• Catalysr founders Usman Iftikhar and Jacob Muller. (SBS News)
Australians from non-European backgrounds are significantly under-represented in leadership positions. Now, a program in Sydney's west is hoping to change that by giving migrants and refugees the confidence to rise to the top in business.
By
Lydia Feng

1 Apr 2017 - 3:11 PM  UPDATED 1 Apr 2017 - 8:59 PM

Thomas Orungo worked as a manager at a major organisation in Kenya.

But after migrating to Australia, he found it difficult to get a similar job at a managerial level.

"I did a lot of job interviews, and I did get appointments," he told SBS News.

"But, anytime I would go there, I came to realise that having been in a senior position became a barrier to my hopes. They would always argue that I don't have local experience."

Despite having a variety of international experience at high-level jobs, he said he had to opt for entry-level positions in Australia.

"I would question myself, like, 'Is it really that people don't understand the potential wealth of knowledge and expertise a potential migrant comes along with?'" he said.

"I mean, why can't the system, or the policies, work such that it taps on that?" 

It is a common experience for many new arrivals.

Mr Orungo decided to participate in a program called Catalysr to start his own business.

The four-month program gives 20 budding entrepreneurs professional help in creating their own business plans and becoming leaders in their own fields.

Usman Iftikhar co-founded the program after struggling to find work in the country himself, despite having a degree in engineering in Pakistan and then a master's degree in Australia.

The 26-year-old did his own research and told SBS News he realised many highly-skilled Australian migrants were unemployed or underemployed.

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"There's about 60 per cent of people who come here from a refugee background or a migrant background, from any country in the world to Australia, who can't find work, or can't find work in their industry that they're trained in, so they're doing low-skilled jobs - they're driving Ubers, they're working in service stations," he said.

Mr Iftikhar started the Catalysr program with friend Jacob Muller, 26, who said Catalysr ensured migrants' skills were not under-utilised.

"We see a big group of people who are not fulfilling their potential, and we think helping them to create their own job, to become leaders in their own right, is a really great way to help them unleash their potential," Mr Muller said.

With the resources to be their own boss, the students can also demonstrate to local employers in the corporate world they have the capability to take on executive roles.

The program is the first of its kind in Australia and has already attracted the attention of refugee-support organisations in Germany, Canada, Italy and Turkey, where there is an influx of refugees.

Lack of diversity in senior roles

Former Investa Office Fund executive Ming Long, Australia's first female Asian chief executive, said programs like Catalysr were important to "disrupt the status quo".

"When you get together as a cohort and you can share some of the challenges that you have or some of your disappointments and in turn you can help embolden each other," she said.

The 2016 Leading for Change report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found 28 per cent of Australia's population is born overseas.

But it found less than five per cent of chief executive officers from ASX companies come from a non-European background.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said there were a number of barriers preventing non-European migrants from entering executive-level jobs.

"There can be unconscious bias and conscious forms of bias involved with leadership promotion and in how organisations go about selecting leaders," he said.

"You also have a situation where culturally diverse talent may not necessarily feel confident or assertive enough about putting themselves forward for leadership positions when you don't have visible and prominent role models when it comes to cultural diversity in leadership that can deter people from pursuing their ambitions in a way which will propel them to the top.

He said that lack of leadership diversity meant Australia was missing out.

"It's one thing to celebrate diversity in the form of food and festivals, it's another thing to ensure we have diversity in our corridors of power. And diversity's a good thing to have around your decision-making table," he said.

"We know, from a large body of evidence, that having diverse opinions around the table helps you make better decisions."

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