As Farber interns, REDF put us to work on challenging projects that served to advance the strategy, operations, systems, and financials of the social enterprises we were there to support. Even though I have many years of work experience, this was my first job as an MBA candidate, and I was thrilled to be able to put what I’ve learned so far to good use.
I worked with Chrysalis, a social enterprise located in LA that is dedicated to creating a pathway to self-sufficiency for homeless and low-income people through their businesses lines: Chrysalis Works and Chrysalis Staffing. At Chrysalis I had the opportunity to learn firsthand how a social enterprise can be expertly-run, with excellence and high-quality standards. I witnessed how every decision was made with the mission of the organization at the forefront.
At Chrysalis every single decision is taken thinking of the end goal. You do not doubt it for a moment. But what I enjoyed most about my experience with REDF and Chrysalis were the lessons that forced me to go back to the basics, and which helped me grow both professionally and personally in the process.
Lesson 1: Leave no one behind
Chrysalis’ office is located in Downtown L.A., in what used to be the core of Skid Row. The size of the area has been reduced significantly, unfortunately not because the number of people who are homeless has been reduced, but because the commercial districts have grown substantially and their business associations are focused on making the streets cleaner and safer. That growth has allowed Chrysalis to expand the market for Chrysalis Works—their street maintenance social enterprise. The more committed the Business Improvement Districts are to improve the city, the more job opportunities Chrysalis can create. The organization has found a way to ensure that L.A’.s prosperity does not leave behind people who are striving to improve their lives. They have created a virtuous circle with immense possibilities.
Lesson 2: Forgiveness
My co-workers at Chrysalis were fantastic. This committed, talented, professional, hard-working and incredibly motivated group showed me how to run a social enterprise in exactly the way it is supposed to be run. But they also taught me an unexpected lesson: how to forgive. In my first days at Chrysalis I learned how to treat every client with total respect and trust, focusing on the future and not making assumptions about a client’s past or what led them to Chrysalis. One of my co-workers mentioned to me they were getting ready to visit a family member in prison. Despite the fact that this family member had attempted to blame my co-worker for the crime that landed him in prison, my co-worker understood his desperation, and forgave him unconditionally. It was precisely at that moment that I understood what made Chrysalis culture, and the culture of other employment social enterprises, so unique: people understood how to forgive.
Lesson 3: Are you the barrier?
I took the bus or the metro to go to work every day. Because I was commuting to the Skid Row area, the line I rode was often filled with people from the neighborhood who could have easily been a Chrysalis client. After a few days I realized that even though I was interacting with people of similar backgrounds and challenges as part of my job at Chrysalis, I was ignoring the people on the bus/metro. I decided to change that.
The first thing I noticed after establishing eye contact with people on the bus/metro is that they were often surprised. It seemed they were more used to being ignored, treated as if they did not exist. Sometimes people asked me for money, but when I responded that I just wanted to know how their day was going, the responses I got were extraordinary.
One gentleman, after noticing my accent (I am from Uruguay) asked me where I was from and proceeded to list all the Latin American countries and their capitals with impressive accuracy. He had worked for a major courier in the past and his curiosity had taught him to learn where he was sending the packages to. He was now living in the streets.
Simple human interactions like these taught me much more than I would ever learn as an MBA student. REDF and the social enterprises businesses it supports are dedicated to breaking down employment barriers. Many of those barriers are systematic—caused or exacerbated by a less than level playing field. But perceptual barriers, and our assumptions about people’s ability to contribute, are also at play. Chrysalis’s mission is to “change lives through jobs.” REDF’s motto is to “invest in employment and hope.” I witnessed first-hand how both these sentiments are put into practice. I was attracted to this philosophy when I applied to the Farber internship, but what I had not anticipated is how by investing in me and offering me this job, these two organizations would change my life and give me so many lessons of hope.
Alejandra Rossi is an MBA student at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. She is a COLE Leadership Fellow and CASE (Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) Fellow, as well as cabinet member of the Net Impact and Entrepreneurship student clubs. Prior to business school, she worked for over six years in different organizations supporting entrepreneurs, ranging from small businesses to high impact entrepreneurs. She has helped develop and grow 250+ entrepreneurial projects. She is also an entrepreneur herself: she has founded several education projects in her home country – Uru-guay. Among them, Enseñ a Uruguay, the Uruguayan branch of Teach for All. She was named Young Agent of Change by the InterAmerican Development Bank in 2012.
This is part of our Farber Blog Series.