Support for Refugee and Immigrant Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley

Immigrants are nearly twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born U.S. citizens[1]. A community initiative in Silicon Valley is now engaging the immigrant and refugee entrepreneurial spirit through a program focused on supporting potential new business founders.

The Pars Equality Center created the Pars Entrepreneurship Program as a response to a forum that it held; where newly-arrived refugees were invited to hear the stories of successful Iranian-Americans. Participants began asking for more tools, mentors, and practical advice on starting businesses.

Just a couple of years after it started, the Pars Entrepreneurship Program has already become wildly popular, shared Ellie Derakhshesh-Clelland, the Senior Director of Social Services at the Pars Equality Center. Shortly after creating an Entrepreneurship Program page on Facebook, the page had more than 3,000 followers. “That by itself is an indication of what a huge need there is for a program like this,” said Ellie.

“We sat down and brainstormed with aspiring entrepreneurs for about three months to find out what their needs were,” said Ellie.

The outcome is that Pars Equality Center now hosts bi-weekly meetings featuring experts and business founders who lead roundtable discussions about particular entrepreneurship topics. Topics range from how to incorporate a company to sales planning and fundraising. The group is currently at capacity, with some 50 refugees and immigrants who have been in the U.S. for 3 – 7 years in regular attendance. In addition, a group of mentors is available for individual questions outside of the larger group meetings. Pars Equality Center staff have been successful in finding subject experts and mentors through their personal networks and LinkedIn searches.

Although the group is diverse in age and professional background, one commonality is that “they all have an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Ellie. “They came to Silicon Valley with the hope of starting their own company.”

Twelve entrepreneurial initiatives, all tech-based, have blossomed since the program began. Participants practiced describing their business concepts at a recent Pitch Day event, where investors and advisors were invited to provide feedback. From there, eight participants were selected to take part in a meeting with a capital venture firm and three vendors. Ellie said that although investors expected young refugees and immigrants would need a lot of guidance, they were “in awe of their talent” and also learned new ideas from the entrepreneurs.

The Pars Equality Center is a community-based social and legal organization that focuses on integration of Iranian-Americans, immigrants and refugees.

Written by Carrie Thiele.


Webinar: Investing in Refugee Entrepreneurs

Join us May 17 at 1:00 PM EDT!

Studies show that refugee entrepreneurs, with community support and backing, contribute greatly to our local and national economies. In this webinar, Welcoming Refugees and Higher, an ORR technical assistance provider for refugee workforce development, will show you how to effectively communicate these contributions, support refugee entrepreneurs as part of your current work, and build greater community awareness and support.

In this webinar you will learn how to:

  • Communicate three ways that refugee entrepreneurs economically contribute to your community
  • Identify two ways that employment programs can support refugee entrepreneurs as part of your work
  • Articulate two concrete suggestions for ways that your organization can increase community awareness and support for refugee entrepreneurs

Featured Speakers:

  • Hannah Carswell, Program Manager, Welcoming America
  • Nicole Redford, Program Manager, Higher
  • Diego Abente, VP and Director of Economic Development Services, International Institute of St. Louis


Holiday Gift Guide – Any Recommendations?

Do you know of any businesses or products that should be featured in Higher’s annual holiday gift guide?  We have a great list started for this year’s guide, but it can always be better!  

Stay tuned for our annual holiday gift guide blog post. We’ll put all of your recommendations into one post to make your holiday shopping as easy as possible.  

Please submit your recommendations by commenting below or by contacting us.

Advice from Uber Drivers


Do drivers actually make any money through ride hailing applications (apps) like Uber and Lyft?

There’s lots of controversy around the business practices of Uber and Lyft. A lot of our clients do these jobs. Some of us might provide them information about the opportunity. Is it a good income generating option for our clients, though?

Click here for background information and a presentation that Catholic Charities in Arlington, VA shared with us in 2014.

I’ve been taking a lot of Ubers over the past three months since I broke my ankle in March, so I conducted an informal two question survey.

Question One: Are drivers really making any money after expenses and wear and tear on their vehicle?

Close to half of my 20+ drivers were first generation immigrants. Four were refugees or asylees.

Only threee said they kept detailed financial records or had solid information about whether they were actually making money after expenses.  One said he made enough to pay for his weekend motorcycle rides. The second said it paid for itself and he did it to stay connected in retirement. A third said he made money to augment his retirement income, but not enough to support a family.

What I found out isn’t scientific. I formed an opinion, though:

Driving for a ride share app can be a great second job and a way to build U.S. driving experience for a resume. It could also be an effective way to  practice English and customer service skills. Without multiple sources of customers and a chauffeurs license, I’m not convinced that it can generate a full-time living wage. If you do it right, you can make some income.

Question Two: Can you share any insider tips to help refugees around the country succeed in this job?

Some of these could help your clients make the right decision about driving for Uber and help them be more successful if they do.  Here’s what I learned:


one star Those 5 star rating emails are important.  If a driver falls below 4.5, they can be penalized or even fired.  Just a couple of 4 star ratings and one 2 or 3 can hurt you.  All of the drivers agree about this and offer different ways they try to get 5 stars every time.

  • Drive safely. If people are scared in your car, you won’t get a good rating.
  • Keep your car clean but don’t use those stinky air fresheners because many people are allergic.
  • Don’t dress like a slob – or like a jerk in a suit. Somewhere in between is the best.
  • Get out of the car to help them open the door or put their bags in the trunk.
  • There is not agreement about offering water, mints or wifi access, About half of the drivers surveyed had something like that in their car.


Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.55.52 AMPay attention to surge pricing and traffic patterns. You can make more money if you can drive more often when the rates are high, but they don’t stay high for very long.

  • My favorite driver, Eliades, came to the US from Cuba during the Mariel boat lift in the 80’s.  He doesn’t accept any requests for rides right before the daily afternoon surge so he doesn’t miss the higher rate and says he makes more money that way.
  • Uber has a trip calculator for customers to estimate the cost of the trip.  Three drivers used it to know if they wanted to accept a ride request to a far destination they didn’t know.
  • All of them agree that knowing the best roads to avoid traffic and not get lost is important.
  • There was no agreement about driving during rush hour or avoiding it.


Prfuel_meter_2006ofessional drivers know how to conserve fuel and be kind to their vehicle.  Several of the drivers I questioned had professional chauffeur licenses. That gave them a certain bias, but some of their advice made sense.

  • Don’t ever drive over the speed limit.
  • Don’t slam on the breaks when someone stops in front of you.  Slow down slowly.
  • Don’t gun the engine to get ahead when the light turns green.
  • Don’t keep a lot of extra junk in the trunk of your car  Extra weight burns more gas.
  • When you’re waiting for a customer (idling) for more than 5 minutes, turn off the engine.
  • Keep your tires fully inflated and keep your car well maintained.



customerserviceCustomer service is the most important thing.  Everyone I asked agreed on this but it was the hardest to explain.  You have to like meeting lots of people.  If you don’t, you probably won’t be an Uber driver very long.

  • Always be polite and friendly.
  • Don’t make or accept cell phone calls while you are driving someone.
  • Don’t ever get mad or take their behavior personally.  Just think about the 5 stars.
  • You have to be able to read their mood quickly and adjust your behavior to match it.  If they don’t want to talk, don’t do it.  If they don’t like your music, change it. If they’re cold or hot, change the temperature in the car.


Workforce Collaboration Case Study: Co-location at Two American Job Centers

Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington, VA (CCMRS) stations two Employment Specialists part time at two American Job Centers.  This strategy delivers expanded refugee access to mainstream workforce resources and illustrates success factors that make colocation beneficial for clients, American Job Centers and CCMRS.

Read the case study online or download a PDF version if you prefer. You will learn

  • the advantages of locating Employment Specialists in an American Job Center;
  • how one CCMRS client accessed entrepreneurship training and, as a result, was able to open his own small business;
  • some of the program details and service access that can be adjusted for seamless client service access; and
  • the American Job Center perpective on this successful collaboration strategy.
About Higher’s Workforce Collaboration Case Study Series

This case study, written by professional writer and former CCMRS Job Developer Erin Voorheis, is one of five that Higher will make available over the coming months to help us all learn from each other about successful strategies for strengthening our collaboration with the mainstream workforce system so that refugees can better access workforce services provided across the country for all U.S. job seekers.

If you are collaborating with the workforce system in your community and want to share what you’re learning with peers across the country, get in touch at


Innovative New Businesses Combine Refugee Entrepreneurship and Food

eat offbeat

Eat offbeat founders and their refugee chefs. Photo credit: Eat Offbeat

Food traditions are important links for refugees to their culture and former lives. No matter what they have left behind, food and cooking is always a part of their lives.  Sharing food and the traditions associated with it are common across all cultures.

Entrepreneurial skills and traditions are also strong in the collective refugee experience. Combining those two strengths into new business opportunities has powerful potential.

Here are two examples of immigrant entrepreneur start-up businesses that employ refugees to cook, sell and deliver their food using web-based technology.




The New “Gig Economy”: Home-based Work Opportunities for Refugees?

homeClose your eyes and picture this:  Stay-at-home mothers contribute to family income.  Older refugees find meaningful work that doesn’t require physical strength or English language skills.  You offer part time, flexible second job options for clients who want to earn extra money.

A beautiful day dream?  Well, yes, but Higher has researched some new resources and ideas worth considering!

Licensure to provide home-based child-care, driving for Uber and social enterprises (like Worn for Peace) prove to be great options that are familiar in our network, but they don’t work everywhere. Each State has different licensure requirements for home-based child care. Uber isn’t offered everywhere and requires a car, drivers license and English, among other barriers. Social enterprises, like any other small business, require strong skills and a significant investment.

The gig economy and peer to peer commerce refer to business models (like Uber), often interet-based, that match people with an asset or skill to offer with potential buyers.  Wer’e not the only ones considering how these concepts can be appled to the populations we support.  While a recent article in emphasizes the potential benefits this recent phenomenon offers for women, you can easily substitute refugees and it still makes sense. gigecon

Many of the new ideas and options we found involve call-centers, technical writing or other very specific skill sets most of our clients don’t yet have in their initial resettlement period. None of them offer convincing claims of full-time income.

Products and Models to Explore

Here are some home-based job opportunities and web-based concepts to explore that seem more promising as additional income-generating and part time employment options:

Crafts to Cash.  After an easy registration process, Crafts to Cash will send you supplies to make one sample of several products. You pay for the initial sample kit.  If you return a finished product that meets their standard, there are different fee structures and ways to get additional supplies and earn money by the piece for production.

Example:  Several years ago as a Refugee Employment Specialist, I tried a similar idea to produce fishing lures by the piece.  We thought it would be great for Burmese stay-at-home moms to help with family income.  Long story short, we invested $60 in an initial test kit and worked with a volunteer interpreter to help two Burmese women (and me) learn how to make our first test product. Even with an instructional video, none of us could produce more than a complete mess.  We gave up, but the idea could work well with a simpler product and the help of an intern or volunteer with more time (and manual dexterity) to dedicate to getting the idea off the ground.

Task Rabbit.  This web-based service connects clients and services in a model similar to Uber or AirBNB.  People with skills and interest in task-based work are matched with those with tasks to outsource.  (Think errands, light household chores, handyman work, assembling Ikea furniture or packing to move).  The service screens all participants and coordinates fees and payment transfers.  It’s currently operational in 18 cities, including many where refugees are resettled (e.g.  Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles).  Hello Alfred is a different service offering similar types of services.

Tutoring could be a solid option for clients with the appropriate skill-sets and English language skills.  A quick google search will give you local options or on-line brokering services like that match skilled tutors to clients.  Skills could include math or other academic subjects, playing musical instruments, speaking a second language, knitting or sewing.

For lower-skilled clients, auto-detailing, cake baking, babysitting or pet care might be good options. Some clients may be able to offer those services independently.  Most would probably be more successful with marketing and organizational assistance from a volunteer or community partner.

Are you also thinking about how to help refugees capitalize on this trend?  Have ideas or experience to share?  Get in touch at

Surprising Restaurant Industry Stats [Infographic]

Restaurant Snip TwoDid you know that 52% of dishwashers surveyed would like to work additional hours?  Given the frequently parttime nature of this common starter job for our clients, this statistic isn’t surprising.

A useful infographic from the National Restaurant Association offers several facts that are surprising about upward mobility, employee longevity and a strong pathway to small business ownership.  Click here for a PDF version.

The visual presentation and strong factual evidence could help resistant clients better appreciate where entry level restaurant jobs can lead.

Thanks to HR Bartender, where I found the resource.  You can read much of the source research for the infographic here.



Great New Job Idea: Uber or Lyft

lyft uberUber and Lyft, ride share taxi-alternatives, offer opportunities for our clients to make extra income and add relevant US work experience to their resumes.

Lansing, Oklahoma City or Amarillo, you can explore this strategy for your clients, too.  One or both of them are offered across the US – and not just in the obvious metropolitan areas.

Requirements include a smart phone, late model four-door vehicle, ability to accept direct deposit payments, customer service and English language skills, as well as some level of tech savvy.

This innovative idea comes from Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington, VA. They are working with a huge influx of Afghan SIVs, one of whom came up with the idea.  CCDA responded quickly with a well-researched training session to help more clients explore the possibilities. They shared the cool presentation they used (access it here), put together by intern Ijeoma Osakwa.

I wonder if this could also be a transportation solution to help clients access jobs when public transportation isn’t an option?

Higher would love to hear about others who already spotted this great idea or how it goes now that the secret’s out.


Microloans for Refugees in Colorado

World Refugee Day

Image credit: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

A recent article in the Denver Post (click here) highlights the potential and entrepreneurial spirit many refugees bring with them.

Our system is very different, but the qualities that make a successful entrepreneur are the same.

Commonly listed traits include tenacity, tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility and comfort with risk – all essential to survival along the journey most of our clients made to arrive in the US.