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Financial advising firm builds team through refugee program

Lisa Cooper works with Serpil Rawson in Figure 8 Investment Strategies' new office. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Lisa Cooper works with Serpil Rawson in Figure 8 Investment Strategies’ new office. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Lisa Cooper, founder of Figure 8 Investment Strategies, has built her staff of five almost entirely of immigrants and refugees. She believes their diverse experience and the resolve they have demonstrated in getting to Boise strengthen the company.

“Together we represent five continents and speak 11 languages and believe me – it’s not me bringing that experience,” Cooper said.

Starting the company

Cooper founded Figure 8 in April after a two year break from financial management. She had worked in the industry for 25 years before that.

While on furlough, she was approached by Tara Wolfson, a friend and the employment and training program manager at the Idaho Office for Refugees, with a plan for an agency that could help train new Idaho residents.

The two women founded Global Talent Idaho, an agency that helps immigrants and refugees build business networks and to gain high-wage positions, in 2014.

“You hear a lot about the talent shortage in the state, but communities around Idaho have been overlooking some of their brightest and best,” Cooper said. “It was something Tara and I kept talking about over the years and we decided this might finally be the chance to solve that.”

Cooper worked for Global Talent Idaho for two years, trying to train clients and get them placed with local businesses. When she started her own company in financial management, she decided to use Global Talent’s services.

“I wanted to build something sustainable with diversity at every level,” Cooper said.

Global Talent Idaho

Resettlement programs in Idaho work hard to get refugees settled as quickly as possible because most only receive benefits for three to eight months after arrival. This leads many refugees to take the first job that is offered. Global Talent Idaho’s goal is to get clients into the right jobs.

The agency works with clients to identify what their professional life was like before moving to the United States. Many of the refugees that Global Talent Idaho works with led successful careers before their lives were interrupted, but because of language barriers, the lack of a professional network in Idaho and certification processes, many don’t return to their original line of work.

Wolfson and Cooper developed a program that offers English classes, mentorship programs and classes to teach soft skills. Over the last two years, Global Talent Idaho has worked with more than 125 refugees and immigrants and has paired about 85 percent of them with positions that draw from their expertise and background.

The average annual increase in wages for those that go through Global Talent Idaho is $26,000, Cooper said.

Getting back to work

Cooper met all but one of her employees through Global Talent.

Richard Naing

Richard Naing

Richard Naing was a civil engineer in Myanmar until he became involved in a social media campaign to expose child labor practices involving the government. He collected photos and videos of the conditions children were working in and said he had to flee the country once the military caught wind of his work.

Naing lived in Malaysia for a few years and ran his own IT business before he was allowed to move to Boise through a refugee program.

The first job Naing could get was as a valet at Hotel 43, but after being introduced to Global Talent Idaho, the program helped him to build a resume and to network. Naing was then able to work on temporary projects for Micron and St. Luke’s because of his experience in computer science. He was then hired full-time with Figure 8 in May and has helped to set up the software the company uses and is training to become a financial manager.

“I really knew nothing about having a professional resume or networking,” Naing said. “Tara and Global Talent Idaho helped me to research what certificates I need and trained me about the culture of an interview and how to build a resume.”

Serpil Rawson worked as an investment adviser for 18 years in Turkey before she met and married an American and moved with him to Boise. She took a job as a receptionist and used Global Talent to further develop her English skills. Wolfson helped Rawson to develop her resume and set up a mentorship program with Cooper so that Rawson could begin making professional contacts in financial management. Cooper hired Rawson a few months later.

Serpil Rawson

Serpil Rawson

“Global Talent Idaho is changing people’s lives,” Rawson said. “If I didn’t meet them I wouldn’t have met Lisa and I would still be a part time receptionist which wouldn’t be a good career or provide support for my kids.

“In Turkey I had three certifications to do my job, but I didn’t know what I needed to work here,” she said. “I didn’t know if I needed to go back to a university, but Global Talent Idaho researched and found the test I need to take and an online class to help me prepare.”

The next step for Figure 8

With 20 clients and $25 million in assets under management, Figure 8 Strategies moved into its permanent office in downtown Boise two months ago. The company is also working with a couple of interns that it met through Global Talent Idaho that it is considering bringing on full-time. Figure 8 has joined a White House call to action to aid in the global refugee crisis. The call to action is led by the Tent Foundation, a refugee focused foundation founded by Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya.

More than 50 other companies around the country have offered to support the call to action and have pledged to help the world’s 65 million displaced people. Figure 8’s pledge is to keep employing and training college-educated refugees.

About 1,000 refugees settle in Idaho each year, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees.

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.