positive intercultural interaction between migrants and local communities based on the commonalities of their needs and interests.
For this, Anne is seizing Europe’s growing digital skills shortages as an opportunity for building demand for migrant talent among leading tech companies, using them as an entry point to bring greater diversity to the sector and, ultimately, society. Applying the principles of human-centered design, Anne has curated a process that brings together a diverse community of IT business professionals, companies, and migrants to co-create a free training program for careers in information technology. In this collaborative training model, collectively called the ReDI School of Digital Integration, migrants become protagonists in the creation of their job opportunities as well as the wider integration process by directly involving them in the design and implementation of the programs. This makes ReDI a platform for intercultural learning and cooperation. Identifying that the current high-tech business environment is still comparatively culturally homogenous, Anne through her model exposes large corporations, their employees and human resource managers, as well as a community of professionals from the IT industry to the power of diversity for innovation by creating a multicultural environment that is equal and inclusive to everyone. Acting as volunteer teachers and mentors, business professionals enter into new, formal and informal relationships with migrant newcomers, which foster, respect, understanding and even wonder by recognizing cultural diversity as a source of new ideas and innovation.
Every year, ReDI School engages over 550 volunteers representing leading tech corporates like Cisco, Salesforce, and Microsoft who, as a result of their experience there, bring back to their companies a new perspective on the benefits of immigrant skills, talent and experience. This has already resulted in a noticeable difference in the attitude of these companies towards recruiting migrant workers – the rate of job placement for students graduating from ReDI School is 75 percent. Since 2016, over 6800 students have attended at least one course from ReDI School, mentored, and trained by over 4700 volunteers from 40 different nations. The sense of ownership and empowerment of the students had led to a very active alumni community who often become volunteers themselves. For the future, Anne is focusing on scale. She wants to replicate the effect she has had on society as a whole. For that, Anne is forging partnerships between her citizen organization, government municipalities, and local businesses aiming at stimulating innovation across cities in Europe to test new practices in managing and integrating cultural diversity successfully. As ReDI School spreads across Germany and Denmark, Anne is mobilizing politicians, civil servants, business and professional people, citizens groups and even media towards a common goal – creating an inclusive society that is proud of and strengthened by its diversity.
As a result of immigration, people with a wide diversity of cultures, traditions, and religions are now living together. Although for decades Germany did not consider itself as a “country of immigration”, today nearly 27 percent of the German population (approximately 21 million people) are immigrants or born of immigrant parents. In terms of actively embracing this diversity both in policy and in public attitudes, however, Germany still lags behind. When asked how we can best live together in cultural diversity, more than half of the “native” German population thinks that immigrants should adapt to the mainstream culture. Only 11 percent support the idea that people should maintain their own cultures. Thus, in Germany, the dominant view of integration is still a one-way process in which refugees and migrants must adapt to German society, whereas native Germans do not have the responsibility to adapt to them.
This conception of integration is also reflected in the design and implementation of social integration measures and programs. At the center of governmental activities are cultural integration courses, in which refugees and migrants learn the German language and are informed about German culture, history, and the legal system. Vocational education, professional skills training, or job placement come after. This rigid sequence of measures leads to unnecessary lengthening of the integration process, resulting in difficulties for newcomers to participate in local communities as equals due to the prolonged separation from the general population. Because of this need for further training, coupled with language and cultural barriers, a majority of refugees remain without work in the first five years after their arrival. During that time, only one in four refugees is employed, according to a 2016 OECD report—and it generally takes 20 years for refugees to reach the same employment rate as those who are native-born. One consequence of the prolonged exclusion from the labor market is that migrants and refugees, who are already vulnerable from having to leave their homes, lose further confidence in themselves and in their power to forge new, lasting relationships in their new communities, curtailing them from feeling like they can make meaningful contributions to society. It also motivates locals to see migrants and refugees as a burden rather than a positive force to society.
At the same time, Germany is losing the economic potential of newcomers, whilst labor shortage is growing in several fields and the lack of workforce is preventing the growth of companies. The digital sector is a perfect illustration: The IT industry alone faces a deficit of more than 125 000 digitally skilled workers. Yet, misperceptions about the costs and difficulties of hiring refugees and migrants, as well as biased recruitment and selection processes hinder these companies to tap the potential of the new labor pool of migrant talent.
On the other hand, the aspiration to attract and retain diverse talent has changed: employees have increasingly recognized the importance of diversifying their workforce to stay competitive in the global economy. More than ever, employers are prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and investing resources into making sure their teams are set up for success. There is hence an opportunity to break this cycle of lost opportunity and shift away from the current understanding of integration.
ReDI School is run by a culturally diverse team, including people with and without migrant background, who bring together companies and professionals from the digital industry and non-European migrants in a collaborative, non-hierarchical way. Designed as a two-fold system of education and professional assistance, the programs offered involve project-based courses taught by tech practitioners, in addition to a larger program of mentorship and industry support. Unlike other integration initiatives using a standardized training curriculum, ReDI School develops its curriculum directly with the local tech community to ensure training matches the organizational need of recruiting and developing talent. Moreover, instead of employing paid teachers, ReDI School extensively recruits tech professionals as volunteers and offers them training to become mentors and teachers for refugees and migrants. Mentors support their mentees with their everyday search for a job, but also connect on a more human level and share their networks, creating a win-win situation: already during the course program, students can build professional relationships with their mentors; meanwhile, employers increase understanding and become sensitized to the context of their mentees. Through their involvement with ReDI, a change in perspective occurs among volunteers from “I want to help” to “I am also learning”. The inclusive and welcoming environment at ReDI facilitates a feeling of multicultural togetherness which, paired with the lived relationships, enables volunteers to take a new view on the spectrum of talent, experience, and perspectives that migrants bring. At the same time, students are enabled to play active and leading roles in designing the programs, allowing them to retrieve self-confidence and build leaderships skills. For example, a student council meets on a monthly basis where students identify problems that they see and develop solutions and ideas that is presented to the volunteer teachers.
ReDI School currently offers three modular learning curricula catered to different ability levels which all combine four months IT and programming courses with professional soft skills training as well as mentorship that often extends beyond this time frame. Through the participatory design of the program, and the constant adjustment to beneficiaries needs and character, ReDI is able to attract and retain a highly diverse student body of refugee and migrant talent. For example, a special program particularly tailored to women caters to childcare needs, providing female students with daycare, as well as well as catering. As a result, in 2020 almost 60 percent of ReDI School students were women who are now pursuing education in the usually very male-dominated tech field. After completion of the semester, many students remain involved with the program as volunteer teachers, while they start working or continue studying. According to the alumni survey in 2020, of the approximately 4500 students, 74 percent were in employment, two thirds among them full-time and a third part-time. ReDI School also shows how its collaborative environment and pooling of diverse skills and expertise stimulates creativity and innovation. Despite the many challenges for refugee entrepreneurship in Germany, such as access to financing and start-up capital, 8 percent of the ReDI Alumni have started their own ventures supported by their mentors. One example for this is the app “Bureaucrazy” designed by a Syrian student to help migrants navigate German bureaucracy.
Anne has been highly successful in mobilizing the largest tech corporations in Germany and Denmark, including Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP, Amazon, and Cisco, who contribute to ReDI School both financially and by sending employees to volunteer. This network of over 100 companies has become her greatest ally, as they start to embrace cultural diversity as a key element their company culture, thereby setting the pace for other employers. Every semester, more than 550 people volunteer at ReDI who not only leverage their experience and networks to help finding jobs within their companies for their mentees. Within their companies, they also become champions for an inclusive corporate culture, driving and helping shape necessary behavioral and structural changes. For example, Carsten Johnson, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager of Cisco Germany, said that the partnership with ReDI School has changed the way the company prioritizes the contributions of a diverse workforce. In the last years, Cisco has increasingly relied on ReDI School to fill their open vacancies, which led to four full-time employment (including the fist-time placement of a women in a high-end web programming position) and the appointment of fifteen interns and working students. As such, it is critical to Anne’s success to lever companies’ initial interest in ReDI as part of their CSR activities to then have them discover the real strategic benefit of this partnership, which is the access to new diverse talent. This way, sustaining a diverse workforce becomes a central element of the company’s self-image and mission as well as a competitive advantage for them.
For Anne, increasing refugee employment is not an aim in itself but linked to her ultimate goal to transform the social environment in Germany (and Europe) into one which actively promotes and embraces cultural diversity. Recognizing that cities function as melting pot for people with differing cultural backgrounds, and that managing diversity becomes a key challenge for the future, Anne is now working with municipalities across Europe to pilot a public private partnership model for migrant and refugee integration based on the principle of co-creation. One successful example of this is the cooperation with the city of Munich, where ReDI opened a new branch in 2017. The municipality has realized that the ReDI School generates fare better results than public employment agencies, in terms not only of creating employment, but also of distributing costs and social responsibility of the integration process across sectors. Anne is building on this good reputation strategically for implementing a creative co-funding model: The Department for Labor and Economic Affairs of the city of Munich pre-finances the establishment of a local ReDI school and covers the associated personnel costs, while corporate partners put in the necessary local knowledge, technical infrastructure, and most importantly human resources –employees who are interested in volunteer engagement. Critically, the local community takes on the coordinating role for the planning and implementation of the ReDI School training program, to adopt these to local conditions. Through this multi-stakeholder participation and community engagement, ReDI School is positively transforming the integration process in the city of Munich, while strengthening its position as a hub for intercultural exchange.
The success of this model has attracted broad media attention and interest and requests for replication from cities around Europe. Anne is currently in dialogue with the city of Hamburg, Germany, the city of Malmö, Sweden and the city of Aarhus, Denmark, to open new ReDI School branches there in 2022. So far, she has already scaled to six cities in Germany (Munich, Dusseldorf, Essen, and Duisburg), as well as to Copenhagen in Denmark, creating new social networks and multicultural communities throughout Europe. To meet the blossoming demand, Anne may devise a social franchise model that will accelerate her replication around Europe and potentially beyond. In this way, Anne aspires to impact 20 000 students and 5000 professional volunteers by 2025. In addition, she is currently developing modules for a new target group – children and youth. Her aim is to create opportunities for intercultural exchange even at an early age.
Anne’s grandfather was forced to flee from Germany to Denmark after being imprisoned for printing anti-war material during World War I. Growing up with his legacy had a profound impact on her family’s drive to pursue a better life and encouraged Anne to stand up for her values early on. At the age of twelve, her parents realized their lifelong dream of living in nature and moved with Anne from a city in Denmark to a mountain village in Norway. Being exposed to an entirely new environment without speaking the local language opened her eyes to cultural differences and both the challenges and opportunities associated with it. At the same time, she understood that difference between people do not depend solely on nationality, but also on the place where people grew up, on its history and traditions. Anne believes that this experience influenced her development of exciting curiosity about other societies and their cultures. Ever since, she seized every opportunity to immerse herself in new cultural contexts. When she was sixteen years old, she went to Australia as a Rotary Exchange student, entered a European volunteer service after high school and for the next 10 years sought out and learned from people around the world. Her early exposure to a multicultural world set a foundation for her.
While pursuing her degree in entrepreneurship at the KaosPilot school in Denmark, Anne volunteered with an NGO in South Africa where she found inspiration for her final graduation project. Seeing HIV-positive children being excluded from South African society, she brought them together in workshops to paint their future wishes– to show that their dreams are no different from those of other children. Back in Denmark, she turned this project into her first successful organization: Kids Have a Dream. Its workshops were replicated in over 30 countries, building new channels of communication, and understanding between children from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In 2010, Anne moved to Japan for her Master’s degree in Peace Studies. During that time, the Fukushima disaster took place, after which she interrupted her studies to help with the reconstruction in the field. While most foreigner left the country, she felt a strong obligation to the Japanese people who had taken her in.
With these experiences, Anne understood that having an open world view, intercultural respect, and readiness to engage in open dialogue are the basis for tolerant and peaceful coexistence.
ReDI School of Digital Integration started off at the peak of the refugee influx in Europe in 2015, when it became clear that many traditional service providers were inadequately equipped to respond to the sharp increase in demand, and anti-immigrant sentiment was high. Initially wanting to find a way for refugee and newly arrived migrants to participate meaningfully in the host communities, Anne facilitated a meeting between the local tech community in Berlin, refugees and asylum-seekers and a group of committed individuals. Within a year, the community of the ReDI School had grown to more than 300 people from all around the world. The organisation has drawn attention from global leaders including Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, Mark Zuckerberg, and Angela Merkel who, after a visit, describe ReDI School as a source of inspiration because it creates an inclusive vision of society.
Anne has won several international and German awards. In 2018 she was recognized by Edition F as one of 25 women revolutionizing German industry and named "Encourager of the Year" by the German newspaper Handelsblatt. In 2020, Anne was named "Female Social Entrepreneur of the Year" by the German Startup Award and European Young Leader by Friends of Europe.