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August’s Web Content Theme is Community and State Systems Integration
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Author Brian Prioleau had a conversation with the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), who creates jobs and employment opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work by investing in businesses that hire people trying to gain access to the labor market, for this month’s theme on Community and State Systems Integration.
August’s Web Content Theme is Community and State Systems Integration

A good management consultant makes a living seeing the forest through the trees and then optimizing that forest. Carla Javits, President and CEO of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), gets right to the point: “There are not a lot of pathways to employment when you have a tough history.” REDF uses social enterprises, which they fund, as well as providing business connections and operational expertise to take workers from the safety net, train them, put them to work, and then find them next-step jobs. It is a hard-nosed, practical, work-the-problem version of “a hand up, not a handout.” And it works.

REDF sees that the problem is that first job: somebody has to assume the risk of that first hire. By creating and/or guiding companies specifically oriented to hire and nurture employees with inadequate work history or skills, REDF balances employee development with building a profitable business. Working in the environment where the numbers count—labor costs, reliable delivery, margins—is critical to developing employees who are ready to work in any context.

“Many people who are homeless, when they are ready to re-join the workforce, they can’t find a way in. People say ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ But businesses won’t hire them. So there is a need for a business that invests capital and brings business expertise to social enterprise companies that employ people who are tough to employ,” said Javits. “We identify capable nonprofits, help their businesses grow, do as much as we can to make it a sustainable company, and employ as many people as possible. We provide money, business assistance, and introductions to a network. We stay engaged for several years. It is like a hybrid of venture capital and consulting.”

“Balancing mission and margin is hard. We really have to deliver on jobs but the business has to be viable, too. It is a challenge every day: ‘Do I allow Joe to come back after being absent and risk missing a customer delivery again?’ We find leadership and a good work culture in those nonprofits that can balance well. We are looking for the right kind of business—not a million competitors but relatively low barriers to entry. The key to developing good employees is to provide the right environment, for a long enough time, and the right supports.”

REDF is results oriented. “We have put 9,000 people to work and our companies have made $140 million. Seventy percent of our employees had been convicted of a crime but only four percent are rearrested after gaining employment with us. That means income goes up and transfers go down.” But Carla Javits, who can speak to the numbers as well as anybody, knows it is not just about the numbers. “We had a gentleman who worked with us after getting out of prison—decades in prison. We trained him as front desk in a supportive affordable housing location. He became the building manager, was reunited with his family, and now has a daughter in college.”

Javits wants people to understand that it works because REDF brings all the elements together: “What we are doing is homelessness services, workforce development, and economic development all put together. We need to find companies that are supportive of social enterprise and willing to include social enterprise in their supply chain, and then to provide jobs to those people we train.”

REDF receives funding from Bank of America, the federal Social Innovation Fund, Kresge’s, private donations, and others.

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