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Chobani’s founder is launching a business mentorship program for LGBTQ refugees

Hilton, IBM, Under Armour, and Warby Parker are just a handful of the companies that have signed on to Tent’s and the Human Rights Campaign’s new initiative to help new arrivals integrate into the job market.

Chobani’s founder is launching a business mentorship program for LGBTQ refugees
[Source Image: jesadaphorn/iStock]
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Same-sex relationships are still criminalized in 69 countries—and punishable by death in nine. Faced with this persecution, many LGBTQ people have to leave their home nations without their families, and seek asylum elsewhere. Because they often arrive alone, uprooted, and sometimes suffering trauma, they can encounter unique barriers and discrimination as they try to build a new life far from home.

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A nonprofit organization, Tent Partnership for Refugees, is launching a new program to help those refugees better integrate, using professional mentorships. Approximately 1,250 LGBTQ refugees will be matched with mentors from some of the world’s biggest companies in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to help them boost their professional profiles, find quality jobs, and flourish in their new home. Gaining employment, says Hamdi Ulukaya, Tent’s founder, and also the founder and CEO of yogurt company, Chobani, is such a vital part of settling into a new country. “The minute a refugee has a job, that’s the minute they stop being refugee,” says Hamdi.

Tent, which announced the program in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign today at a virtual event, works with the business community to improve the lives of refugees forcibly removed from their homes. In 2016, as Trump ramped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric on the way toward winning the presidency, it became clear to many that the private sector had a growing role to play in alleviating the expanding refugee crisis. In June of that year, President Obama made an explicit call to action for the private sector to develop new tangible commitments to refugees—and Ulukaya responded to that call. Now, Tent works with 130 well-known companies in countries around the world to encourage them to hire refugee employees, support refugee entrepreneurs, and integrate refugee businesses into their supply chains.

But this is the first time Tent is implementing a mentorship program, and the LGBTQ community seemed to be an ideal fit for the style of project. Ulukaya, who immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey, says the immigrant journey is “unknown” and “frightening,” and he wishes he’d had a mentor figure. “Having that access to someone just for sharing the experience, sharing the knowledge, showing the way, and being a buddy,” he says, “is extremely, extremely meaningful.” That’s even truer, he says, for the most vulnerable communities, such as LGBTQ refugees.

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To build the program, a network of local organizations in about 10 to 20 large cities across North America will match the refugees they work with to mentors within the registered companies that have signed up to volunteer. Mentors will not necessarily have to be LGBTQ, says Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the U.S., which will be providing Tent with guidance and support for the new project. David himself was a refugee from Liberia, who later came out as gay once he arrived in the U.S.. “We’re looking for people who are astute, who appreciate the value of diversity, and have the technical soft skills and the professional networks to help LGBTQ refugees succeed,” he says.

Mentors will be asked to commit to meeting their mentees at least four times over the course of a year, for separate sessions in career planning, writing resumes and cover letters, interview skills, and networking. Mentors will be using a specially created guidebook, commissioned by the Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration, on how best to advise mentees, but the sessions will still be tailored to the specific experiences of the refugee. The experience will also serve as a chance for mentors to learn about the stories of refugees and the de facto discrimination they face even in the countries they’ve arrived in. Ulukaya hopes it’ll be a step toward society understanding that, despite the political rhetoric, refugees are entirely enriching to the community.

Tent wants companies to commit to help at least 50 LGBTQ mentees over the course of three years. So far, 23 companies from various sectors have signed up, including Chobani, Accenture, Hilton, Scotiabank, IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, Under Armour, and Warby Parker—and Ulukaya is confident that more signups are on the way. While the businesses won’t be making hiring commitments at this point, Ulukaya hopes it will happen organically once the mentorships are in full swing. He adds that he thinks it’ll be good for business, in that their volunteer work will attract consumers and jobseekers who are impressed with the progressive steps the companies are taking.

One of the companies, Canadian bank CIBC, internally spread the word of the upcoming launch, and has since had more than the required 50 potential mentors expressing interest. “As a gay South Asian immigrant to Canada,” says Sam Kochhar, an associate for CIBC’s Technology Leadership Advancement Program, “I have lived firsthand through the experience of starting from scratch and building my professional network, and understand the important role mentorship plays in career success.”

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Even as Tent is encouraged by the Biden administration’s intention to significantly raise the refugee cap and restore a sense of compassion to plights of asylum-seekers, the private sector still needs to play a huge part, says Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during Obama’s first term, and who’s also on Tent’s advisory board. She emphasizes the importance of conducting the mentorships within the business realm, so that refugees can start to work and finally regain control over their lives. “What they want is what they had,” she says. “They want to be able to fend for themselves and their families. The essence of retrieving your dignity is being able to work.”