What do Charlie Sheen, Wikileaks and REDF have in common?

While I am not sure how to answer the riddle, now that I have your attention I want to turn it to answering one that gets less attention:  how do we create jobs in California as a means to end the cycle that traps far too many people who hit the starting line with few connections and many enormous challenges – and run the race circling through joblessness, homeless shelters, jail and prison and back again?

Everyone says the topic of job creation is hot hot hot – but it probably gets a lot less mind-share from most of us than the topical headline of today’s blog.

I recently spent a week in Los Angeles and San Diego talking with lots of people in business, philanthropy and nonprofits about how the six nonprofits that just joined our portfolio and other groups will create jobs that end the cycle.

And actually, despite the ploy about the blog headline – I found tremendous excitement about making this happen.  Everyone understands what we’re trying to do:  expand the capability of nonprofits to operate businesses at greater scale, creating jobs that help people transition into the workforce, and the employee supports that make sure they succeed in keeping a job.

And we are gaining traction with companies (health care, waste management) and public agencies (schools and universities, utilities) that are intrigued with the idea of purchasing services from these enterprises as part of their supply chain that delivers extra value by also creating jobs for those who would otherwise be chronically unemployed.

I met with the dedicated, focused leaders of the two portfolio organizations we selected for our first foray into Los Angeles – Gregory Scott of the Weingart Center Association, and Mark Loranger of Chrysalis. I’ll focus on one of them here.

Weingart houses thousands of people who would otherwise be homeless and living on Skid Row in Los Angeles.  After five years at the helm, and just completing a state-of-the-art health center in partnership with JWCH, Gregg has set as a top priority creating jobs for the people who live in Weingart’s properties.

Meanwhile he is speaking out to galvanize action about what he sees, and inspire hope about what can be done – noting in a recent Black History Month piece in the Huffington Post the “unfortunate truth” that, “African-Americans are seven times more likely to be homeless than whites, and twenty times more likely than Latinos” – but going on to talk about what must be done to change that picture.

For those of you who have not visited Skid Row in Los Angeles, I have walked through the neighborhood on streets where literally hundreds of people – some just homeless, and others obviously ill with mental health or addiction problems — were sitting or lying on the sidewalks.  It never felt all that menacing or scary, just intensely depressing.  Especially when you’d look up at the towering office buildings of downtown Los Angeles blocks away – like a tragic abdication of responsibility for ‘leveling the playing field’ and treating all people with respect.

Committed, nonprofits, government, and the business community have concentrated on changing the neighborhood.  There is increasing development on some blocks with new offices and high-end apartment buildings.  Still many people who live in the neighborhood are homeless and extremely poor.  There have been major civic fights over gentrification, law enforcement, and the provision of housing and services.

Weingart is one of the neighborhood’s beacons, focused on creating opportunity and hope for the poorest people who live there with decent housing, health care, and now jobs.

This year, they will start at least one new enterprise, creating jobs for people to have a chance to take that all-important first step into the workforce.

One exciting thing about having a portfolio is that REDF has the chance to bring groups like Weingart that are just starting a social enterprise with organizations like Chrysalis that are experienced leaders in social enterprise and job creation, but are eager to expand, create new businesses, and do even more.

And we also have the chance to build on the learning and experience of a whole business network with others in the past and current portfolio that have done this work in the Bay Area, and in other parts of the country.

That spirit is also motivating us to create a national network of nonprofits that run businesses to create jobs for people who would otherwise have the hardest time getting into the workforce.  You will hear more about what we learn and what we do together here – stay tuned!