By Going Rogue, WeWork Staffer Changes the Lives of Hundreds of Refugees

by Nikki Pepper

“I have to be honest with you,” says Fatima Duran. “I went a little bit rogue.”

As WeWork’s director of building services, Duran was having trouble filling positions on the cleaning staff for a new building in the Boston area. She knew there were plenty of qualified candidates but couldn’t figure out how to reach them.

Duran began to think about people who were struggling to find jobs. After all, this was part of her own history. In the early 1980s, her parents came to the United States to escape the ongoing civil war in El Salvador. They made sure she and her sibling knew what they had gone through.

“My parents were intentional on instilling our cultural heritage in us,” she explains.

Fatima Duran 1Fatima Duran (center) chats with Nazanin Toumadj and Pema Khorko of the International Rescue Committee.

Duran and colleague Santhiago DeVicente traveled to Boston to meet with the Jewish Vocational Services, an organization that provides services to workers from a diversity of backgrounds.

“That wasn’t how we usually did things,” Duran says. “We usually went through a more traditional process. But WeWork empowers us to break down walls and get things done. I thought, ‘What’s the worst that could come from this? Let’s try it.’”

After a single day of interviews, she filled all six positions. She knew she was on to something.

“That was definitely a turning point,” says Duran. “We hired people from places like Cuba, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Cape Verde. I’m not saying there weren’t challenges. But there was such an energy about how they came together. I’ve onboarded so many people at WeWork— in the hundreds — but this was the first time I’ve felt this level of excitement and gratitude. It was really something special to see.”

Fatima Duran“That wasn’t how we usually did things,” says Fatima Duran. “But WeWork empowers us to break down walls and get things done.”

After their success in Boston, Duran’s team started brainstorming about other organizations they could work with. Alex Feldman, a WeWork community manager, shared that his girlfriend, Nazanin Toumadj, worked for the International Rescue Committee. Duran had an idea: They had hired refugees in Boston –– why couldn’t they do the same thing in New York?

It turned out to be another fortuitous meeting. Working closely with two staffers there — Toumadj and Pema Khorko — Duran arranged for an open house for prospective employees sponsored by IRC. The turnout was beyond what she could have imagined.

“For the first time ever we had more offers to extend than openings,” she says. “There were 12 or 13 spots that we could offer that day, and more that we could offer for the following month.”

That led to the WeWork Community Hiring Initiative, a program to hire 1,500 refugees over the next five years. It originally launched in the US, but has already expanded to the UK.

Toumadj, an employment specialist at IRC, says WeWork’s initiative has changed the lives of many refugees she works with.

“It’s a remarkable opportunity for our clients,” she says. “It provides them with a positive work environment, valuable work experience, and comprehensive benefits.”

Duran has moved on to a new position at WeWork — she’s now director of operations for the company’s WeLive business line — but she’s enormously proud of piloting a program that helps people like her parents, who found jobs as a seamstress and a line cook after they moved to the US.

"They were and are still the hardest working people I've ever known,” she says. “My mother has never taken a sick day in her life.”

Although hiring 1,500 refugees sounds like an enormous task, Duran isn’t daunted.

“At WeWork, our strategy is always to break a project into pieces and do it bit by bit,” she says. “I know that this is going to be a piece of cake. We’ve accomplished harder feats.”

Photos: Katelyn Perry