Jane Leu
Ashoka Fellow since 2005   |   United States

Jane Leu

Upwardly Global
In cities across America it is not uncommon for highly educated foreign-born professionals to be driving cabs or waiting tables. Meanwhile, the United States faces an impending skilled labor shortage.…
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This description of Jane Leu's work was prepared when Jane Leu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


In cities across America it is not uncommon for highly educated foreign-born professionals to be driving cabs or waiting tables. Meanwhile, the United States faces an impending skilled labor shortage. Jane Leu is opening up professional career opportunities for skilled immigrants at leading companies by helping the employers embrace an “upwardly global” outlook. The result will be full economic citizenship for immigrant professionals and a strong, diverse workforce prepared to compete in the global marketplace.

The New Idea

U.S. employers need the skills of foreign-born professionals but are not hiring them, while immigrant professionals are unable to secure positions that utilize their training and expertise. Through Upwardly Global (UpGlo), Jane Leu offers a new way for corporate America to recruit, hire and integrate foreign-born professionals into the U.S. workforce, while helping highly skilled immigrants, refugees and political asylees reclaim their careers. UpGlo is educating employers to adopt immigrant-friendly hiring practices, while preparing candidates with winning strategies for getting and keeping higher-paying, more fulfilling work. It is the only organization working to increase employment opportunities for skilled immigrants.

Jane is pioneering an employment model that builds understanding on both sides of the hiring equation. Her idea is to build demand for foreign-born professionals among leading companies, and help meet this demand with screened, qualified candidates who are prepared to succeed in the American workplace. This will enhance economic opportunities for and reduce discrimination against immigrant and refugee professionals. UpGlo addresses the problems of underemployment of immigrants by promoting global diversity among employers, and helping newcomers with professional backgrounds understand how to enter and succeed in the American workforce.

Faced with an impending labor shortage, the case for companies to hire immigrant professionals is compelling: immigrants are 50 percent more likely than Americans to have a graduate degree. Jane is positioning Upwardly Global as the Fortune 1000’s premier resource on immigrant inclusion. When these companies add the hiring of immigrants to their diversity goals, other employers will follow. And, when individuals placed by UpGlo succeed in senior level positions, they can change the attitudes of their co-workers, break down stereotypes, and open the way for the next level of immigrant-employees.

Jane envisions an America that once again values the innovation that newcomers bring. Her big vision is to create an American labor market that is not limited by ethnicity and values foreign education, expertise and talent. She hopes to break through the insularity of many American communities to welcome the diversity of other cultures.

The Problem

In the United States today, there are more than 242,000 immigrants who are underemployed. These permanent, legal immigrants have a BS/BA or above, from two to twenty years of professional experience, and are fully authorized to work here. In their home countries they were engineers, managers, accountants, educators, journalists, and nonprofit professionals. In the United States they are janitors, taxi drivers, nannies, security guards, and retail salesclerks. The job market does not offer foreign-born professionals a level playing field. They must clear extra, arbitrary hurdles to be eligible to sit for exams or obtain other credentials required to resume their professional careers. And, they lack the networks that help professionals find and access career opportunities.

The government agencies and the citizen sector agencies they engage have failed to address this need adequately. Each year almost one million immigrants, refugees and political asylees immigrate to the United States. After they pass through immigration services, the State Department contracts with agencies to help immigrants find employment. The process is largely a race to place immigrants (at a fixed rate per placement) in open job slots without regard for the individual’s education, training or experience. Placements generally focus on employers’ demand for entry-level workers. On average, initial wages are $6.50 per hour. Nonprofit agencies focus only on serving immigrant job-seekers, and for-profit agencies focus only on the needs of employers. Neither works to increase opportunities for foreign-born professionals.

As the baby boom generation retires from the workforce, the U.S. is facing a skilled labor shortage estimated to grow to 5.3 million workers by 2010 and 14 million by 2020. The prevalence of immigrants and Americans with college degrees is essentially the same, but among individuals employed in a professional capacity, immigrants comprise less than half of their American counterparts. Despite this untapped labor pool of legal immigrant professionals in the United States, American employers do not have the resources or cultural competency to evaluate the credentials of foreign-born candidates. Many leading employers have formal workforce diversity initiatives but few have made immigrant inclusion a part of these programs. This results in a “lost” first generation of highly skilled citizens and a mutual loss of economic opportunity.

Most Americans don’t value diversity or seek global experiences. Surprisingly few Americans travel outside the U.S.; in fact, only 15 percent of Americans even hold a passport! Fueled by the recent economic recession and the events of September 11, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments are widespread in the United States. National origin discrimination rose by 13 percent between 2001 and 2002 and continues to rise. For many immigrants with professional expertise, America is not a land of opportunity.

The Strategy

UpGlo currently provides top—notch candidates who are ready for employment to 70 corporate employers and places individuals in full-time, benefit-eligible jobs at an average annual salary of $35,000.

UpGlo clients pay a small lifetime membership fee to join a network of individuals—mostly refugees and asylees from the developing world—who seek appropriate, career-track employment. Each client is assigned a mentor in her field and completes a three-month program that includes job search workshops, online career resources and direct placement at employers in UpGlo’s network. Volunteer coaches (who are new American professionals) help job-seekers understand local employment practices. UpGlo’s state-of-the-art Web site allows employers and candidates in its network to post and review jobs and résumés. To find qualified candidates, UpGlo hosts job-seeker events and reaches out to foreign consulates, city college ESL classes, and immigration attorneys. All candidates are work-authorized, English and technology proficient, hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and are highly motivated to restart their professional careers. Through a third-party certification process, UpGlo helps employers understand the candidates’ foreign-gained credentials.

Many former clients become active in UpGlo’s alumni network, planning professional development and networking events. Professional success boosts self-esteem, and can embolden newcomers to take leadership roles in and beyond their communities. When there is a critical mass of alumni in a particular field, they will join forces to advocate for immigrant-friendly employment policies.

Jane’s strategy is to convince hiring managers at leading companies that professionals with multilingual skills, unique cultural competencies, and international experience will help their companies compete in a global marketplace. At the workplace, in annual seminars, in trade journals, and in national forums targeted to hiring managers and diversity directors, UpGlo promotes “best practices in immigrant inclusion.” UpGlo develops long-term relationships with corporate partners, building their capacity to evaluate the credentials and experience of foreign-born workers and create an environment in which new citizens can contribute to the organization’s culture. UpGlo’s “Winning with World Class Talent” toolkit is available online to its employer/partners and the 170,000 members of the Society of Human Resources Professionals through that organization’s Web site.

Jane is focusing on Fortune 1000 companies to create demand for immigrant professionals and set the pace for other employers. UpGlo created a new corporate membership for employers who become strong strategic partners. These partners are actively working with UpGlo to change their culture around immigrants. They not only hire immigrants, but also provide employee volunteers, serve on UpGlo’s Workplace Diversity Advisory Council, and provide financial and in-kind support. To join this “inner circle,” companies pay a corporate membership fee and agree to pay 10 percent of the first year salary of each employee placed by UpGlo; these fees will help UpGlo boost earned income to 40 percent in 2006. Members include Wells Fargo, Verizon Wireless, Symantec, BearingPoint,AAA of California (6,000 employees), BEA Systems, Google, Merrill Lynch, and Federal Home Loan Savings Bank.

Jane founded UpGlo during an economic downturn when jobs were scarce, and anti-immigrant sentiment was high. Still, the program met with significant success in the Bay Area, where UpGlo created a network of 1,200 employers, job-seekers, volunteers, and donors to help corporations bring foreign-born professionals into the workforce, and help these individuals adapt to and succeed in their new jobs. Now UpGlo is expanding to the New York metro area, home to more than 25,000 under employed skilled immigrants and the headquarters of 87 of the Fortune 1000 companies. With a favorable economy and a much larger market of employers and candidates in New York, UpGlo is poised to expand to the level Jane has long envisioned. UpGlo will reach national scale by opening a regional office in Miami and then spreading the model to other cities with a large population of skilled immigrants.

The Person

Jane’s great-grandparents emigrated from Europe to a small town in Ohio. At age six, Jane began working in her father’s German delicatessen. Jane enrolled in a French exchange program when she was 11 years old, helped start a Rotary International Interact Club in high school, and for the next 20 years sought out and learned from people around the world. But unlike Jane, she found that her community and most Americans did not value diversity, and would not seek opportunities to interact with people from other cultures. Jane saw that post-9/11, those attitudes were intensified.

In college, Jane studied German, international law, and European history and spent a year abroad in Germany the same year the Berlin Wall fell. After graduation she worked in Frankfurt for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper and she experienced immigrant integration issues while working at a German newspaper, where her limited language skills created a gulf between Jane and the staff. At the same time, she was being exposed to refugees coming into Germany from the Eastern Bloc and began to understand the needs of refugees seeking to be assimilated. Today she travels to the home countries of the people UpGlo serves, and meets Ashoka Fellows in those countries whenever possible.

From 1995 to 1997, Jane served as a consultant on the Kennedy School of Government’s “Going to Scale Project” (applying best private sector practices to the nonprofit sector). She helped to launch the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, a US$10-million research center at Harvard. At the same time, she was volunteering for the International Institute of Boston, where she met her husband, Ted Levinson, while both were helping refugees learn English and citizenship skills. From 1996 to 1999 Jane worked for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, analyzing welfare reform and immigration policy and consulting with and training refugee service providers nationwide. In this position she helped to launch seven refugee welfare-to-work programs across the United States. She saw that in this government-funded immigrant job placement system, speed was valued; quality was not. While scouting a poultry processing plant, Jane observed that the blue-collar supervisors included a Bosnian doctor and Iraqi engineer. She was frustrated by the lack of attention given to matching these individuals with employment appropriate to their expertise.

Jane wrote the UpGlo business plan while a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She founded UpGlo in 1999, and bootstrapped it for two years, with early support from Fortune 500 companies in the Bay Area. From 2002 to 2004, UpGlo attracted $700,000 of support, largely from a Draper Richards Foundation fellowship, grants from Fortune 500 companies and private foundations, and a stipend from Ashoka. Jane created Upwardly Global to provide opportunity for immigrant professionals worldwide. In 2004, Jane won the Manhattan Institute Social Entrepreneurship Award for “helping new Americans realize their full potential as citizens and members of society.”

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