The title of the organization C.E.O. Women may deceiving at first. Its members are not CEOs. They are caterers, artists, and owners of massage businesses. But more than that-its members are entrepreneurs, women who have left behind their native countries and are now the bosses of themselves.
The C.E.O. in the organization’s title stands for “Creating Economic Opportunities.” Founded by Farhana Huq in 2000, the organization seeks to help low-income immigrant women become entrepreneurs and improve their livelihoods. It is one of several organizations in the Bay Area which help immigrants sustain themselves in business.
Huq estimates that over the years the organization has worked with over a 1,000 women. Of the women, 50% are from Central and South America and 30% are from Asia.
Huq was inspired to start C.E.O. Women by the struggles of the women in her family to make ends meet. She said her aunt had an arranged marriage when she was 17, which ended in divorce. While she was on welfare, she started a small salon in her own home.
“I saw her go from being dependent to having her own voice,” Huq said.
She said that many women out there need support to turn their ideas into economically viable ones. In addition, many have little confidence in their English skills.
To help these immigrant women, the organization has a 16-week training program that focuses on helping them with English business skills as well as entrepreneurship. After the program, the women are matched with volunteers who provide coaching and support. In addition, a number of small grants are given away each year to selected graduates.
Huq reports that 31% of the program graduates go on to start their own businesses, with 64% reporting an average income increase of $28, 000 per household and 93% reporting an increased confidence in speaking English.
“A lot of them want to start own businesses for the flexibility,” Huq said. “A lot of them want to provide better futures for children.”
It seems that many of C.E.O. Women’s graduates have been in abusive or bad relationships and marriages, some resulting in divorce. Many are single heads of their families. “I think that speaks a lot to why they want to be entrepreneurs,” Huq said. “They want to be in control instead of having something control them.”
Huq believes that immigrant women have it especially hard. As women, they are often “victimized by society.”. As immigrants, “they don’t know the cultural subtleties and nuances that are difficult to pick up.”
That’s where Upwardly Global comes in. Upwardly Global, a partner of C.E.O. Women aims to help immigrants to the U.S. continue their professional careers. Though all of the immigrants the organization helps have bachelor degrees, at least three years of experience in a professional environment, and good English, employers are often reluctant to hire them, meaning the immigrants resort to low-wage jobs. One of Upwardly Global’s jobseekers had a PhD but was working as a part-time cashier in a grocery store while one with seven years of experience in finance was doing hotel housekeeping. Upwardly Global aims to help these immigrants get back on track in their professions and has worked with over 1,000 people from more than 90 countries.
Executive director and founder Jane Leu said that immigrants often struggle because they are unfamiliar with the job search process in the U.S. “The hiring process is extremely self promotional,” Leu said.
Leu said that immigrants, often ones from Asia, come from cultures where modesty is valued, which can hurt them.
“Confidence manifests itself differently in Asian culture, so to employers, they can come across as less confident,” she said.
Additionally, immigrants lack professional networks. Often, employers are unfamiliar with foreign schools, unsure of what the “good schools” are abroad, leading to an unwillingness to employ immigrants.
To remedy this, the organization has four components: individual coaching, a six-week program on job search skills, pairing with a mentor from the same career field, and placement with employer partners. The organization also uses World Education Services to validate and interpret foreign college degrees.
During Upwardly Global’s time with its jobseekers, 40% are placed in jobs. The organization has at least 70 different employer partners in companies that look at Upwardly Global’s candidates.
In an era where companies are increasingly going international, Leu sees immigrants as offering unique talents like bilingualism and knowledge of international markets. Additionally, unlike many Americans, Leu said immigrants have a strong loyalty, working with companies for many years.
Still, jobseekers, even after working with Upwardly Global, can’t always return to the level of work they are used to. While some may have been directors of companies in their home countries, they may only be entering at management levels in the US.
“Being overqualified is definitely one of the setbacks,” Leu said. “Sometimes employees look at resumes and say ‘You’re overqualified,’ but the jobseekers are thinking, ‘I’m working as a nanny, how can I be overqualified?’ It’s a catch 22 because they won’t hire you because of lack of US experience, but they wont hire you so you can’t get that US experience.”
Often unwillingness to hire immigrants results from unfamiliarity with foreign standards. Leu gives an example of an accountant from Mongolia who employers were unwilling to hire, thinking she wouldn’t know American accounting standards. “Actually, the Mongolian accounting system was based on American accounting standards,” Leu said. “I don’t think Americans know how much other countries base their systems on American standards.”
Judy Cheng, a recent immigrant from China, found success through Upwardly Global which helped her find a job as a technical recruiter. Though she had eight years of work experience as a technical recruiter and a bachelor’s degree, she did not search the job market before coming to Upwardly Global, instead working as an assistant in a non-profit company. However, Upwardly Global helped her learn how to network, interview, and job search, eventually helping her return to her profession. “With their help, they made it easier for me to find a job in American culture,” Cheng said.