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Refugees are some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. Here are the 3 mental models born out of hardship that help them thrive



In a constantly changing landscape where disruption has become the norm, it’s almost like the universe has been playing a cruel game of one-upmanship. As if COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine weren’t enough, the economy has become uncertain. Adaptability is no longer optional–it’s an absolute requirement. In these uncertain times, you may want to look for inspiration from those who have experienced some of the most difficult situations imaginable: refugees.

At the age of 15, my world was forever changed abruptly when I found myself displaced and living as a refugee. Coming from a small town halfway around the world, this new experience filled me with apprehension. Uncertainty and having to relearn everything became integral parts of my life day in and day out, for years on end.

In a similar way, millions of people are being displaced today due to the pervasiveness of geopolitical instability and war in certain parts of the world. From their stories of hardship, we can appreciate the importance of overcoming adversity and cultivating resilience. The trepidation of the unfamiliar, the sensation of the unpredictable, and having to restart–these sentiments are all too recognizable for refugees as well as everyone else during times of great change. But there is always room for hope and a chance to turn something difficult into something remarkable. Here are three essential mental models that I learned as a refugee that can help you achieve success even in times of turbulence.

Reframe the narrative

Refugees exemplify that tragedy may not be eluded, yet strength is sourced from resilience and adaptation. By accepting change openly, many refugees remain steadfast despite enormous obstacles. In fact, according to a report by the Center for Global Development, refugees in the U.S. are more likely to find employment compared to other immigrants in the country or even native workers, eventually earning 20% more than their counterparts on average.

Refugees showcase a higher propensity for entrepreneurial pursuits than other immigrants and native-born citizens, with 14% of refugees eventually owning businesses compared with 11.5% of other immigrants and 9% of U.S.-born workers.

Similarly, we must look at disruption as an impetus for growth, rather than a hindrance in times of hardship. Don’t just try to survive disruption–thrive in it. The key here is to go on the offense instead of just playing defense. From entering a new market or launching a game-changing product to partnering with a competitor or breaking into an untapped customer base–disruption gives you momentum to transform for the better. Dissatisfaction with the status quo can be a powerful motivator for envisioning and creating a better future.

Cultivate a novice mindset

Refugees often arrive in their new homes with no knowledge of the local customs or language with limited to no resources. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that approximately 72% of refugees who come to America are unable to communicate in English upon their arrival.

The key to survival becomes a mental one: embracing a “novice mindset.” By being open to learning new skills, reimagining what’s possible, and adapting quickly, newcomers start over and build successful lives in their new homes. It takes fortitude to rise above the status quo in times of immense transformation, yet this is the kind of shift in mindset that is needed to push organizations toward unprecedented success during disruptive periods.

The key is to embrace a culture of continuous learning and maintain a novice mentality at scale. Korn Ferry defines culture as “ways of working” or “behavior at scale”. Korn Ferry data shows that two-thirds of top executives at the World’s Most Admired companies attribute 30% or more of their organizations’ market value to culture. Building ways of working that encourage exploration, experimentation, and inquiry and create a safe space to challenge long-held assumptions can lead to the discovery of new opportunities.

Build your community

Refugees often have to rely on their new communities and other refugees for survival. Through collective action, they can pool resources, offer emotional support, and build trusting networks with one another. It’s a model of resilience that all organizations should strive to mirror, particularly when faced with great volatility.

People make or break any organization. It’s not just about having the right staff with the necessary skills and abilities–it’s about cultivating a culture of community, belonging, and purpose. People need to feel connected to each other and feel that their contribution matters for the group to succeed.

Having a great organizational strategy is all well and good, but unless you have the culture to back it up, it’s just fancy words on paper. Think of your culture as an engine–and people as the fuel that drives everything else forward. Without them, there’s no spark or fire. That’s why investing in your team’s well-being and development is so important. Korn Ferry’s research on the future of work has revealed that every dollar spent on employee wellness delivers a six-to-one return on investment. Investing in your people and culture is the only way to make sure that your strategy is meaningful and successful. In fact, a Stanford University Graduate School of Business study shows that businesses that over-reduced their workforce in the early phases of COVID experienced higher numbers of voluntary resignations later on. Reciprocity is a time-honored tradition within any community, including a business. The same is true for organizational culture: You reap what you sow.

Refugees are often viewed as persecuted people, true as that may be, we also possess a drive to succeed that is born out of necessity. By reframing the narrative, embracing a beginner’s outlook, and building communities, many refugees thrive even in the most trying times. This same resilient spirit can empower anyone through difficult conditions and propel them toward success.

Sherzod Odilov is an associate client partner in Korn Ferry’s Culture, Change, and Communications practice.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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