America Welcomed This Refugee Who Fled the Taliban; Now He’s a Founding CEO Opening Doors for Job Seekers Facing Adversity
This article is the third in a series about gatekeepers in the professional world taking a chance on those with non-traditional backgrounds. Read the full series here.
The series is published in partnership with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
In the fall of 2021, Cyrus Jaffery walked into West Point, Nebraska McDonald’s and offered the cashier a job. For months, while bringing his energetic kids in for their monthly order of chicken nuggets and fries, he had observed how cheerful and attentive Rosa Barragan was with her customers, no matter their background. Jaffery was a serial entrepreneur who was looking to grow his businesses; he knew a good hire when he saw one.
Shortly after, Barragan, then 24, became an account manager on the customer experience team, working across the eight independent insurance agencies Jaffery runs under the Omaha-based CJ Insurance Group. Even today, Jaffery’s job offer across that fast food counter feels “unreal,” said Barragan. “I was very surprised. I’m at McDonald’s. I smell like grease. Why me?” At the time, the recent college graduate had been working 16-hour days—eight hours at McDonald’s for about $11 an hour and eight hours doing family support social work for $15 an hour. She lived with her parents and felt stuck. Jaffery’s job offer allowed her to move out, move to Omaha, and work regular eight-hour days, earning more than twice the pay at a salaried job with benefits and flexibility.
Jaffery, who employs 90 people and expects his roster to grow to 200 or more by the end of 2024, has made a habit of hiring people with nontraditional backgrounds—servers, artists, chefs with no industry experience, parents with employment gaps or people who’ve been fired multiple times. Jaffery doesn’t care about pedigree. “We hire for character,” he said. “It’s easy to teach someone how to do insurance; it’s hard to teach them how to be a good human being.”
To Jaffery, a résumé only says so much. He’s willing to take a chance on people outside the norm. He’s willing, because not long ago, someone took that very chance on him.
“IF YOU JUST GAVE ME A CHANCE, I COULD PROVE MYSELF.”
Jaffery was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1988. A few years later, amid the country’s civil war, the Taliban bombed his family’s house, forcing him to flee to neighboring Pakistan with his mother and siblings. (Jaffery’s father stayed behind to run the family gas station and, later, assist the U.S. military.) In 2002, the family was resettled in the U.S. as refugees and eventually made their home in Omaha, Nebraska.
Arriving in the U.S. just months after the attacks of 9-11, “was not the best for people from Afghanistan,” Jaffery said. With his heavy accent and foreign style, Jaffery became a target for bullies at his mostly white high school. There was “a lot of racism,” he said. “It was tough.” He and his brothers relied on each other, trading tips on how to navigate teen social life in America. Eventually, he joined the school’s soccer team where he excelled and built a community. “I finally felt like a normal kid,” he said.
But life at home was hard. His mom made a modest living cleaning houses; often their food stamps ran out before the end of the month. After soccer practice, Jaffery would head to one job at a call center, followed by an evening shift at McDonald’s. On weekends, he cleaned homes with his mom.
He craved a stable, white-collar career. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, he turned to insurance. He knew he was outgoing and would make a good salesman. The field seemed secure; “everyone legally needs insurance,” he said. And agents earn predictable revenue off their cut of monthly insurance payments. But after an internship with a national insurance company and interviews with different agencies, he couldn’t land a full-time position. When Wells Fargo offered him a job as a personal banker, he moved on.
A few years later, Jaffery’s future wife, Michelle Rivera, brought him home to meet her parents, Cynthia and Tom. Jaffery was awestruck by the spacious house overlooking a golf course. “I want this life,” he remembers thinking. As it turns out, Tom Rivera was an insurance agent.
When Tom Rivera saw Jaffery’s eyes wander around his house, he thought, “I know that look.” Rivera himself was one of eight siblings whose parents had fled Mexican poverty in the 1950s. He’d grown up spending his summers clearing weeds, hoeing beans, and thinning sugar beets across Nebraska farmlands alongside his parents and siblings. Rivera understood that Jaffery had the same work ethic, ambition, and sense of family. “What I saw in him was the same thing I saw in myself; if you just gave me a chance, I could prove myself,” Rivera said.
Inspired by the wealth and security Rivera built from his career, Jaffery took another stab at breaking into the insurance industry. But it led to another string of rejections. Rivera eventually recommended Jaffery for a job at his company. As a friend—and later father-in-law—Rivera mentored Jaffery through early-career challenges. Jaffery took these lessons to heart and quickly became a high-performing agent. He was soon exceeding monthly goals, outpacing other top performers and winning awards.
Jaffery began to consider taking a risk. If he went independent, he could sell products from a range of insurance companies, have more control over who his agency hired, and earn more. But if he left, he’d lose his clients with his current employer and be forced to start over. He turned to Rivera, who explained how Jaffery could leave his current company without burning bridges. He helped him think through planning for the company’s future, potential downsides, and balancing the responsibilities of a CEO with the responsibilities he had to his family. “You reach for the moon,” Rivera remembered saying. “But you don’t want to pull away from your family.”
A SPACE TO THRIVE NO MATTER YOUR BACKGROUND
Jaffery went independent in 2019 and has seen his business grow at rapid speed, spawning a tech platform that helps independent agents more efficiently gather quotes from multiple carriers, along with multiple independent agencies that partner with real estate and banking. He attributes much of his company’s success to his open-minded hiring strategy. Whether he’s hiring nontraditional candidates or those referred to the company, he doesn’t rule out folks with atypical résumés. The majority of his hires do not have college degrees, and many come from the service industry, where he believes folks develop the people skills needed for his industry. So much of the decision comes down how well the candidate can hang with Jaffery and the team. “If they are a good fit, and I like their story, personality, and work ethic, we give them a chance,” he said.
Even when he’s reviewing a formal application, he’s looking for the Rosa Barragans of the world. People who are used to “talking to people all day, pleasing them, solving problems,” he said. These are the skills necessary to attract, sign, and maintain relationships with insurance clients.
When a late-career woman reached out to him after being let go from the industry multiple times, Jaffery met with her. He listened to her story. He learned that previous companies didn’t offer room for advancement, and they micromanaged her work. She had the skills his company was seeking; she just needed space to thrive, which he happily offered. “She’s been with us for almost three years now,” Jaffery said. “She’s one of our best employees and she’s knocking it out of the park.”
Jaffery understands that there’s often a divide between people’s potential and the opportunities they’re given. Sometimes you can create your own opportunities—like Rivera’s parents bringing his family to America. Other times, you might benefit from larger forces—like the United States providing refugee status to a family escaping the Taliban. But sometimes, your ambition and resilience only get you so far. If you’re Rosa Barragan, you might need a Tom Rivera or a Cyrus Jaffery to open doors that were previously closed.
Jaffery is trying to open these doors for as many people as possible. CJ Insurance Group runs donation drives for Afghan evacuees who fled the Taliban two summers ago. But he worries their door might soon be closing. Without a Congressional pathway to permanent residency, most of these evacuees could be deported back to Afghanistan.
“I see myself every day in the people that are moving here from Afghanistan,” Jaffery said. If the U.S. just gave them a chance and let them stay, he said, “they’re going to become me.”
Whether it’s Americans welcoming newcomers or employers looking for their next hire, Jaffery believes there is so much untapped potential before us. “We just need to give people the opportunity to shine.”
Deborah Jian Lee is a senior editor at theEconomic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism fellow atHarvard Divinity School and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon Press). Follow her on Twitter @deborahjianlee.
Co-published with Fast Company.