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NOV. 2020

Emily ELSNER, Co-Founder
of Capacity Zurich

What is your background in Social Impact/Sustainability if any?

I am Emily Elsner, PhD. Consultant in impact measurement, evaluation, and organizational learning, entrepreneur and general enthusiast. Starting out in biology, I realized that what I really cared about was our relationship with the environment – the way people, and the societies they build, transform natural systems and how natural systems respond and adapt. I moved into researching the effects of overfishing on sea grasses, of invasive species on river management, and of poor environmental condition on honeybee health – looking at different human-nature relationships and how to rebalance them. I then moved abroad, and changed field, co-founding Capacity, a non-profit association working to support refugees and migrants to start businesses and projects. Here again, the focus was on bringing balance back into a system (this time all humans!) that was often pushed to breaking point. On this journey, I was able to draw on my scientific background to establish a robust impact measurement process, making Capacity’s social impact visible. I now support others working at the interface of social and environmental transformation, by supporting them with understanding and measuring the impact of their work, and by building healthy teams and organizations that can learn and adapt to the changing conditions that they work in.

What do you do at your organization in terms of Social Impact/Sustainability, how do you monitor the outcomes and what are the goals?

Capacity, the organization I co-founded, is dedicated to increasing refugee and migrant participation in a sustainable Swiss economy and Swiss society by supporting human potential. We have always connected our work to two of the Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 8 on Decent work and economic growth as well as Goal 5 on Gender equality. Unusually in the start-up scene, we generally have the same number of or even more women than men in our programs. When measuring our impact, we focus on three main levels: the individual participants, the wider community of volunteer mentors and coaches, and finally the society that our participants live in. We use surveys and interviews to collect our data before, during, and after our programs and also from our alumni.


Our main goals are:

- To support individuals in finding a route into economic integration and personal happiness, whether by building their own company, or via support with job seeking or studying, or another route which meets their needs

- To connect communities of refugees and migrants with established professionals locally via mentoring and coaching. Our volunteer mentors and coaches learn about concepts like inclusive language, privilege, etc.

- To showcase refugee and migrant potential to society


“Our corporate volunteers and our migrant entrepreneurs typically realize that stereotypes that they held about the other are wrong, and we love to watch the growing mutual respect and excitement for new business ideas develop during our programmes.”

Do you believe in business as a force for good and do you have corporate partners? How do you work with them?

Business can certainly be a force for good. In my view, it requires a commitment from the top down to doing business in a way that takes account of the interactions between that business (at all levels, from its suppliers through to the end-of-life of its products) and the environment and society. Businesses do not operate in isolation but are both shapers of and shaped by their context. Society, and the environment on which society depends, has long been regarded as separate from business, but concepts around sustainability, social responsibility, and so on are moving into a more dominant position within business strategy and thinking – a necessary development to address the significant environmental and social challenges that threaten the way we live.


At Capacity, we have always worked with corporate partners and volunteers, both to get sponsorship for our work but also to build bridges across communities, connecting refugees and migrants with established professionals working within large firms in Switzerland. We find this an extremely effective route to building mutual respect and awareness of the potential of refugees and migrants. Our corporate volunteers bring knowledge and expertise to share with our entrepreneurs as mentors and trainers. Our entrepreneurs provide – in addition to their own knowledge and expertise – new perspectives and ideas to share with our volunteers.

We focus on sharing ideas around intersectional barriers to participation in society alongside entrepreneurial techniques and use inclusive language to guide everyone to create tolerant working environments.

Do you see a change in behavior in your donors and the ones you’re serving?

We do see a measurable change in our participants – typically, they grow in confidence about their business idea and its implementation, but also grow personally, feeling more settled and able to integrate in Switzerland. Our corporate volunteers also express change in themselves, realizing the value in diverse perspectives, and the opportunities that emerge from bringing different people together. At a company level, it is harder to track whether our work affects team or company performance, but long-term this is an impact measurement aim. We have been very lucky to work with exceptional corporate partners as well as corporate and independent foundations who have gone above and beyond to support us in making a difference as well as co-creating new projects together with us.


How do new technologies and this digital age influence your work? Do you use new technologies to spread the word about what you do?

The Coronavirus restrictions have stimulated us to take full advantage of the online/virtual teaching world. This has enabled us to integrate virtual learning into our programs to ensure they can continue during lockdowns as well as to further increase their scalability. Additionally, social media has always been and continues to play a crucial part in our activities and outreach strategies, allowing us to share stories, videos, and other content, that showcase the range of potential that our entrepreneurs bring to society.

They also allow us to build community connections, reach potential beneficiaries, and share stories and resources that are of value to the Capacity community as well as the broader society.

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The Capacity Zurich Team.

In your view, what’s the biggest challenge when it comes to marketing your cause to the world?

We have two main challenges:


1) Migration is currently an extremely divisive topic politically. Therefore, we have to make sure to remain politically neutral when writing any marketing material. Luckily, to date, we have not experienced any major online negativity for working within this space – perhaps because we are always looking for why this topic should be of interest to people generally. However, it is a topic that not every organization wants to work with and not every funder wishes to support.


2) The challenge of breadth versus depth in our work also poses an issue. The numbers of refugees requiring support is large, but entrepreneurship is a difficult path and not suited to everyone, so we cannot provide support to everyone. For those for whom it is the right decision, our program can be transformative. Funders often wish to see larger numbers being supported and do not necessarily wish to invest the funds required to deliver a transformative program to smaller numbers of people, even if that support has ripple effects to the wider community (both within and outside Switzerland) in terms of income, job creation, and awareness for instance.


Add your call to action

Capacity is currently running a crowdfunding campaign until December 11, 2020 to create 5 community scholarships for its next program. If you want to become part of our story by supporting us, or simply find out more about us, then please visi our website.


Capacity is developing a new program focused on labor market integration to support even more refugees and especially those who decide to take a route other than entrepreneurship. Drawing on the experience and expertise gained through the successful implementation of our entrepreneurship programs as well as input from our corporate partners and alumni, we have developed a project outline. We are currently looking for partners to sponsor or co-create this project as well as companies and organizations interested in partnering with Capacity for the implementation of a pilot in early 2021.

If your company or firm might be interested, then please reach out to Also, if you or someone you know is looking for assistance in understanding and measuring their impact, or wants to know how to use this sort of data for strategy, team building, organisational development or innovation, then please contact Find more information here and here.

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