The following is a conversation between Thomas Vozzo, Chief Executive Officer of Homeboy Industries, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Thomas Vozzo is CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. In combination with workforce development job training, Homeboy Industries provides healing and alternatives to gang life while creating more inclusive, safer, and healthier communities. He’s also the author of the recently released book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Tom.
Thomas: Denver, thank you for having me.
Denver: Homeboy Industries began in 1988 as a job training program. I believe it was called Jobs for a Future. Share with us how the organization got started and a little bit of its history.
Thomas: Yeah, sure. So the organization was founded by a Jesuit priest named Father Greg Boyle, and Father Greg is still with us today and leading us as we go forward. But essentially, his first stop as a parish priest was at a church called Dolores Mission, which is the poorest parish in the whole Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and this was back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And right there in that Dolores Mission area was the epicenter of gang violence in Los Angeles. And Los Angeles has had a lot of gang violence. Unfortunately, even to this day, Los Angeles is the gang capital of our country, and they’re probably the gang capital of the world.
Well, Father Greg saw all these young men in gang life and dying and a lot of violence and despair, and he wanted to change that dynamic. And he hit upon this notion that seems so obvious to us now… and clear that: Look, if you give these young men a job where they can earn enough money for some food and shelter, they’re not going to go running with the gangs for that food and shelter because these young men thought the gangs were their family that they didn’t have at home, which was a false hope and a false notion.
But the point was, Greg got together with the local community, started creating jobs, having these young men be hired so they can get out of gang life. And that’s how Homeboy started. It started, as you said, a jobs program. Quickly went to Father Greg opened up a bakery because a bakery burned down across the street. And a movie producer in LA said,” Father Greg, what do you need?” He said,” I want you to buy us that bakery.”
And so Homeboy started making bread. And from there, it has evolved to now many social enterprise businesses, but essentially we moved away from being a jobs provider to actually having jobs in our own businesses, which allow people to heal while they’re working on themselves.
“…essentially, the difference between our lives…him and ours, my life, his life, and the lives of our homies or our clients… is that we at least had one parent who loved us along the way. And that that separates these two populations… is they never had anybody who loved them. And so while we’re here at Homeboy, I know it sounds goofy and cliche, we’re here to love them. And by loving them, we’re trusting them, not judging them. If you do those three things, they will change their life. They will move forward positively.”
Denver: Let me dig a little bit deeper about gang life because I don’t think many of us really fully understand it in terms of a gang and what gang life is like. Since you’ve been there, what have you learned or understood about those guys predominantly who are part of a gang?
Thomas: Yeah, I learned a lot. Look, I’ve been at Homeboy over nine years now. Time has gone by really fast. But prior to that, I was 26 years in the private sector; it was in corporate America. I was a corporate executive, and I ran a $1.8 billion business. And I say that because I want to offer context to what my life was before. And I knew nothing about gangs and gang members and why people join gangs. And really I showed up at Homeboy with probably all the biases and all the assumptions that the rest of America have when they think about gangs and gang members.
And what I’ve learned quickly on was that many of these men and women… gang activity is 90% male, 10% female. Although our organization is 60/40 because there are a lot of women who are affected by gangs, and they’re affiliated with gangs and they’re girlfriends of gang members. The point is many of these folks are second, third-generation gang members. Their uncle jumped them into a gang. Their mother jumped them into a gang at a young age. They took them… they sort of browbeat them not to go to school, so that they’d be on the corner lookout for a drug deal.
So at age 10, 11, 12, 13, they’re jumped into a gang. And so almost, they were destined to be gang members when they were born. They never really had a chance. And so what we are here at Homeboy is when someone wants to leave that gang life, when they’re leaving prison, we help them get out of the gang life. We help do the healing because all these folks are victims of complex trauma at a young age as when they were abused by their parents and then pushed into a gang. And so part of this is about: How do you help them heal so they can move their life forward?
Denver: Yeah. That’s the only life they’ve ever known. Sometimes you don’t appreciate that. Right from the very get-go, that’s been what they’ve been directed to do.
Thomas: That’s right. And I remember early on when I was at Homeboy, I would sit down and talk to Father Greg quite a bit, trying to understand, absorb what this is all about. And I remember sitting down and asked him a similar question you just asked me, and he wound around to a point of saying essentially, the difference between our lives… him and ours, my life, his life… and the lives of our homies or our clients, is that we at least had one parent who loved us along the way. And that separates these two populations… is they never had anybody who loved them.
And so while we’re here at Homeboy, I know it sounds goofy and cliche, we’re here to love them. And by loving them, we’re trusting them, not judging them. If you do those three things, they will change their life.
Denver: That’s incredible. Yeah.
Thomas: They will move forward positively. And someone like a hard-charging business guy would never have understood that until I showed up at Homeboy Industries.
Denver: So hard-charging business guy, most recently at Aramark, how did you find your way here?
Thomas: Yeah, almost by… I think early on was coincidence, now I think it’s a little bit by Providence. Look, Aramark is a managed service company, food services, uniform services. I ran the uniform businesses, but it’s a service business. And so, what’s important about a service business is leading your teams, being local in your community. So we were always very encouraged to get involved locally.
And so I was on the board of the Salvation Army of Los Angeles, and a fellow board member there I became friends with… and he was on the board of Homeboy. And after I left Aramark, he knew I had time on my hands. And so, he asked me down to lunch at the Homegirl Cafe. And so I met Victor down there, and as I’m sitting there eating lunch and I’m looking around, and then I’m looking and he’s telling me about Homeboy… never knew much about Homeboy, he’s telling me about it, and I’m looking at the folks working. I said, Oh my gosh!… I’m thinking to myself, I would’ve never hired anybody from this population in my businesses.
I’ve never hired a felon. I would’ve never hired a gang member. Never hired anybody with… would’ve never hired anybody with all those tattoos on their face. But what I’m watching is, they’re doing a good job. They’re working hard. They’re interacting with the customers. They’re working as a team.
And so as Victor talked more about Homeboy, I became intrigued that, oh, in the concept of the job, Homeboy is really helping people change their lives dramatically. And let me just say: To me, that met my values because I believe a well-run company, organization, corporation is about three things keeping a balance. You succeed in the marketplace for your shareholders. You have products and services customers want to pay you for. And lastly, it’s a great place to work for your employees, so your employees can make their lives’ dream come true via their job. And so I believe in that. I believe good businesses are good for our society.
And then when I saw Homeboy in that cafe… and that first day was like, Oh my gosh! In the context of the job, we’re helping people who have been incarcerated… never had a job before… move their life forward. And so to me, it was like, Okay, I’m on board, let me volunteer. So I started volunteering, and a couple months later, Father Greg asked me to be CEO. But that’s how I got involved. It was just…
Denver: That’s interesting.
Thomas: …a lunch. Thought, how can I put my business sales to use in a different way? And that’s how I ended up there.
Denver: We all have these gifts and talents, and then you’re always looking around for where can I get maximum leverage. And you got maximum leverage sitting there at that lunch that day saying, “Wow, not only am I just doing a business here, I’m doing all these other things at the same time.”
Thomas: That’s right. And for me, joining Homeboy was a little bit of a leap of faith because when Father Greg asked me to come on and be CEO, I didn’t think I was going to work again and all those things, but what did I think? And what does a for-profit guy know about running a nonprofit with gang members?
But really what it’s about was that I couldn’t pass up the chance to be in Father Greg’s orbit for a bit of time. I still had that corporate mindset of thinking, always planning ahead: what’s my next career move. And so interestingly, I was wondering, if I went to be with Homeboy and worked there for six months to a year, could I ever go back to the for-profit world? Would I be viewed as damaged goods or a guy too soft and not able to do things?
And so I called my business network of friends, and I asked them that question and they pretty much said, “Yeah, once you’re out of the hard-charging game, you’re out.”
Denver: Yeah. There you go.
Thomas: It is like frustrating to think that’s true, but look, I joined Homeboy. I love my time. It’s been a beautiful chapter in my life. I’ve had more stress, and it’s been more intellectually challenging in this role than running a $2 billion business.
“You walk into our doors, and you feel something different. You feel a vibe; you feel people being joyous; you feel people wanting to be there. And these are folks who have terrible lives, but they want to change their life around. And so there’s this culture of: We can be better; we can do this as a group. It’s about kinship and compassion…”
Denver: Oh, no question about it. It’s much harder. And also the metrics are not quite as clearcut as they are in business. There’s so many others. And again, knowing a lot of guys who’ve made that transition from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, I’m not saying you’re one of these guys, but you actually sometimes think, “Ha! Give me six months or a year and I’ll fix that place.” You know what I mean? “And get it back on track again.” And it ain’t that simple.
Thomas: It ain’t that simple, right. I had all the hubris of a corporate CEO. And yeah, it’s not that simple, but then also, well, listen, Homeboy’s so… you walk in… anybody who’s listening, please come to LA, come visit us. You walk into our doors, and you feel something different. You feel a vibe; you feel people being joyous; you feel people wanting to be there. And these are folks who have terrible lives, but they want to change their life around.
And so there’s this culture of: We can be better; we can do this as a group. It’s about kinship and compassion, and recognizing… I’m like a CEO, I’m not going to… I have to make sure I keep that culture strong. What they needed was organizational development, strategy, fundraising, business acumen, all those things, which I can do those, but I’ve recognized I got to learn from them this culture. And how do you lead with compassion and kinship?
“I have now learned through these years the struggles of people who are poor in America. There’s two Americas, one for you and I, and then one for the people who are poor. And gang members all fit into the people who are poor. So there’s two Americas in terms of their healthcare, in terms of the job opportunities, in terms of how they can rent a house. It’s all these struggles that we at Homeboy help people through.”
Denver: Yeah, which maybe leads me to the question about your book and that’s The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life. What is the Homeboy way?
Thomas: Yeah. I wrote the book because of for the first few years of being at Homeboy, I had so many head-turning interactions, events, learnings that I’m thinking, Oh my gosh, if I ever to go back to the for-profit world, what would I bring back and learn? And so that’s what sort of took me on. So to answer your question on the Homeboy way, it’s: How do you understand people in a different way? How do you lead people in a different way? How do you help people in a different way?
I want to take this from two perspectives. Look, poverty in America has been the same for the last 45 years. It’s been the same narrow band percentage, right? We have to pick our heads up and figure out why. I have now learned through these years the struggles of people who are poor in America. There’s two Americas, one for you and I, and then one for the people who are poor. And gang members all fit into the people who are poor. So there’s two Americas in terms of their healthcare, in terms of the job opportunities, in terms of how they can rent a house. It’s all these struggles that we at Homeboy help people through.
And very much so, it’s about: How do you believe in them, invest in them? And the Homeboy way is: How do you lift people up? In some ways you can say, How do you lift people up out of poverty? How do you get them to heal from their trauma? How do you get them to be contributing members of our society? And then if you look at it from a business lens, it’s… look, over, now, half of our senior staff are former clients. And so it’s about economic equity.
America is really realizing the problems of racial inequity and social and system-wise biases. Homeboy is on the front line and has in its 34 years been working against that. And so Homeboy’s got a way of helping people. And I just wanted to explain that to more folks and let other people take on the Homeboy way.
Denver: Yeah. You did a great job of it, I must say. Homeboy has such a wonderful spectrum of programs. I want to ask you about a couple of them, and one you’ve already touched upon, and that is tattoo removal. Tell us about that.
Thomas: Yeah, we essentially, we take off over 12,000 tattoos a year…
Denver: Wow, that’s a painful experience, isn’t it?
Thomas: That’s what they tell me, I haven’t done it. It’s a lot more painful getting your tattoos off than getting them on, they say. And we’re blessed with having volunteer doctors, over 40 volunteer doctors who volunteer their time to come in and do work in our tattoo removal clinic.
And it’s just the obvious thing. So many things will hold people back from getting jobs, and the clear one is having gang tattoos, whether on the face or on their hands. And so we help remove those gang tattoos so we can take that barrier away. But oftentimes though in gang life, as people are leaving gang life, it’s almost like the tattoos are the last thing they give up on. And it’s a big step for them to take off their gang symbol and their gang label. It’s an important step.
Denver: Yeah, I can imagine. It’s a symbolic step in so many ways. When you begin to do that, you’re really making a statement about what your future is going to look like.
Thomas: Very much, very much.
“We help not just tattoo removal, but they go through anger management classes, substance abuse classes. We do get them the GED. We have mental health therapies. We have a whole host of services that help them reenter back into society… and obviously the job we give them as they work in our social enterprises.”
Denver: Yeah. I think about maybe 80% of the women and men and youth who walk through your doors do not have a stable and safe place to live. And it leads us to something that you’re working on right now called Hope Village?
Thomas: In many ways it’s like… Los Angeles County has this massive problem with people without houses, homelessness, people unhoused, as they say now. And so what we go do at Homeboy Industries. Let me back up a little bit. What we provide is what’s called reentry services, so someone coming out of the jail system, prison system. So we have a whole host of services.
We help not just tattoo removal, but they go through anger management classes, substance abuse classes. We do get them the GED. We have mental health therapies. We have a whole host of services that help them reenter back into society… and obviously the job we give them as they work in our social enterprises.
The one thing we don’t provide, unfortunately, is housing. And we want to change that dynamic. And so we have this vision. Thankfully we’ve become financially stable over the last several years. We have some donors lined up to help us out. We want it in a private way, because essentially everything we do at Homeboy is private. So we’re… let me back up for a second. We’re a $30 million organization. We raise about $20 million a year of donor support. We are blessed with generous donors. About $8 million comes from our business revenues and only $2 million comes from government. So it’s been hard for us to get government dollars.
And so in the same… it’s not that we don’t want government dollars, it’s that they have their way of helping gang members; we have our way, and we know our way is successful, But one thing we also want to do, we also want to do housing in the Homeboy style of privately funded. So we know how to help our population. We have a cultural competency to help gang members, and we do want to provide housing.
It’s one of those barriers that as people leave the jail system… Think about it this way. If they leave the jail system, who’s their support network? They don’t have a family. They don’t really… and they’re, deep down, they don’t want to go back to their gang. So if they don’t go back to their gang, and they’re not going back to the neighborhood, they’ll have no place to live. And so we have to help provide that.
Unfortunately, the gang tries to pull them back in, and sometimes they have no other option but to go back with the gang because that’s their only somewhat support system. And then the whole cycle of violence and incarceration starts all over again.
Denver: The society doesn’t do a great job of that. We give them about two cents when they leave jail, and we pretty much tell all the employers: Don’t hire these people! when they fill out the form and know they have a felony or whatever the case may be. Many people think they return just because they want… they don’t have a lot of options sometimes.
Thomas: They don’t have a lot of options; I agree with you. I think it’s silly for us as society. We release tens of thousands of people out of the prison system every year, and they think that some government agency is going to help them get a job, a little resume prep, and that person’s going to keep the job and have enough resilience to keep the job. It’s just nuts because they have all these other pressures on them in terms of debt they come out with, no family support, no housing.
Thomas: They come out of prison still addicted to substances. And so good luck. They’re not going to make it.
Denver: Yeah. How do they find you?
Thomas: It’s through our reputation. We’ve been in Los Angeles for 34 years. Listen, there’s over 200,000 gang members in the county of Los Angeles still. And as Father Greg says, I definitely believe it, there’s no doubt every gang member in Los Angeles knows who we are.
And in my words, they respect what we do, and they don’t bother us, in my words, because they know someday they want to get out of the gang life and they want to be able to walk through our doors and ask for help. And so they want us to hang around and be around for them when they’re…
Denver: Yeah, and I would imagine a lot of them have younger siblings and are going to be moms and dads. And they know that this life is not for the people that they love, and maybe they’ve had a burden or whatever, but no, they want some alternatives. So those who follow them don’t have to deal with that.
In your book, you have some, I don’t know, 55 rules to break, or maybe assumptions to disavow ourselves of if we are going to break some of these cycles of poverty and marginalization. So let me ask you about a couple. One is: my gifts or skills are not the help-people type. Okay. What would you say to that?
Thomas: Yeah, that’s my way of encouraging people to help others. Look, I’m a business guy, right? I love businesses. I love doing business. I’ve excelled at that. But even my skills I’ve come to learn can be used to help people. And really it’s also about, and this is what I learned from Father Greg, to move to the people who are in the margins of our society and to be in kinship with them, and just to be in community with them… I know it sounds cliche, but I’m not saying… To be clear, you don’t move to the margins… the people on the margins of our society and wag your finger and tell them how to do something. They’ve been told all their life how to do things. They’ve had…
Denver: Been lectured their whole life.
Thomas: They’re lectured their whole life and told they’re no good their whole life. But if you have someone who moves to the margins and has been in kinship with them and forms a relationship, that makes a difference. You don’t need a lot of skills to do that. You kind of have to force yourself to step that way. But yeah, you don’t need a lot. You don’t need a lot of functional skills to make that…
Denver: It’s a mindset, it’s a mindset to say that I’m going to do it. Another rule to break and this is: We should always strive for certainty. Now I can understand that rule. I’ll tell you, nothing I hate more than when I get an invitation to some place, and it says black tie optional. And I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, no. Tell me it’s either black tie or it’s business attire. I want certainty, but we always strive for certainty. You say that’s a rule that we need to break. Tell us about that.
Thomas: That’s definitely a rule for me to break. And look, I was one of those guys who’s sort of… yeah, I want to be certain about things. I’m with you about black tie.
Denver: That’s the only place… about the certainty thing. Yeah.
Thomas: Because listen, we’re kind of grow… I’m going to give you a longer philosophical answer here. Look, in the business world, you want certainty when you run your organization; you want certainty in your business plan; you want certainty in how you treat employees. Personally, you want certainly what the rules of the game are so you can succeed because if you don’t understand the rules, you can’t succeed, I get it. But if you’re in the realm of helping people, and if your business model is helping people and helping them heal from their trauma or helping people and giving them the chance, there’s no certainty around that.
And if you try to map it out and say: This is the prescribed way of going about it, it’s just not going to happen that way, and you end being frustrated. And so the point about this is about striving for certainty– it’s how that affects you as a person, and you become… either you avoid situations where you should have a leap of faith and jump in, or it’s just too stressful, and you walk away.
“Let’s not judge others by their behavior, but understand what’s behind that behavior and what drives it, and see if we can solve that problem.”
Denver: Yeah. We’re living in a world you have to be comfortable with ambiguity because there’s less and less certainty all the way around us, and it’s being able to be comfortable and finesse those situations. Give us another rule. You’ve got 55 I could go down. What’s your favorite of the 55?
Thomas: Oh, yeah, sure. Let me say it this way in the sense of not judging people and have to get underneath what the situation is. I’ll give you two stories. But early on in my time at Homeboy, I was focused on helping our social enterprise businesses get up and moving forward on. One of our businesses that we have is a farmer’s market.
So we have our Homeboy Bakery. We make artisan bread, handmade bread. There were 26 farmers’ markets around the county of Los Angeles. Over the seven days, we would… it’s a great business for our guys to go out and set up a tent and sell the bread because it gives them an interaction with the population they normally don’t interact with. And they sell the bread, and you learn skills. And by the way, if anybody’s listening to this who was a corporate auditor or an HR person, you would just… it’d drive you crazy. All the process breakdowns we have.
Essentially, we have our guys who are felons; they come to the bakery, they get in the van, they bring in the bread, they set up the tent, they bring back the cash. They hand us back the cash. It just would’ve drove a corporate auditor crazy. But it works because they cared in the job about what it’s about.
Okay, George, one of our best farmer’s market guys. He always sold out quickly in his markets, sold the most amount, and he had a real gift for gab. So I was walking to the bakery on a Wednesday of one week, and I heard George talking to our bakery manager saying, “I can’t work at my markets this week. I need time off.” So I’m like the new guy, I want to be friendly. So I go up to George, “Hey, what are you doing?” I’m thinking he’s taking the time off, taking a couple of days personal time, a vacation, time off. But what he tells me is “No,” he says, “I’m reporting in.” I said, “What does that mean?” He says he’s reporting to county jail.
He came out of prison with a lot of debt. And he, as opposed to sort of borrowing money at high interest rates or borrowing from his gang, he chose to, at that time, you can report to county jail and spend three days and that you can…
Denver: Reduce the sentence, yeah.
Thomas: …retire portions of your debt. All right. So as he’s telling me that, I’m like blown away, wow, that’s a really responsible thing. I mean, I don’t know if I would report in to county jail just… I would figure, I’m thinking to myself, I would figure out some other way to find that money. But I’m thinking, I walked with the guy; that’s very responsible.
But I was thinking all weekend, as he’s in… as I’m home, I’m thinking, I’m very new at this, thinking maybe I should have offered to loan him the money or just given him the money along the way. And I didn’t ask, so I’m kind of a little bit beating myself up over it. All right. Move the story forward, following Tuesday, I’m walking in and I see George. And I say, “Hey, George. How did that go? I was thinking about you all weekend.” And then I can see the stress on his face, and he was telling me what happened.
He has custody of his two children, 10-year-old and an eight-year-old. No other family support, no baby mama around. And he had a caregiver supposed to come that weekend to help take care of his kids while he reported to county jail. Caregiver couldn’t come, and he was obligated to go to jail. So he spent the whole weekend, three-day weekend in jail while leaving his kids home unattended in their apartment, and he was stressed how that would work for them..
All right. So I’m talking to George, I’m hearing this story, and as I tell the story often, I think what I’ve now learned, we have to stop our minds and not judge George, not think what I would have done differently or not thought what he should have done differently, but just be compassionate about the situation he put himself into… and also get fired up to the way the system, the society has forced that situation to happen, that people got to choose between going to paying down debt, going to jail, leaving the kids at home, or a mother’s got to choose between diapers or her own meal for her baby.
So there’s a lot of stuff. And what I’m saying is what I’ve learned at Homeboy: Let’s not judge others by their behavior…. Let’s not judge others by their behavior, but understand what’s behind that behavior and what drives it, and see if we can solve that problem.
“…people have this cliche in the world that money doesn’t solve problems. I want to say, ‘No, money solves problems for poor people. Money solves problem for poor people. I just want to be really clear about that.’”
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s a great story. I was speaking to a woman from Kidogo the other day, which does childcare in Nairobi, and there’s really no good childcare available, although they’re changing that situation there. But mothers who need to go to work and can’t find childcare, they actually tie their children to the furniture so they can go to work.
And we were saying much the same thing. We look at this, again, I think you’re talking about people from that privileged background to say how can anybody ever make that decision or that choice, but then you stop and you realize that we very well might have made the same choice if we had been in those circumstances, and we don’t understand it.
So it really is putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. And what seems like bizarre, really, you know what? Probably I would do the same thing, and it really humanizes us, I’m thinking about it.
Let me ask you about problem solving. Your approach to problem solving is maybe different than you experienced in the corporate world. And I think you even said that at times, it’s counterintuitive. How so?
Thomas: Yeah. In the corporate world, you’re taught to solve the problem to protect the assets of the corporation, to protect the reputation of the organization, and to do what the shareholders would want first and foremost.
In the Homeboy world, it’s about helping the individual no matter what. Helping them and not worry about setting a precedent to what you’re doing for a certain person and not doing… so you may come to me today and you’re struggling. You’re making payments, you had an illness in the family, you had to put more money to doctors, you can’t pay rent this month, or you didn’t pay your electric bill, and your electricity is going to get cut off. We’ll give you the money. We’ll give you the money to make that happen.
Money.. people have this cliche in the world that money doesn’t solve problems. I want to say, “No, money solves problems for poor people. Money solves problem for poor people. I just want to be really clear about that…”
Denver: There is a distinction.
Thomas: …money solves problem, okay?
Thomas: And so, well, like for you, we may give you the $400, but if someone else comes in tomorrow and asks for $300, we may say no, because it’s a different situation. It’s about the individual, working with the individual and what are we going to do to help that one individual… and not caring how that affects anybody else in the organization.
Denver: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Thomas: It’s a totally different approach to it. And when you get there, and you believe in it, you start thinking, you end up doing things, you end up solving problems differently along the way.
Denver: Yeah. You’re right. In the corporate world, it’s our policy. And we do not violate our policy because if we violate our policy for you, we have to do it for everyone else. In this world, you treat everyone as an individual, and you’ll look at it, at that particular case and at that moment, and then make an independent decision, but do so through the lens of fairness and equity.
Thomas: That’s exactly right.
“…what’s so fundamental about Homeboy’s success is that when someone walks through our doors, we don’t judge them for the color of their skin, for their tattoos on their face, or the gang they’ve had, or the felony they had. We just trust them, and love them, and care for them, and teach them: It’s not about the gang you’re in, it’s about who you are.”
Denver: Mm-hmm. How do you think the nature of leadership is changing for someone like yourself heading up a very significant NGO nonprofit organization over the course of the last two years, let’s say? As our world has changed, have you found that you’ve had to adapt in any way? And do you feel that there are different expectations people have of leaders in the nonprofit sector now than they did, let’s say back in 2018 or 2019?
Thomas: I want to answer this. I understand the spirit of your question, let me answer it this way. I think what makes Homeboy very unique and I think it’s why I wanted to tell the Homeboy story because it’s so relevant for the times we live in today. The work Homeboy’s been doing for 34 years, we’ve been on the front lines of people who were… think about our population we serve, as an organization, we’re 80% people of color.
And looking at the clients we serve, they’ve all been victims of racial injustice along the way. They’ve all been victims of economic injustice. They’ve all been victims of societal injustices, police injustices, parole officer injustices. They’ve all been victims of those things, and yet what’s so fundamental about Homeboy’s success is that when someone walks through our doors, we don’t judge them for the color of their skin, for their tattoos on their face, or the gang they’ve had, or the felony they had. We just trust them, and love them, and care for them, and teach them: It’s not about the gang you’re in, it’s about who you are.
And so think about our population, it’s all been racially divided for all their time. We come into Homeboy and listen, we have our bakery, we have two rival gang members probably of different races, standing shoulder to shoulder, rolling dough together. Okay. So that’s who we’re about. So what I’m saying is, so in the spirit of your question: How does leadership change in this time of these awarenesses and it needs to change? And this is where I talk about that.
Look, I’m proud of the fact that over half of our senior staff are former clients so people who have lived experiences, and that’s not easy to do. You have to go overboard to invest and to promote people up by not just giving them the job, but how do you teach them to do the job along the way. And one of the rules I’ve talked about to break is advanced… oh, this is the rule that says advanced positions should be color blind or color neutral. That’s what we’ve learned in our corporate world. I’m saying no.
Thomas: You can’t be neutral on these things. If you’re going to have… every well-run organization has a management team that has as much diversity as their front-line employees. For Homeboy, management team has as much diversity as its clients it serves. You have to do things differently to overinvest and to lead so that we can invest in people who have lived experience, who have been poor, never had the economic opportunities, and give them those opportunities and the toolkits, and skill them up to get them higher in the organization.
Denver: Yeah. Racism in this society is like a current in the stream, and it is heading in one direction. So if you just say, “Well, I’m not racist and I’ll just lay in this stream.” You know what? You’re going to end up in the exact same place that the racists ended up. It will just take you longer to get there. So as you’re saying, you actually have to swim against the stream, in order to do it. And that’s the way that you look at it in terms of these promotions.
Thomas: That’s right. You got to be proactive about it. You got to think it through. You have to look at the stories in the book, but there’s like, I’ve noticed for our population who’ve always been told no their whole life. Let me say this, I talked about promotions. In the corporate world, when we were all growing up in the corporate world, we kind of knew the unwritten rule was, Boy, if I want that promotion, I probably have to do that work for six months beforehand to show that I can do it and prove that I can do it, and I’ll get the promotion.
Well, our guys, our folks, they’ve been so disappointed, and no one’s ever come through on commitment. So they’re not going to work at that job for six months before getting a promotion. Now I could be frustrated about that dynamic, but I’m just saying that dynamic exists, so live with that, understanding it, and to be more proactive about it. So examples like that is how we have to think about it.
Denver: Absolutely. That’s a great distinction. This has been a spiritual journey for you, both in terms of getting there… back when you took on this assignment about a decade ago, and that has just evolved over the course of the last decade. Share with us a little bit about that.
Thomas: Yeah, I’d like to do that. Look, I was always a religious person, spiritual person, cradle Catholic along the way. My wife and I are Sunday churchgoers, taught our kids that. But yeah, in the corporate world, you’re not allowed to talk about God and religion and faith.
Denver: No. No, no.
Thomas: It’s really verboten to do that, verbotento do that. So I show up at Homeboy and just because I just… obviously I explained why, but it’s really to help other people and how I can give back. And as I’m opening my eyes, I’m listening to our folks, our homies, and listening to what’s helping them change their life, and they’re leaning into their own spirituality, their own spiritual path, their faith. And I’m thinking to myself, that’s right. That’s the right thing to do.
And I’m listening to other people talk about their God, it’s very freeing. And so I started… I’m still nervous talking about God to you, even after all these years, because we have been told not to do it, but it’s like I started recognizing what is my own spiritual path. And in relationship with several of the guys around here and recognizing that they have a much deeper understanding of God and religion and the Bible than I do, I decided to let me learn, let me try to catch up.
And so I started getting… I had a spiritual director, Father Greg has helped me on different occasions, but it’s really about now combining my business skillset and my own spiritual path. I have grown so much spiritually. I’ve still a long way to go as it takes, but there’s joy in finding one’s own spiritual path in relationship with the work you’re doing. And it’s the call of the King. It’s putting action in place to help people who are struggling in our society.
Denver: How does that come across you think to the people you serve in the job you do, with the spirituality at the center, the way it is? And it radiates from you, and you can see that. How do you think that impacts your leadership, the team… just the way you show up every day?
Thomas: Yeah. Let me answer it this way. It’s an important distinction. It shows up like they believe that I believe. They understand that I’m working on my own spiritual path as well, just like they are. And it is so true that no one owns, no, you can’t measure someone’s worthiness more or especially their worthiness with God more so than one person versus another. And so at Homeboy, it’s a community where we do this together. And so maybe to answer your question as the CEO, if I’m willing to humble myself and learn it, just like they’re learning it; maybe that provides authenticity to what we all do.
Denver: Yeah, it’s humility. Usually the guy at the top has got all the answers and you’re saying, I’m working on them. It’s not been easy and it’s a journey. We haven’t reached that destination and we never will. Let me close with this, Tom. You are guided by your 2030 ambition to change the way the world views, judges, and treats our most marginalized, and those would be the formerly incarcerated and gang-involved. Now we know, just from observing our political process, it ain’t easy to change people’s minds about anything. Tell us how you are going about that and how you hope to see that ambition realized.
Thomas: Part of what we’re doing to go about that is, it’s fundamental to what Homeboy’s about and what Father Greg has taught us, is that you can’t demonize somebody you are in relationship with, and so it’s reaching across… and it’s rival gang members rolling dough on the bread table right next to each other.
It’s folks from different… now to your point on the political side, we’ve had bipartisan support at Homeboy. We’ve had Congress people from both sides come and visit us and learn what we’re doing. Fundamental to what Homeboy is about, and really my view of what Father Greg’s work continues to this day is shining a light on the goodness of people, that there’s no one that’s disposable in our society… to get rid of that notion.
And so it’s about talking about Homeboy. It’s showing people that these are good folks. I’m taking an angle that’s showing the world that you can run businesses with this population, that we have a Zagat-rated cafe, our Homegirl Cafe. There’s only seven other restaurants in downtown Los Angeles with as high a rating. And they’re run by former felons and gang members.
So that’s my angle of this world is that it’s a good population; invest in them; let them be employed. But fundamentally, as Greg was saying and I’ve come to learn is: God is too busy loving us to be judging us, and so let’s stop judging them. I was a judger as a CEO in the corporate world. Let’s stop judging, and let’s just understand we’re all loved by God and we’re all in this one community. And if we don’t demonize each other, we can move forward in a much more positive way.
Denver: Yeah, I think in a world where there’s a shortage of talent too, there’s a treasure trove of great talent right underneath us if we would just only open our eyes and tap it.
For listeners who want to learn more about Homeboy Industries or financially support this work, tell us a little bit about your website and what people will find on it.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s homeboyindustries.org, and we have a Facebook following under Homeboy. What you’ll find on there is there’s a lot of content about what Homeboy Industries’ mission is, but particularly on our Facebook page, we have what’s called our Morning Meeting.
And so every day, we get gathered together in a space. We give announcements, class schedules. We sing Happy Birthday to people, celebrate when they’re off parole, celebrate when they graduate from high school, that type of thing. But we end that Morning Meeting with a Thought of the Day, and people rotate.
And so a lot of our folks are just first-person experience telling their story, and there is an affirmation. So come to our website and Facebook, you’ll see our Thought of the Day and you’ll get some inspiration each morning.
Denver: And if people are looking for more inspiration, a very thoughtful and insightful read to pick yourself up… and do yourself a favor is The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life. Well, thanks, Tom, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thomas: Thank you for having me, Denver. I appreciate it.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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