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Upwardly Global Gala Celebrates the Contributions of Immigrants and Refugees

Oct 5, 2021 | FirstGen


Photo by Tim Pierce

Photo by Tim Pierce

By Justin Chapman

Upwardly Global, the nonprofit organization that recently partnered with Alya Michelson’s FirstGen Initiative to support a cohort of immigrant women as they rebuild their careers in a new country, held its annual gala recently to celebrate the contributions of immigrants and refugees.

Each year, Upwardly Global recognizes leaders who have advanced opportunity and supported immigrants and refugees in our country. The 2021 gala was a celebration of immigrant contributions that have helped develop a COVID-19 vaccine, supported healthcare and general frontline response, and kept the country going. Watch the full event here.

“The importance of opening the world’s hearts, minds, and homes to welcome everyone is critical to creating a better, more inclusive future,” said Vicky Nguyen, NBC News investigator and consumer correspondent, who opened the program. “Upwardly Global is endeavoring to lead this charge, creating career services and opportunities to help thousands of Afghans coming in.

“This is an opportunity to share our stories, our experiences, our resources, and expertise,” she continued. “This is the moment to forge a new future for the immigrants and refugees who transform our society, our economy, and who meet the moment for a more inclusive world filled with transformative opportunities for everyone. You are here to celebrate Upwardly Global’s work, from job coaching to skills building programs, networking, and much, much more that help to transform opportunity.”

The gala provided honoree awards to Harit Talwar, chair of consumer business at Goldman Sachs; Shaun E. Smith, senior vice president and chief people officer at New York Presbyterian; and Heloisa Maruch, an Upwardly Global alumna and legal integration lead at Accenture. Other featured speakers included U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and comedian Bassem Youssef.

“Our honorees are taking bold steps to hire and support immigrants and refugees,” a statement by Upwardly Global read. “Their leadership is vital to overcoming barriers to inclusion and opportunity for our community and embracing the full diversity of our country.”

Michelson said the Michelson Philanthropies FirstGen Initiative is proud to support the vital work of Upwardly Global.

“The cohort of immigrant women professionals in the Career Skills Program, sponsored by FirstGen, is a very diverse group with impressive, established careers even before they came to the United States,” she said. “Upwardly Global has provided the support network and resources they need to thrive in their adopted home, which needs their thought leadership. Upwardly Global and FirstGen are helping to shift the conversation about immigration to one that recognizes the contributions of immigrant women. Hearing uplifting stories during the gala solidifies our need to continue to support organizations such as Upwardly Global.”

Jina Krause-Vilmar, executive director of Upwardly Global, said the organization was founded 20 years ago to address a persistent challenge: how to help newcomers—immigrant and refugee professionals—access opportunity and unleash their potential so that they do not have to start from the bottom and or start from scratch. Recently, Krause-Vilmar was the featured guest on the inaugural episode of Michelson’s new podcast series, “A Beautiful Journey.”

“The past year has been challenging for all of us,” Krause-Vilmar said. “Yet we’ve seen immigrants on the front lines in health care, technology, business, and logistics, helping us weather the storm of this pandemic. What we’ve seen this year is the perseverance and the resilience of our communities.”

“Empowering immigrants and refugees, providing them with the systems to assimilate, helping them when they need us the most, is not merely a moral imperative, but it helps define and shape who we are, our character as people and society.”

—Harit Talwar

Senator Durbin pointed out that the pandemic has been especially hard on immigrant communities.

“As the virus spreads, so has racism and xenophobia,” he said. “This rise in harassment and discrimination is absolutely unacceptable. Now more than ever, we must ensure that immigrants coming to this country have career pathways they deserve. That’s what you’ve done for 20 years at Upwardly Global. The people who graduated from your program are among the thousands serving on the frontlines against the pandemic.”

In accepting the honoree award, Talwar called immigration both a moral and economic issue with overwhelming synergistic benefits to both immigrants and society.

“Yes, occasionally, immigration does create some challenges, especially in the short term,” he said. “That, however, should strengthen our resolve to ensure we address these challenges thoughtfully with sensitivity, empathy, candor, and open, constructive debate. Because in the long arc of history and time, we do know that bringing ourselves together, bringing people together, is better than not. Empowering immigrants and refugees, providing them with the systems to assimilate, helping them when they need us the most, is not merely a moral imperative, but it helps define and shape who we are, our character as people and society.”

Smith, another honoree, got together with his colleagues at New York Presbyterian and partnered with Upwardly Global to create a program in which 100 of Upwardly Global’s clients were trained to participate in the hospital’s vaccine program.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of all of us to be able to ensure that we’re starting to remove the stigma and barriers, including education barriers, that prevent us from having talented people get to work in the United States,” Smith said. “I’m honored to be able to have the opportunity to play a little part here in the success of Upwardly Global and our ability to ensure that we’re putting people to work.”

Maruch, the final honoree, participated in Upwardly Global in 2014. She went on to work at Accenture, where her career has flourished. She dedicates her free time to helping other immigrants such as herself. She talked about the challenges she faced as an immigrant in the U.S. job market.

“When I arrived in the United States in 2012, I started very strong with a good resume, two bachelor’s degrees, a lot of experience at well-known companies, and I thought, ‘What could go wrong, right? That sounds perfect,’” she said. “Well, went into the job market, and I didn’t get a lot of positive responses.”

Upwardly Global helped her navigate cultural differences and rebuilt her confidence so she could go back into the workforce. Now she pays that forward to other immigrants who have similar experiences.

“It’s so meaningful when you get into a room of 100 job-seekers who can totally relate to you, and you’re able to show them there is a path forward,” she said. “There is a way to go back to the workforce. I hope we can inspire others to give their time, their donations. Transforming opportunity needs everyone involved.”