Berlin’s fallen walls


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Shortly after Brexit, Berlin was hailed as the destination for ambitious entrepreneurs to start their businesses in Europe. With a quixotic mix of nationalities, organisations and a storied past, I explore just how open Berlin really is.

Photo taken at WeWork offices, Sony Center home of Redi School

“Keep calm and move to Berlin” this was the sign on a billboard in London shortly after Brexit to woo startups to re-locate to the now more foreigner friendly center of Europe. Within a week, I found myself amongst International entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries who thrived on Berlin’s counter cultural roots and comparatively lower cost of living.

“Anything goes here, you can be who you want to be” said one New York transplant at Techstars Berlin where I began my visit as a mentor to the new 2017 class . With founders from Canada, South America and the UK, it set the stage on Berlin’s international reach. Annually 44,000 companies are founded in Berlin. With no obvious customer clusters in the city, compared to other German cities with better access to the automotive industry for example, its appeal is grounded in a sort of cultish open mindedness.

In so many ways it reminded me of New York, headstrong and feisty. Except that I came across far fewer female mentors and founders in the tech arena and the prolific use of “like” in sentences was matched with its German soulmate “genau”. En route to Checkpoint Charlie, I came across remnants of the wall dividing East and West Berlin that the city has worked hard to put in its past. To its credit, Berlin has made strong headway in cutting the red tape by European standards through local government policies.

The Berlin Business Immigration Service (BIS) allows for quick navigation of resident permits for entrepreneurs and qualified professionals. A more holistic offering by the Berlin Start Up Unit includes initiatives with a smart system where each is run by both an institution and successful founder. Startups can also rely on generous grants programs, loan based and equity orientated financing from Investitions Bank Berlin.

For entrepreneurs escaping the war in Syria setting up a businesses is a less simple affair. However, tech entrepreneurs like Omar Alshafai who has an engineering background and was a business owner in Damascus, is building the app Bureaucrazy. The technology supports newcomers to more easily navigate German integration. “I am grateful to be in Berlin, Migrant Hub and Redi School provided coding classes and space to help us get started but we still have a long way to go”.

I visited ReDi School at its WeWork offices in Postdamer Platz. ReDi is a non-profit school for digital integration and provides free coding and entrepreneurship classes to refugees. “We had the CEO of CouchSurfing come in to speak, it’s important to hear from people who have built something from nothing” says Fadi Zaim, co-founder of Syrian food company Jasmin Catering. He like many fled Damascus going from everything to nothing.

“We’re thankful to partners like Klockner & Co and Facebook for funding but also others such as CISCO who provide internship opportunities” explained Fadi. Savvy corporates understand the benefits from faster integration to tap talent pools of skilled immigrants and refugees for digitization of their companies. According to Bitkom, there are 51,000 unfilled positions for IT specialists in Germany; of these, around half are for computer programmers.

Talking to entrepreneurs in the transportation space, Eyal Amir CEO of Parknav, access to a network of automotive expertise was also a huge draw of accelerators like StartUp Bootcamp which specialises in transportation and smart energy. But while corporates are helping to fertilise the ecosystem, what was the trigger that put Berlin on the startup map in the first place?

“No one has yet rivalled what Rocket Internet and the Samwer brothers have achieved and the money they have invested in Berlin” commented startup lawyer Raphael Thomas. And there will likely be plenty more of it. Rocket Internet Capital Partners recently closed a $1 billion fund making it the largest fund of its kind in Europe.

As the trip drew to a close, I ended up somewhere I could not pronounce deep in East Berlin. In conversations with Israelis to local Germans and Eastern Europeans, many of whom were part of the Kiron Education team, I learnt that Berlin prided itself at being the “poor but sexy international city”. Manuela Verduci captured Berlin’s spirit perfectly when I asked her how Kiron came to being “We started a movement because we could not just sit back and watch people be excluded”.


I’d like to thank Bianca Praetorius, Robert Mollen, Omar Alshafai Bureaucrazy, Fadi Zaim at Redi School, Juliette Premmereur and the new class of founders at Berlin Techstars, Manuela Verduci and Vincent Zimmer at Kiron Education, Raphael Thomas at Thomas Rechtsanwalte and entrepreneurs at StartUp Bootcamp Berlin for their insights.

Sources and Recommended Reading

  1. Berlin a Short History — Bernd Stover
  2. From Liquidity to Perspective — VC and Startups in Germany, E&Y
  3. Yesterday a refugee, today an entrepreneur — DW TV
  4. Berlin’s Tech Scene: The Freaks are coming — The Economist
  5. CeBit shows how the German IT sector needs immigration

Top Local Business

Newly opened Cafe Berlin an idyllic 1920’s prohibition era coffee shop Monbijouplatz 12

About the Transatlantic Post

Written and edited monthly by Kajal Sanghrajka, founder of Growth Hub and a 2017–18 Churchill Fellow, the Post provides an insider look at entrepreneurial ecosystems in cities across Europe as well as innovative models that effectively integrate immigrant entrepreneurs. I report live from a different city each month.

I interview pioneers at the front lines of each city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to help raise visibility of European entrepreneurs and organisations and support both sides of Atlantic recruit much needed talent. I’m grateful to the people that share their stories and to our vibrant network of entrepreneurs and changemakers on both sides of the Atlantic. If you like what you read, I’d be grateful if you could share with friends.

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