While the terms “corporate America” and “gang members” sound incongruous, I have learned that the philosophies we live by at Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang reentry and rehabilitation nonprofit, stand to radicalize current hiring and development models. We have created real opportunity and a blueprint to employ America’s working poor with our methods, which have been devised over a 30-year period.
One of the first (of many) teachings Homeboy Industries shares with its new hires who have criminal records is that “you cannot demonize someone you know,” a sentiment that explains how we expect previously warring gang members to work together.
I believe in capitalism, and that well-run companies can be a force for good. I was a Fortune 200 CEO and thrived in a traditional corporate structure for 26 years of my career. Ten years ago, I contemplated retiring, but I was still young. My time in the private sector has been fulfilling and rewarding. I had checked all the boxes and hit all the marks, but something was missing. I sensed there was another way to measure success, and have a business and people thrive at the same time, and it was clear I had to pivot. Shortly thereafter, I had a fateful lunch at the Homegirl Café, learning more about Homeboy Industries and meeting its founder, Father Greg Boyle.
I began spending a lot of time with him at Homeboy’s downtown offices. I thought of joining the board, but at Fr. Greg’s urging, I became the first CEO of Homeboy. I arrived at the organization at the right time: It was going through a financial crunch, and the skills I had perfected in the corporate world were needed to keep it going. I truly believe I was meant to be there.
I have wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy of Homeboy Industries: “We do not hire homies to bake bread. We bake bread to hire homies.” Understanding that job competency is only a piece of the puzzle, our management team leads with intentional inclusivity and shared experience to break down barriers. Self and group reflection has led to team building, faulty beliefs righted, healing of spirit to strengthen the delivery of the work at hand, and enthusiasm to achieve individual and company goals.
At Homeboy, we create an environment that supports our trainees (formerly incarcerated and gang-affiliated men and women), leading them to be the best they can be, to grow, change, thrive, and excel.
It has been my experience that everyone wants to do a good job, and that poor performance can be traced back to outside-work factors. We believe in second chances, and that nobody should be judged by the worst thing they’ve ever done. We believe in grace and joy.
I want to share these ideals of kinship, second chances, grace, and joy—values that should be present in the workplace and business community.
When I set out to write my first book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life, I wanted to tell the business world that there is another way to do business and that it can be business unusual, conducted with empathy.
Below are three core philosophies we are guided by at Homeboy that can help corporate America:
HEALING LEADS TO TRANSFORMATION
Our organization’s purpose is to provide healing for those who have been traumatized, broken, beaten, forgotten, sidelined, and marginalized. Healing leads to transformation. We say that a healed individual is a transformed individual. More practically, healed individuals are resilient individuals, for who among us can deny another human life from feeling protected and safe? It’s awe-inspiring that, over the course of 18 months, we are able to watch people transform before our very eyes.
The workplaces that many of us are used to have humor and ribbing, but usually it’s confined to the beginning of a meeting, in the hall/elevator, or at after-hours events. At Homeboy, it’s there all day, all throughout meetings. The attitude of “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously” is there on the surface, which is healthy because it doesn’t disrespect the situation, but recognizes that none of us is the be-all and end-all. We are participating in life as a community and a bridge builder from those on the inside of Homeboy to those on the outside (the rest of society). Who doesn’t want to laugh and smile at funny stories? Who doesn’t love laughter? It’s a natural elixir for the soul.
JOY IS FOUNDATIONAL TO A THRIVING WORKPLACE
In The Book of Joy, authors Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” Fr. Greg speaks of finding joy in terms of not when, but where. My joy begins when I feel in kinship with our homies (our employees).
I’ve learned that, in pondering joy, I was able to go from feeling “put upon” by my responsibilities to feeling that my responsibilities are part of my life’s mission. I realized that the key is discovering and experiencing joy. Who doesn’t want to achieve this next level of awareness? It’s real, and it’s in front of me—I just need to open my eyes and heart to see it, as the homies do.
Interestingly, after so many years of hard work and worry, when I understood this concept of joy, it was a quick shift for me. Like a switch being flipped in my brain. Now all the hard work and worry seem small and inconsequential compared to the quest for and attaining of joy.
It bears repeating: Joy is foundational in a thriving workplace.
These principles might sound counterintuitive, and you might be thinking, “But I’m running a business. How can I focus on my employees’ well-being and transformation, laugh with them, and give them the freedom to be themselves? We have work to do, numbers to hit, milestones to reach, shareholders to satisfy.” And to that I say … sure. That is the conventional way of thinking that leads to no change in impacting society or the arc of your company’s culture.
But you can do both! Traditional thinking relies on having to measure people. At a gut level, how does it feel to rank people? Do you want your self-worth defined by somebody else?
There’s another approach out there. And that’s the Homeboy way.
Thomas Vozzo left a lucrative career in corporate America convinced there had to be a better way to define success. In 2012, Vozzo became the first-ever CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world.