Inside Track: Garberson helps connect refugees with job opportunities
Bethany Christian Services’ new refugee employment supervisor foresees the impact of an untapped resource.
Kyle Garberson is only two months into a job he said already makes him proud to be an American.
That job is serving as the refugee employment program supervisor for Bethany Christian Services. Garberson took over the position from Corrie Sjoblom in March.
“Coming into the program was great. Bethany is committed to serving the refugee population of West Michigan really well. Only being a few months in, I can say I’m still really excited about the position,” he said.
“We’re beginning to humanize the refugee story within America — specifically, within Grand Rapids.”
Garberson was born in Alma, Michigan. His father was the small business owner of a pet supply store, and his mother worked in a hospital. From an early age, Garberson heard his parents stress the importance of making a local impact, a value he’s carried with him into adulthood and that has guided him along his career path.
“My siblings and I grew up knowing the values you should have … that you could make a difference in your local community,” he said. “As I got older and learned about global issues, those fundamental values carried over.”
Garberson, who said his faith also fuels his passion to serve people, spent almost two years working as a drop-in coordinator in Alma for the Central Michigan Youth for Christ, a branch of Youth for Christ International, before he left to attend Indiana’s Huntington University, where he studied philosophy. While in college, he worked summers in Evart, Michigan, as the men’s director at faith-based SpringHill Camps.
In both of those jobs, he said he had great managers who “empowered me to be myself so I didn’t have to fall into place.” Their leadership taught him to always work to develop the individuality of those for whom he’s responsible.
His study of philosophy at Huntington also gave him the foundation to build business strategy, he said.
Garberson graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. He also was named Philosopher of the Year for being a leader within the classroom and the department.
“I had great professors and mentors who showed me that philosophy has practical implications for day-to-day living and also in professional work, as well. A lot of business management and organizational tools are built on philosophical fundamentals,” he said.
“I saw philosophy as a gateway into understanding the fundamentals of how to increase an organization’s impact.”
In 2012, Garberson joined a friend’s fledgling startup called MudLove, based in Warsaw, Indiana. MudLove is a pottery business that gives 20 percent of its profits to support Water For Good, a nonprofit that implements water solutions in Africa.
“For every product we sold, we provided a week of clean drinking water in the Central African Republic. And all our products — ceramic mugs and pottery — were made in Indiana,” Garberson said.
“I got married before I finished school, and as I was finishing school, I started working at MudLove, and we were just in a garage. I thought it was going to be part time before I moved on to graduate school, but in MudLove I saw the power and potential it had. I wanted to invest time and energy into growing it.”
When he joined MudLove, Garberson served as director of operations. He was one of three full-time employees, with about five part-time employees also working for the startup. When he left the business earlier this year, he had helped grow the operations to 15 to 20 full-time employees and about 20 part-time employees.
“My chief interest professionally is just to bring out the best in people and organizations to maximize the social impact we can have,” he said.
“I think a big part of (MudLove’s growth) was we had an interesting product, but we were also able to create a product around which people could share stories.
“The network effect had a big impact on us, but the customers who supported us were our best marketers and biggest advocates. We didn’t have this incredible marketing strategy. We were just honest and true and committed to ideals of what a business should be.”
Garberson spent almost four years with MudLove before he and his wife, Becca, decided to relocate to the Grand Rapids area “for family reasons.” The job opening at Bethany Christian Services provided him with a perfect organizational model for his international focus. He said helping refugees connect to the business world merges everything he’s interested in: international development, social change and business.
“The refugee conversation is massive around the country and that has a lot of implications for the work we do, but it also opens doors (for) working with employers, connecting people. The conversation about refugees and who refugees are has never been bigger in America, probably,” he said.
“There’s a lot of political conversation, specifically with our presidential races, that has stirred up a lot of the conversation, but we can also visibly see the plight of refugees in the world. What’s happening in Syria is visible to us through social media.”
Bethany currently works with 350 refugees who have resettled in the United States in the past five years and are either seeking employment, have recently been hired, or are pursuing job laddering opportunities, Garberson said. He added there are 1,600 current and former clients who have gone through Bethany’s program since 2012.
The average time it takes to complete the application process to receive refugee status in the United States is two years, he said, and less than half of 1 percent of all refugees are resettled.
The main reason refugees flee their countries is extreme political oppression, to the point where they cannot return, he said, adding the violence refugees face in their own countries is more intense than anything seen in America.
“The violent narrative in America is slightly different from a place like South Sudan or Syria, where your government is explicitly oppressive,” he said. “Maybe it’s not some of the systemic forms like we see here, but it’s more explicit — like the military literally invading your village or population.”
Most of the employment refugees find in West Michigan is industrial and manufacturing work. The two biggest barriers facing them are language and transportation, with the latter being the more “hidden” problem of the two, he said.
“Most of us in West Michigan don’t have to deal with it. Everybody has cars,” he said.
“We can work with an employer with hiring some of our candidates, but if it’s off the bus line or too far (it’s a problem). … To get to one side of the city on a bus can be hours. It might not be feasible for a mom with children.”
Nonetheless, many cities finally are seeing refugees as an untapped resource. The refugee population, which Garberson thinks will dramatically impact the local economy, is filled with skilled workers and entrepreneurs who need the barriers to success eliminated. The more opportunity refugees are given, the better, he said, because these are survivors with the drive to take every opportunity to succeed.
“When we talk about entrepreneurs, we talk about perseverance and the ability to take a risk and have some guts. If you’ve made it to America as a refugee, you’ve got some guts. You’re way tougher than we are,” he said.
“Refugees are a great group to invest in.”