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Office sharing giant WeWork plans to hire 1,500 refugees over the next five years

A WeWork co-working space in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

WeWork, the ambitious office-sharing company that has expanded into nearly 60 cities and into brand extensions like 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 it plans to hire a similar number of veterans, is in step with other high-profile efforts by companies to hire refugees. After President Trump announced his travel ban executive order in January, then-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said the coffee behemoth planned to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years, a move that drew cheers and criticism on social media, including calls for a boycott by some. During last year's election, 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 CEO Adam Neumann, who moved to the United States in 2002 and served in the Israeli army, said the move 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 resettled refugees, such as the International Rescue Committee, and the hiring of 50 refugees in positions known as "community service associates." Their responsibilities range from daytime straightening and restocking of WeWork's facilities -- known for their beer taps, inspirational mottos and hipster vibe -- to basic equipment support for members.

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After 95 percent of the hires were still around nearly a year laterWeWork 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 has been reported to have a valuation of $20 billion, placing it among the largest technology startups -- 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 employees today.

Making a commitment to directly hire refugees is still rare for companies. According to the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a project of the Tent Foundation, which was founded by Ulukaya to support refugees, only about 10 percent of its 80 business members have made direct hiring commitments. Gideon Maltz, the foundation's executive director, said he hopes WeWork's initiative is one that will spread to other companies, as direct hiring can be more effective than donations. "Bringing people into the workforce and into supply chains is an ongoing contribution that has far more impact in the long run," he said.

The decision comes two years after the millennial-chic mecca was in the headlines following a labor dispute with cleaners in New York and Boston. After a non-union contractor ended its agreement with WeWork following an attempt by workers to unionize, some contract cleaners lost their jobs, leading to protests by workers and petitions by some WeWork members, according to media reports. Yet a no-hire clause with the contractor meant WeWork was not able to immediately rehire many of the workers themselves as it brought some of the jobs in-house. In October of 2015, an agreement was signed that the union called "a win for working people" which included a commitment to using union contractors, rehiring former cleaners when possible, as well as making severance payments to those whose work was interrupted.

A WeWork spokesperson said the refugee and veteran initiatives come "entirely from our desire to connect talented and passionate people, and to build the best possible team of employees" and are unrelated to the dispute. Larry Engelstein, the executive vice president of Service Employees International Union affiliate 32BJ, the largest property service worker union in the country, said WeWork had been responsive and respected established standards in his local area. And as an advocate for immigration reform, he said, "to the extent they are committed to trying to provide employment and resettlement opportunities for refugees, we applaud that."

The refugees who have been hired so far hail from countries such as Ethiopia, Guinea, Peru and Iraq. Joe Dugbo, who was hired at WeWork's 57th Street location in May through the IRC, said the job was his first after arriving earlier this year from Liberia. His job includes stocking and cleaning the common area and coffee station, for which he is paid $15 an hour and receives benefits like health insurance and some WeWork equity. "I've made a lot of friends with members," Dugbo said of the people and companies that rent space at WeWork, including one with whom he plays basketball after work.

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That relationship between refugees and and WeWork's corporate and individual members is one thing that could set WeWork's initiative apart, said David Miliband, IRC's CEO and a former foreign secretary of Britain. (Hires for the WeWork's refugee initiative are expected to come from placements by the IRC and its partners.) The company intends to launch a web site 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."

Miliband, who has written a new book on the refugee crisis, said he's seeing more interest from companies wanting to do more than just provide financial assistance. In the past, he said, corporate partnerships were more about financial contributions or writing checks, but "now, there's been a quantum shift from people who want to do something in terms of their core business." What WeWork is doing, he said, is an "example of businesses doing what they do best, which is hiring people."

Read also:

'Deeply concerned': Corporate America responds to Trump's travel ban

What business leaders are doing about the refugee crisis

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