In 2000, while working for a national refugee resettlement organization in New York City, Jane Leu decided that the federally funded system of matching immigrants to careers was a failure.
‘We didn’t have an incentive to focus on [the] quality” of the placements, she remembers of her six years of putting highly educated, English-speaking foreigners in low-skill jobs. “It was just about quantity.”
So with no funding, a borrowed laptop computer, and her kitchen table as a makeshift office, Leu started the nonprofit Upwardly Global, whose goal is to help highly skilled immigrants reclaim their careers in the United States.
The beginning was rocky. With no funds and no employees, Leu was limited to one-on-one sessions with job seekers, reaching out to foundations for grants, and making employers aware of a hidden talent pool: 1.3 million bilingual workers with degrees and professional experience in every possible white-collar profession.
Today, Upwardly Global employs 29 people to serve some 600 job seekers a year. With offices in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, the organization also relies on its wide network of volunteers. Since 2006, it has helped place 400 people with 300 employers such as Google, Genentech, Wells Fargo, the Gap, Safeway, and the Fresh Air Fund. Although Upwardly Global remains a small nonprofit with an annual operating budget of less than $2 million, it is widely credited for highlighting decades of “brain waste,” says Jeanne Batalova, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. It is also the first organization that reintegrates professional immigrants into the American workforce.
“For the most part, the United States didn’t pay to educate these immigrants, so it’s all a net gain for us, in terms of their entrepreneurship and tax dollars,” explains Leu. “Just a little bit of help unleashes their potential.”
“Simply put, our organization meets a long-unmet need,” agrees Nikki Cicerani, who became executive director in April 2009.
Wenfang Shi first heard about Upwardly Global through a television advertisement in the summer of 2008, shortly after moving to Northern California to be with her husband. Having already served for four years as a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University, Shi assumed her job search would be different from that of other immigrants. Even without her U.S. workforce experience, Shi seemed to be an attractive job candidate. She holds a bioscience degree from one of China’s top five medical schools and worked as an associate professor in immunology at two leading Chinese research universities. She is the equivalent of an Ivy League academic.
But after applying for numerous jobs without getting an interview or even a callback, Shi felt demoralized. “All my life I was used to succeeding in all that I attempted, so this was a very big blow to me. I took it as a personal rejection,” she remembers.
At an Upwardly Global workshop, she learned that the path to getting a job in the United States is very different from in China. Shi’s Upwardly Global mentor helped her create an American-style résumé that listed her job objective and skills, and craft a cover letter that translated her prestigious educational and employment background. Shi also learned the importance of such cultural signifiers as the firm handshake. “In China, a firm handshake would not be appropriate in any setting,” says Shi with a laugh.
Next, she applied for a job at Stanford University. Although Shi felt utterly qualified for the position, she again received no response. Her mentor suggested an aggressive course: telephone the hiring manager, ask specific questions about the position, and present her qualifications with ambition and confidence. Ultimately, the department invited her in, and after four rounds of interviews and a presentation, Shi now works as a research associate at the Asian Liver Center at Stanford University Medical Center.
Cicerani says that job-hunting experiences like Shi’s are typical for Upwardly Global clients. “In the United States, 70 percent to 80 percent of people find their jobs through networking,” she notes. “That is just not the case in the rest of the world.” If you go to a top university, she says, “you may take a single test and then just get the top job in the top company. The idea that you would have to network or interview is a foreign notion.”
Read the entire article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review
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