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Unlocking potential in refugees: Demystifying refugee hires in the working world w/ Yvonne Kelly

Hear from CEO & Co-Founder of Glow Up Careers, Yvonne Kelly, as she's interviewed in a three-part series by our own VP of Behavioral Science & Impact, Greta Bradman, on how leaders can create impact, change, and unlock potential working with refugees. 

Yvonne Kelly has been busy building a successful career around unlocking potential in refugees, demonstrating the level of interest and belief being shown by the business community in hiring from this courageous cohort of people.

I sat down with Yvonne to learn more about the what, why, and how of understanding, engaging with, and supporting refugees in the workplace in order to unlock their potential and create value for them as individuals, as well as the business, and society. Yvonne shares how Glow Up Careers assists disadvantaged people to find meaningful work, and how through collaboration with migrant, refugee, community, and not-for-profit organizations, Glow Up Careers is helping redefine the narrative for people not normally given a seat at the table.

But first, let’s get to know Yvonne a little.

On World Refugee Day 2019, Yvonne co-founded Glow Up Careers with her husband Alex “to help everyone on earth build the career of their dreams”.

Over the prior 25 years, Yvonne had helped thousands of people find the right job and helped organizations build high-performing, engaged teams internationally. A change of direction around 2009 saw Yvonne and her family return to her native Ireland to reconnect with her roots. At a time when the country was in recession, Yvonne and Alex were shocked at how job seekers were treated, and found themselves on the receiving end of this treatment. Their lived experience stoked a fire in their bellies; they needed to create something deeply meaningful when they returned to Australia a few years later.


We wanted to build an inclusive business where we empowered everyone to manage their own career.

Yvonne Kelly, CEO & Co-Founder, Glow Up Careers


Yvonne thanks for your time — first up what does it mean to be a refugee?

“The term “refugee” comes from the Latin word “refugium,” which means “the act of taking refuge.” It was first used in the 17th Century in England when the Huguenots-French Protestants fled to other countries after a law protecting their religious liberty was revoked in 1685 (“réfugié”).

This became the English word 'refugee' when they arrived in England. The UNHCR describes refugees as people who have fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. At the end of 2021 89.3 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced.”

In general terms, why might someone seeking refuge have come to Australia?

Australia is seen as a safe & prosperous multicultural country and is also seen internationally as a non-denominational place where people have freedom of belief. Sometimes refugees are resettled into refugee camps in neighboring countries from where they flee. The UNHCR works with those camps to help resettle these people internationally. Australia nominates a certain number of humanitarian visas each year.

How many come to Australia each year, and how many are looking for work?

This number varies especially since our borders were closed during Covid. Normally Australia grants approximately 14,000 humanitarian visas each year. The most recent intakes include people from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and sub-Saharan Africa. These are men, women, and children, many are of working age and looking for work. 

How long does it take a refugee to find work, and what is the ‘gap’ between the skills they have and the work they end up doing? 

In a recent study by HOST International and Max Employment, they found that it takes on average 3 years for refugees to find work in Australia.

There are so many highly skilled refugees across a range of industries including Engineers, Lawyers, Accountants, Academics, and government officials. Unfortunately, many of these people end up in menial and entry-level jobs with no clear career path to return to the successful career they had in their own country. 

Can you share insights around whether refugees get stuck at ‘ground level’ in an organization, and how leaders might help support refugees in their progression?

Refugees definitely get stuck at “ground level” within an organization.

This happens for a variety of reasons, such as:

  1. They don’t have an internal advocate, mentor/coach to help them achieve their career goals.
  2. The refugees we meet are very humble. They work hard and are very dedicated. It's often not in their nature to put themselves forward. Without having an advocate, they often lack the confidence to seek higher levels of roles. 
  3. Many organizations don’t have visibility over the diverse talent they have internally or the broader skill sets they possess. 

This is a big issue, and I don’t mean to simplify it too far, but equally, I’m aware that sometimes the complexity stands as a barrier to action for businesses and leaders who genuinely want to get involved.

Can you share three tips for leaders who are interested in engaging with refugee communities, with a view to working towards engaging more refugees in the workplace?


  1. Train leaders to become coaches and mentors for refugees and diverse talent;
  2. Identify your internal diverse talent and provide career mapping opportunities for them;
  3. Provide confidence-building opportunities for diverse talent, and understand this is vital for refugees.


Next up in our snapshot of unlocking potential in refugees at work, Yvonne will share examples of refugees who have been well supported in their transition to the working world in their host country.

These snapshots are in service of helping move our mindset around what is possible in the world of work right now, with the right support and guidance. 

Don’t forget; Yvonne and Glow Up Careers are there for you if you want to know more about engaging refugees in the working world at your business.

And if you know of or run a support service for refugees in Australia or the USA please get in touch!

We’d love to hear from you and provide insights into why, what, and how you do what you do to help.

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