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Upwardly Global: Shortening Skilled Immigrants' Journeys from Struggle to Success

Posted on Monday, April 22, 2013

Upwardly Global: Shortening Skilled Immigrants` Journeys from Struggle to Success
Nikki Cicerani
Article by Heather T. Rankie; Interview of Nikki Cicerani by Heather T. Rankie; Interview of Anne Kirwan by Qianwei Fu and Heather T. Rankie

Upwardly Global is an innovative non-profit organization dedicated to integrating skilled immigrants, refugees, and asylees into the professional U.S. workforce. Through its offices in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, Upwardly Global helped over 300 foreign jobseekers secure meaningful employment last year.

Zealous Women are proud supporters of Upwardly Global. Three of us—Athena Hou, Judith Zahid, and Heather Rankie—have volunteered in a variety of capacities, such as mentoring foreign-trained attorneys and hosting industry-specific roundtable events for jobseekers. Additionally, Zelle Hofmann partners annually with Upwardly Global in a diversity initiative, and many of its San Francisco attorneys and staff participate in various volunteer capacities.

Recently, we had the pleasure of conversing with two of its extraordinary leaders—executive director Nikki Cicerani and San Francisco managing director Anne Kirwan.

Anne Kirwan
Anne Kirwan

Upwardly Global’s Programs

Approximately 1.8 million skilled immigrants in the U.S., who possess college educations, are unemployed or underemployed in low skill or semi-skilled jobs. These professionals may have been lawyers, doctors, or scientists in their countries of origin, and now may be working as nannies, cab drivers, or baristas to support themselves and their families.

Founded in 2000, Upwardly Global has coached over 3,500 skilled immigrants as they rebuild their professional careers in the U.S. It provides immigrant professionals with job-search and career-preparedness training, along with access to professional networks. This includes one-on-one advising from staff and volunteers, resume revision, interview preparation, and sometimes direct referral to open positions with employer partners.

In addition to working with jobseekers, Upwardly Global partners with employers to raise their awareness of the large pool of skilled immigrants seeking employment. This includes engaging their employees as volunteers, educating employers on recruitment and retention of immigrant professionals, and presenting screened jobseekers for direct hire positions. Zelle Hofmann is one such zealous partner. Similarly, Upwardly Global has initiatives to raise governmental and industry awareness of the difficulties foreign-trained professionals face when attempting to integrate into the U.S. workforce. Upwardly Global Job Seeker

Upwardly Global’s Leadership

Upwardly Global’s leaders, New York based executive director Nikki Cicerani, and San Francisco managing director Anne Kirwan, shared with us their personal connections to the American immigrant experience. Anne, a native of Ireland, has worked in Australia, New Zealand, many different European countries, and now the U.S. As she observes, “I come from a nation of emigrants—Ireland has a huge diaspora. I first left home in the 80s where there was 20% unemployment and very few jobs to be had—at one point, my family of five was scattered around five different continents.”

Similarly, Nikki’s roots are in a “classic immigrant story.” Her great-grandmother, an Italian-born immigrant, moved with her five children to the U.S. after her husband, a fisherman, died prematurely. Nikki’s great-grandmother was unable to support all her children, and Nikki’s grandfather became, as Nikki warmly describes, “the classic immigrant entrepreneur. In a single generation, he went from his mother not being able to afford her children, to himself creating an amazing life for my father and his brothers. It’s just part of that inspirational immigrant story.”

Both women, likewise, traveled varied paths involving both for-profit and non-profit work before working at Upwardly Global. Nikki holds a BA from Cornell University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. She has worked at Morgan Stanley and Ernst & Young, and on the social enterprise side has been involved with the Women’s Venture Fund, a New York City based workforce development program, and the SEED Public Charter School in Washington, DC. Anne attended Trinity College in Dublin, and has worked as a journalist, co-founded and led a publishing social enterprise, and has held various sales directorships in the IT sector. Both women have found a rewarding intersection of business and social good at Upwardly Global.

Challenges Immigrant Job-Seeking Professionals Face

Nikki and Anne described their work with passion: Upwardly Global teaches immigrant job-seeking professionals how to cope with an array of barriers to obtaining professional employment in their new home country. They may face systemic barriers, including the need for licensing and certification in regulated professions, such as in legal, medical, and engineering fields. They may also face personal challenges, like the need to immediately begin work in a survival job to support themselves and their families. However, there are also a host of more nebulous challenges for immigrant jobseekers. Potential employers may have difficulty assessing the foreign experiences and qualifications on an applicant’s resume, the applicant may be unfamiliar with job interview and application protocol, etc. Even cultural conventions most take for granted—such as what to wear to an interview in one’s profession or appropriate topics for small talk—may be unknown to a foreign jobseeker. Upwardly Global Job Seeker

As Nikki explains: “I think the most salient challenge has got to be the lack of a network. I think about my own experience. Here I am living in the U.S., but my family, which was my only network, could’ve helped me get a job as a meter reader or I could’ve gotten a truck route through them. But I was looking to leverage my Cornell education in a different intellectual capacity. It actually took my professor opening that door for me, and I look at our job seekers who come and they don’t even have their professors or former colleagues. And so it is very hard to be a stranger and try to make your way in the professional ranks in the U.S. It’s doubly hard when nobody has told you what social cues are expected—there’s a whole set of rules nobody has written down anywhere where they teach this formally. And I think that’s a real challenge because you can be out there with all the skills and aptitude but nobody is going to pick you up because you’re not communicating in the way that somebody can see.”

Having a support network is critical for newcomers’ morale. As Anne observed: “The difference between success and failure is so small, but it’s a critical difference. What can seem like a really small piece of advice may make all the difference between humiliation and success, between belonging or feeling like a permanent outsider. I think we don’t talk enough about the emotional dimension of being an immigrant—it’s not just about getting a job, but about learning how to thrive and survive in the U.S. And that’s what we’re helping people to do—to shorten their journey from struggle to success. A lot of people see UpGlo as family, and it really is like a big extended family. This is so important because there’s nothing worse than isolation and nothing better than being connected to opportunity and given a chance to succeed."

Why Diversity Matters

Nikki and Anne, and their work at Upwardly Global, remind us that diversity is an imperative for a variety of reasons. First, diversity contributes to the quality of ideas as people work together to achieve a common goal. As Nikki explains: “I really think it’s about diversity of perspective. It’s almost like a disruptive technology. You have to bring in the diversity of perspective in ways of thinking that creates disruption so that you can either reaffirm how and why you’re doing things or be challenged in them or learn how to incorporate even more perspectives in whatever solution you’re defining to solve the problem.” Upwardly Global Job Seeker

Nikki and Anne are also quick to point out what should be obvious—that diversity makes good business sense. As Anne explains: “It’s helpful to the bottom line. Any company that’s working in the Bay Area is either selling to a domestic market that’s a diverse market and they need to have people on their staff that can reflect, understand, and communicate with the customer base that they’re working with, and/or they’re a company that has international offices that need cultural competence and a diverse workforce to help them to move into those markets. It’s helping you to maintain your competitive advantage. It’s not just about diversity being a good thing—it’s a business imperative.”

Finally, there is also a strong equity case to be made for diversity. As Nikki believes: “Any time a group of people enjoy positions of power, those positions become most available to that same group because that’s who they network with, that’s who their children are, that’s who their children’s friends are. Whether it be conscious or subconscious, those positions remain in one group’s hands. It’s important for companies to hold their own feet to the fire because corporations play a major role in the larger society that we operate in. Because in the U.S. we value democracy and meritocracy, we have to make sure the more lucrative corporate opportunities are not accessible to only one group of people.”

Parting Thoughts

After talking with Nikki and Anne, and having worked firsthand with various immigrant jobseekers as volunteers, we are inspired and humbled by Upwardly Global’s success. Since Nikki started working for Upwardly Global, the organization has grown from making approximately forty placements annually to an anticipated four hundred this year. Even in the stagnant economy, it has maintained constant growth each year. And as its organizational infrastructure has grown, it has also become more efficient at achieving outcomes. As Nikki remarked: “We just had an independent economic study done of our results. They tracked a group of our program participants with a control group that did not participate. The study showed a 900% increase in our jobseekers’ salaries versus a fraction of that for the non-Upwardly Global participant. And, in terms of return on investment, for every dollar spent on our program, there was a 290% return in terms of what yields additional income to the individual as well as in tax revenue to the U.S.”

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Upwardly Global Logo
If you would like to learn more about Upwardly Global, their work, and how you could get involved, please contact Anne Kirwan at Anne@upwardlyglobal.org.