Back to top

Come and SPEAK: How a social tech startup is supporting migrant and refugee integration

Matt StokesResearcher, Nesta

Europe's refugee crisis is no longer on the front page of our newspapers, but across the continent refugees and migrants still face challenges settling and integrating into new societies. SPEAK, a social tech startup, is tackling this through the power of language and cultural exchange.

Matt Stokes, the facilitator of SIC's Collaborative and Sharing Economy network, spoke to Mariana Brilhante, SPEAK's CMO, about their work.

Matt Stokes: Tell us about SPEAK - what is your mission and how are you achieving it?

Mariana Brilhante: SPEAK promotes social inclusion of migrants and refugees by connecting them with locals through a language and culture exchange program where everyone can apply to share their language and learn a new one.

SPEAK implements groups of language and culture exchange where participants can learn and explore common interests. During the 12 weeks of the program, participants make friends and break not only the language barrier but also prejudices misunderstandings, thus promoting mutual comprehension as well as cooperation. Participants help solve each others’ problems, such as finding a guarantor to lease an apartment, supporting access to the national health system or putting together a CV.

MS: How is SPEAK creating change?

MB: SPEAK creates systemic change because it:

  • Breaks the “assistance” approach to integration and empowers migrants and refugees to take action at dissolving cultural barriers that block their integration and weave their own multicultural social networks and communities. They are not only guests or receivers anymore - they also become hosts and add value to the community.
  • Moves the integration process of newcomers from the margins into the mainstream mof the system - they are giving as much as they are receiving from their host countries.
  • Provides an informal support network to newcomers upon their arrival, thereby breaking up the systemic vicious circle of isolation fuelled by prejudice, fear and intolerance.
  • Mitigates cultural stigma by demonstrating the richness of multiculturalism to local communities in practice.

A Speak Event
A Speak event in Portugal.

MS: Where did the idea for SPEAK come from, and how was it developed?

MB: We realized that Leiria, the city where SPEAK was born, had migrants but that we locals did not meet them and didn’t hang out in the same circles. We also knew ourselves what it was like to know how difficult it was to integrate abroad due to language barriers and a lack of opportunities to meet local people. We understood of the challenge of arriving in a new city.

We also had noticed that in events around the world, when a group of people of different nationalities meet, there is always curiosity to learn about others’ languages and countries - and a desire to teach about one’s languages and countries. .

This increased curiosity about the world, the fact that we loved to travel, languages, and diversity led us to the idea of SPEAK.

MS: You have an interesting model blending online and offline interaction. Why did you choose to pursue this route?

MB: SPEAK uses an Online2Offline (O2O) model to ensure greater efficiency by minimising fixed costs. This means we can be sustainable at scale while charging only a symbolic fee for the program.

Basically, all the processes are managed online, through a platform developed in-house, while the learning and sharing experience happens offline, allowing participants to establish a close relationship with one another.

Bambara, a refugee from Mali, teaches at SPEAK in Turin.
Bambara, a refugee from Mali, teaches at SPEAK in Turin.

MS: How does your business model work and how have you funded SPEAK so far?

MB: SPEAK offers two experiences to its participants: language groups and cultural events. Events are free and for language learning we charge a small fee for an 18-hour course. That said, we live according to two golden rules: people who are SPEAK Buddies (help others learn their language) or face financial difficulties (whether refugees or locals) will always have access to courses for free.

We could not fail to mention the absolutely crucial role of our volunteer Buddies, Ambassadors and partners, who allow us to charge such a symbolic value through the provision of spaces for the courses and of their availability and passion for sharing their world.

MS: What’s next for SPEAK?

MB: We have ambitious plans to be in 40 European cities by the end of 2020, reaching a total of 20,000 people per year.

Because we understand that there is an urgency in solutions that can connect people, SPEAK has also launched a program called “Take SPEAK to your city”, which it based on a social franchising model where anyone can open SPEAK in their own city.

This will allow for a faster growth, while also allowing participants to have an even more active role in the solution. For example, Valeria from Mexico, a former SPEAK participant, has recently brought SPEAK to her new city, Aveiro - where she moved with her husband. Check out her blog post about setting up SPEAK here.

We are really looking forward to the future, changing people’s lives and also changing the system.