The political environment for refugees is pretty toxic in the United States, but the private sector is stepping up to say welcome.
When governments fail to provide moral leadership on complex social issues the job often falls to other sources of authority in the community. Faith based institutions and non-government organisations have most typically played this role in relation to refugees. But in the United States the private sector is also increasingly playing that role.
Let’s start with Hamdi Ulukaya, the celebrated founder and CEO of Chobani (yoghurt).
Following the American Dream script Hamdi built his yoghurt empire from humble beginnings. Born in Turkey, he came to the US as a student and stayed to build a multi-billion dollar company.
Chobani has a proud mix of American born employees and – quite deliberately – staff of immigrant and refugee backgrounds (around 20-30%). Chobani resisted pressure to change their policies on refugee hiring despite boycotts and personal threats.
Mobilising corporate leadership through Tent
In 2015 Ulukaya started Tent – an organisation harnessing the private sector to address the refugee crisis by “mobilising the networks, resources, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit”.
Tent encourages and helps corporates to make pledges of support – particularly around hiring refugees in their supply chains, providing tailored services to refugee populations and impact investing to support refugee-owned enterprises.
I met with Tent in their New York headquarters a couple of weeks ago. They were excited to talk about new research they just published on refugee employment and retention (they found refugees have high retention rates in US businesses across several industries).
Aside from research, Tent has built a network of 80+ mainly multinational companies who have made commitments to use their skills and resources to support refugees – including IKEA, Google, IBM, Linkedin, Unilever and Airbnb.
Many of the corporate leaders running these companies have also become vocal advocates of refugees – providing an important counter-narrative to the US Administration’s scapegoating politics.
Howard Schultz, the founder and former CEO of Starbucks is a case in point. When the President used his first week in office to sign an executive order suspending the US refugee program and banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, Schultz made a decisive move.
In a letter to all Starbucks employees Shultz exclaimed:
We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question. These uncertain times call for different measures and communication tools than we have used in the past.
The letter announced Starbucks would hire 10,000 refugees to work in their stores around the world by 2020.
When I was in Seattle last week I met with the International Rescue Committee. They’re now partnering with Starbucks to pilot an 8-week training program for refugees seeking jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry in the US. The program also helps participants to find job matches – not necessarily at Starbucks (although I’m sure many will end up there).
Here are some of my thoughts from Seattle on the program...
WeWork, the massively successful co-working space company which started in New York, also has a target to hire 1,500 refugees over the next 5 years.
These targets are part of a growing recognition by employers that they can make an altruistic commitment to refugees whilst reaping the benefits of their talent and skills.
Put another way, refugees have skills companies want, and companies have jobs refugees need. We have a win-win!
Talent Beyond Boundaries
I feel very lucky to have a front row seat to this alignment of interests working with Talent Beyond Boundaries, an exciting global initiative born in Washington DC.
Talent Beyond Boundaries helps refugees to access jobs overseas, as way out of displacement. Currently we’re working with refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, but we have plans to scale into other refugee communities.
I could go on (and I do in this post!) but for now just watch this video which explains it all:
Skills + resilience = amazing employees
Too often we associate people of refugee background only with their struggles, and we forget their resilience. Think about it – some of the most successful people in history were at one time refugees. Einstein for one (and you can find a long list of others here).
Refugees are forced into situations most of us would not be able to imagine. Trauma can be a result, but so is a kind of turbo-charged resilience. (Check out this nice little compilation of TED talks on refugee resilience if you want examples!)
It’s exciting to see the private sector getting behind people seeking refuge. And it’s not just happening in the US – Australian companies are also showing leadership in this area. Here are just three examples…
Refugee Talent is the brainchild of Nirary Dacho (a talented web developer of Syrian refugee background) and Anna Robson (whose varied career includes working for the Canberra Raiders, Queensland Police and then Save the Children on Nauru - which had a profound impact on her).
Refugee Talent is a fantastic online platform and jobs matching service helping refugees already in Australia to find work in their fields. They have a remarkable 300 Australian businesses signed up to their jobs matching platform – which is a pretty good indicator of strong corporate support for refugees in Australia. You can follow their journey on Facebook.
Thrive leverages this entrepreneurial spirit by giving refugees access to finance and support to build new businesses. The initiative is financially backed by Westpac and supported by a number of corporates including Allianz, Deloitte, Gilbert & Tobin and KPMG.
Friendly Nations Initiative
The Friendly Nations Initiative was founded in the wake of the Syria refugee crisis as a business led strategy that seeks to increase employment, mentoring, training, and internship opportunities for refugees and humanitarian migrants.
Using a similar model to Tent, Friendly Nations asks corporates to give pledges of support. It has a Steering Committee chaired by businessperson Tony Shepherd AO and a range of business, government and industry heavyweights on board.
Moral of the story? The private sector has an important role in supporting and welcoming refugees. I think we should expect businesses to increasingly step up and play this role - and put their money where their mouth is.
To find out more about Talent Beyond Boundaries you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to the folks at Tent for letting me use this lovely cover photo!