WeWork says it will hire 1,500 refugees over next five years
Office-sharing firm’s plan ‘not a political statement’
WeWork, the ambitious officesharing company that has expanded into nearly 60 cities and into brand extensions such as communal housing and a private elementary school, has a new ambition: Over the next five years, the New York-based co-working space turned lifestyle brand plans to hire 1,500 refugees globally as it seeks to fill jobs in its rapidly growing business.
The initiative, which follows an announcement that WeWork plans to hire a similar number of veterans, is in step with other high-profile efforts by companies to hire refugees. After President Trump issued his travel ban executive order in January, thenStarbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said the coffee behemoth would hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years, a plan that drew both cheers and criticism on social media, including some calls for a boycott. During last year’s election campaign, yogurt-maker Chobani was the target of politicized attacks for hiring refugees in its factories — but the move also drew applause from many others after headlines about CEO Hamdi Ulukaya’s advocacy.
WeWork chief executive Adam Neumann, who moved to the United States in 2002 after serving in the Israeli army, said the initiative is “not a political statement.” Rather, he said in an interview, it was launched out of a grass-roots effort and a desire to take an active role in solving a bigger problem.
A pilot program initiated by an employee, Fatima Duran, led to partnerships with organizations that resettle refugees, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the hiring of 50 refugees in “community service associate” positions. Their responsibilities range from daytime straightening and restocking of WeWork facilities — known for their beer taps, inspirational mottos and hipster vibe — to basic equipment support for members.
After 95 percent of the hires were still around nearly a year later, WeWork decided to expand the program and open it to other company positions. “Do I think people who need a good opportunity become harder workers sometimes? Yes,” Neumann said. The initial hires, he said, “had extremely high feedback from their co-workers, from their bosses and from our members. . . . I’m not surprised these employees were very good, but I had to prove it with data.”
The refugee initiative is one way the company — which reportedly has a valuation of $20 billion, placing it among the largest technology start-ups — is aiming to fill jobs amid rapid growth. Over the past two years, its employee headcount has nearly tripled, growing from 1,048 at the end of 2015 to 3,000 today.
A commitment to directly hire refugees is still rare for companies. According to the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which was founded by Ulukaya to support refugees, only about 10 percent of its 80 business members have made direct hiring commitments.
The refugees who have been hired so far hail from countries including Ethiopia, Guinea, Peru and Iraq. Joe Dugbo, who was hired at one of WeWork’s Midtown Manhattan locations in May through the IRC, said the job was his first after arriving this year from Liberia. His duties include stocking and cleaning the common area and coffee station, for which he is paid $15 an hour and receives benefits such as health insurance and some WeWork equity. “I’ve made a lot of friends with members,” Dugbo said of the companies and people that rent space at WeWork, including one with whom he plays basketball after work.
That relationship between refugees and WeWork’s corporate and individual members is one thing that could set WeWork’s initiative apart, said David Miliband, the IRC’s CEO and a former foreign secretary of Britain. (Hires for WeWork’s refugee initiative are expected to come from placements by the IRC and its partners.) The company intends to launch a website and encourage its network — some 20,000 companies rent space or have access to WeWork facilities — to hire or mentor refugees and direct them to organizations such as the Tent Partnership. “There’s some unique capacity here,” Miliband said. “The closest parallel would be a company that has an extensive supply chain.”