Fri 01/12/2023 - 15:17

"Treat others as if you were them". That was the philosophy of Eli Schulman, the visionary founder of Eli's Cheesecake Company in Chicago. And it became the guiding principle of his company, which for four decades now has made it its mission to improve the lives of refugees in this American city. Simply because Eli gave these people the chance to work for him and grow together with his company.

Today, refugees make up an impressive 30 percent of the Cheesecake Company's workforce. Eli knew exactly what it was like to have to build a new life in a foreign country. His parents had fled to the USA from what was then Czechoslovakia. Marc Schulman, Eli's son and current President and CEO of Eli's Cheesecake Factory, says: "We have found that hiring refugees and bringing them into the company is an important part of growing the business." It is part of their culture that many of their managers once started with them as refugees. To this end, Eli's Cheesecake Factory works with organizations that support the integration of refugees.

Traditional, glutenfree, with fruits - Eli's has it all!
Traditional, glutenfree, with fruits - Eli's has it all!

One of the success stories is that of Elias Kasongo. He fled the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s. He initially spent four years in a refugee camp in Zambia before being resettled in Chicago. There he was given a job at Eli's Cheesecake Company.

At first he washed cake dishes. But as his English improved, he was able to take on other tasks until he finally ended up in the front office. Today, Elias is Vice President of Purchasing and oversees the purchase of millions of dollars worth of ingredients for the company's famous desserts. These range from the legendary original cheesecake - a fluffy, golden baked "Chicago" version of its traditional New York counterpart - to modern gluten-free products sold in chains like Starbucks across the US.

Elias Kasongo and his son both work for Eli's Cheesecake Factory in Chicago. Elias says, he'd found a home in the company.
Elias Kasongo and his son both work for Eli's Cheesecake Factory in Chicago. Elias says, he'd found a home in the company.

"It takes companies like Eli's Cheesecake to give you the opportunity to prove yourself and raise yourself up," Elias Kasongo is convinced.  For him and many of his colleagues, the company is more than just a workplace; it is a second family. "As a refugee, you come to a place where you don't know anyone, and Eli's became a place where I felt at home.”

This summer, Elias' son John joined the company as an intern. He will continue the legacy of Eli's Cheesecake Company as a family business into the next generation.

Expanding government resettlement opportunities and strengthening the role of the private sector in helping refugees become self-sufficient will be a key focus of the Global Refugee Forum taking place in Geneva from December 13-15. Governments and businesses from around the world will come together with communities, international organizations and others to take action to help refugees reduce their dependence on humanitarian aid, use their skills and make a meaningful contribution to the societies and economies of their host countries.

The loyalty of employees, some of whom have been with the company for decades, is a testament to the success of the concept at Eli's Cheesecake Factory. For CEO Marc Schulman, sticking to his father's principles has paid off - and he recommends that other companies do the same: "The people who have come to Eli's as refugees and who have overcome so much to come to this country make a huge contribution to our success".

Companies in Switzerland that would like to work together with refugees should contact:

Philipp Siedentopf
Strategic Partnerships Manager