Making Dreams Come True

Highly educated and experienced professionals from developing countries often have themselves out as taxi drivers or dishwashers. An enormous loss for America, says Jane Leu. She places immigrants in jobs that match their skills.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Robert Huber (photos)

christian_rey.jpgChristian Rey gazes expectantly northward beyond the railing. Leaden clouds hang over the passenger ferry that brings him from Staten Island over to Manhattan. The skyline of his dreams inches closer with each swell of the waves. Rey is striving for a job in one of those glass skyscrapers. In his earlier days in Costa Rica, he managed asset investments for other people, arranged IPOs and structured debt. Now the investment banker is seeking a “better life in New York.”

His dark hair is freshly trimmed, his checkered shirt is starched and his shoes are polished. He wants to make a good impression on the personnel departments at US investment banks in order to “finally put my expertise to work,” says the 34-year-old Rey. He has been looking in vain for employment for 10 months. He thought his solid education and multifaceted professional experience would quickly land him a job. Moreover, he holds a work visa through his American wife. “I thought it would be easy,” Rey explains.

He was mistaken. He had underestimated the enormous cultural differences that jobseekers face. Whereas in Costa Rica an employer looks solely at qualifications, achievements are all that count in the US. Rey wondered for a long time why nobody responded to his resume. “It was composed completely wrong,” he now knows. A curriculum vitae must resemble an enticing sales brochure, not a chronological outline. “Boasting is considered rude in my country,” he explains in nearly accentless English. “In the US you constantly have to promote yourself.”

jane_leu.jpgRey is currently learning how to do just that from Jane Leu, the founder of the nonprofit organization Upwardly Global. It’s early Saturday morning on New York City’s Park Avenue. Leu is conducting a seminar for jobseekers. The petite, enthusiastic woman speaks quickly and succinctly. When she pauses, her glance settles on the silvery shimmer of the Chrysler Building outside the window. “It’s tragic when engineers have to drive taxis to make a living.” Leu places highly qualified immigrants from developing countries in appropriate jobs in the US. She’s convinced that her efforts benefit the newcomers as well as the US economy. American businesses profit from the settlers’ knowledge and international experience. In turn, Leu says, she enables immigrants to build a “dignified life in their new homeland.”

Learning American Customs

And she is indeed successful at that. Leu, whose ancestors came to the US from Schaffhausen, Switzerland, started Upwardly Global in 2001 in her kitchen. Today she employs a staff of 13 in offices in New York City and San Francisco. Her budget has swollen from 267,000 dollars in 2005 to 1.6 million this year. To date, Upwardly Global has served 500 jobseekers from around the world and that number is expected to rise to 900 this year. That’s the most important success indicator for Leu. “It makes me happy when others are happy,” she says.

Most of the immigrants who come to Leu first need a confidence boost. “Many have to overcome an emotional hurdle to accept help,” she underlines. Frequently, she adds, she receives immigrants who have been searching for a job for years, all the while carrying a crumpled article about Upwardly Global in their pocket. Using reallife success stories, Leu shows them that it really is possible to obtain a job. She then Americanizes their resumes, for instance by reinserting the PhD degree that someone deleted for a job application to McDonald’s. She also teaches the foreign aspirants American customs and techniques for the crucial job interview. Finally, a mentor orients the job applicants toward their desired profession. “Sixty-five percent of jobs are landed via personal connections – connections that these immigrants lack,” Leu explains. “We connect them with America.”

Ethnic Diversity Enhances Profits

In the mid-’90s, Leu dealt with asylum seekers and encountered fully outdated structures. The US was geared to absorbing refugees from Southeast Asia, uneducated rice growers who arrived in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and quickly found work on American farms. But Leu was confronted with attorneys from Serbia, bankers from Bosnia and engineers from Somalia. “Those skilled professionals lacked cultural understanding as much as they lacked knowledge of America on the whole.”

Her organization aimed to build the missing bridges. Whereas it proved easy to integrate Western Europeans after World War II, today there is an absence of understanding for highly qualified workers from developing countries. “That’s an enormous loss for America,” laments Leu, who emphasizes that she is not running a charity. “It pays to hire foreign experts,” she drills into the companies she helps to staff. The US economy faces a shortage of 10 million professionals in 2010. “Immigrants can close that gap.” A company finds its way faster in the global market if its workforce is ethnically and geographically diverse. The firm becomes more dynamic. “Ethnic diversity enhances profits,” Leu stresses.

Network of 300 Volunteers

jose_sanchez.jpgJosé Sanchez sits tensely at a round wooden table. The Colombian has spiffed himself up for a practice interview. His clipped mustache accentuates his friendly visage. He wears a black tie against a black shirt. In 2002, the engineer married an American woman and moved to New York. He has struggled to survive ever since, jobbing as a dishwasher, waiter, porter and janitor. Sanchez, 37, currently apprehends shoplifters at a Home Depot superstore. He says his 10-year career in Colombia’s financial world had “no significance in the US.”

Sanchez peers intently into the eyes of his interviewers. Public relations specialist Jeizel Pickett, 27, and investment banker Michael Fox, 28, lead the conversation. Both belong to the network of roughly 300 volunteers built up by Upwardly Global. Fox begins by inquiring, “What do you expect from the new job?” Pickett quickly discovers that Sanchez oversaw a staff of 16 in Colombia. At Home Depot, the foreigner supervises a dozen other watchmen, all Americans. “What are your strengths?” asks Fox, an Englishman who works in New York for Goldman Sachs. “I can motivate people,” Sanchez replies, adding that his present job requires a high degree of cultural awareness. “We have Jewish and Islamic customers, and I make sure not to touch or stare at anyone.”

Sanchez sells himself far too badly, the mock interviewers note in their subsequent evaluation, commenting that his resume made no mention of his leadership skills and that he barely advertised them during the interview.

When Gestures and Eye Contact Suddenly Matter

A form of behavior Jane Leu encounters all too often, she explains, is that immigrants are not accustomed to dominating a conversation. They are quickly written off as insufficiently focused. The frequently posed question, “What was your biggest failure?” bewilders them, Leu notes. “In many places, failures are taboo.” Often their body language also misfires. Christian Rey, the banker from Costa Rica, was dumbfounded for instance by the way hands or eye contact are scrutinized during an interview. “I wasn’t used to being judged by my gestures.”

sandra_plaza.jpgSandra Plaza sits serenely in a windowless 34th-floor conference room on 58th Street. She’s wearing a stylish checkered pantsuit, her black hair falls onto her shoulders, she speaks engagingly and confidently. “I have made it.” Law books surround her. The 36- year-old Colombian has been working on immigration cases for New York law firm Akst & Akst since November.

The attorney emigrated to the US six years ago for political reasons. “My life was in danger,” she says, without disclosing why. She briefly tells her story. “A success story,” she underlines. She came over with her daughter and husband, an engineer. None of them spoke English. The family received asylum and started again from square one. She babysat and her husband drove heavy trucks “to survive,” recounts Plaza, who dropped “several rungs down the social ladder” in her new country. In Colombia she had a chauffeur, a gardener and a maid. Here she first had to pass the driver’s test and buy a vacuum cleaner.

Changing diapers for other people’s children was “deeply dissatisfying” to the lawyer. But she never lost her focus on “building our life,” she notes. Her English improved and she ultimately discovered Upwardly Global. The organization revamped her resume and instructed her on American customs.

Learning to Look the Boss Straight in the Eye

She is learning to elicit respect with firm handshakes, Plaza says adding that nobody in Colombia would ever use that gesture as a greeting. Whereas it is considered improper to look a Colombian boss in the eye, Plaza now constantly seeks eye contact. “In the US it signals that you are open and direct.” She was previously accustomed to always sharing her professional achievements and talking about them in the third person. “Here it’s ‘I’ not ‘we’ that counts,” Plaza underscores. “It’s all about yourself. You have to be the greatest.”

A mentor eventually connected her with George Akst, a New York attorney who has spent a 30-year career of procuring visas for immigrants. Akst says that he hired Sandra Plaza “because as an immigrant herself, she brings the sensitivities that are important to my clients.” Plaza hopes to obtain a New York state attorney’s license soon, and if all goes well, to open her own law office.

She owns an apartment in Stamford, Connecticut, an hour’s train ride from Manhattan. Spanish is a second language for her daughter. Only her husband has difficulty with English. He is still working as a truck driver. Nonetheless, Plaza says, for her America has become “the land of limitless opportunities. You just need to seize them.”

The Classic Dishwasher Career

waspada_peranginangin.jpgFrom his office, Waspada Peranginangin looks out over the construction site at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood. He works as an internal auditor on the 21st floor of the headquarters of finance house JP Morgan Chase. The 33-year-old banker immigrated five years ago from Indonesia. The US granted him asylum on grounds of religious persecution. That marked the start of an odyssey of several years across the country that was supposed to give him “a better life.” The journey took him from Los Angeles to Seattle and on to extended stops in Chicago, Milwaukee, Houston, Salt Lake City, and finally New York. The university graduate scrubbed floors, washed dishes, served hamburgers and cola. He brewed coffee for Starbucks and assembled sandwiches for Subway. “Life was getting me down,” recalls Peranginangin, who had done challenging work in Jakarta as a consultant and auditor for international corporations. “In the US,” he says, “I was a prisoner. I wanted to share my skills with this country, but without a US college degree or local experience, I didn’t have a chance.” To get those credentials, he took courses at New York University. He grew bored, as he knew more than the teacher. A friend sent him an article about Upwardly Global. He contacted the organization “without any expectations,” Peranginangin recounts.

Jane Leu promptly helped him to “shore up my battered selfconfidence,” he says. “She taught me to promote myself.” After just a month, he received offers from JP Morgan in two cities. He decided on New York, the financial metropolis. “I was speechless,” he says, especially since he received a bonus on top of a high salary and free health insurance cover. “I have reached my goal, I’m working in America for a US firm.”

Strict Separation Between Private and Professional Life

Immigrants who turn to Upwardly Global double their incomes on average. To date, the organization has arranged job placements that pay annual salaries ranging from 25,000 dollars to 85,000 dollars. “I would earn more if I had stayed in Europe,” counters Olena Lysenko. The 26-year-old Ukrainian sits in a café in the Metrotech office complex in Brooklyn. Her wavy blond hair is tied back in a ponytail. She studied economics at the diplomatic university in Kiev and earned an MBA in the Bavarian city of Coburg. Besides Russian and Ukrainian, she also speaks German and English fluently. She once worked on the finance committee of the Ukrainian parliament and as an expert consultant for her home country’s largest bank, Prominvestbank.

olena.jpgMoreover, she is “young, bright, ambitious and globally minded.” Altogether, she thought, that would be enough to quickly land her a job in the world capital of high finance, especially since she is married to an American and holds a green card. Olena Lysenko was wrong though. She lacked what immigrants often lack – an understanding of American ways. She calls the differences “tremendous.” “I often feel like I’m from another planet.” She was unaccustomed, for instance, to the strict separation between personal and professional matters. Jane Leu couldn’t help but grin when she saw the photo that Lysenko stapled to her resume – an absolute taboo in the US business world. What’s more, she brought along all of her academic awards and diplomas to her initial job interview in an effort to impress the prospective employer. All for naught. “No one wanted to see them.” Lysenko has been processing treasury transactions and managing pension fund accounts at JP Morgan Chase since September. “An entry-level job,” she says. “As a foreigner, I have to begin at the bottom even though I’m better educated than higher-placed Americans.” That’s the price that immigrants pay, she adds. Anyway, she does not intend to stay in New York forever. She plans to start a family in the Ukraine. “I want to learn something here that I can then pass on to my homeland.”

Jane Leu Wants to Go Global

That makes Lysenko an atypical candidate for Upwardly Global. Jane Leu purposely handles only visa-holding immigrants from developing countries who want to stay in America. Half of them are refugees who were forced to flee their homelands. Leu says that she doesn’t concern herself with Western Europeans who move to the US “They come to change their lifestyle, and they don’t need my help for that.”

Leu intends to open a third and fourth branch office soon, and to export her concept to Australia and the UK. “Globalization not only moves goods, it also displaces people, many of whom are highly skilled,” she says. She wants to remedy the huge insecurity this causes on labor markets worldwide, she explains. “I’m obsessed with solving problems,” Leu says in describing her zeal. Her drive likely stems from her upbringing in a business household. Her parents ran a butcher shop in Cleveland, Ohio.

christian_rey_open.jpgChristian Rey squints into the icy wind that sweeps over the Hudson River. His voice betrays frustration. He is still unemployed. “If someone gives me a chance, I can show what I can do,” he says. Rey is certain that once his foot is in the door, he too would have a shot at one of the famously fat bonuses that beckon on Wall Street. He is not giving up and is not thinking of moving to Miami, even though the Costa Rican would presumably have better chances there. US banks conduct business with Latin America from Florida. He wants to make it in New York. Because “Sinatra was right. If you can make it in New York, you’ll make it anywhere,” Rey stresses.