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From Barriers to Building Blocks: My Farber Summer – Marissa Uchimura, University of Michigan Ross School of Business & Ford School of Public Policy

I came to Michigan to pursue a dual MBA/MPP after four years in the education sector, hoping to discover new ideas and solutions I felt were lacking within our public education system. The students and families I encountered while teaching in Baltimore faced systemic obstacles that schools alone could not take on. But I knew there were people and organizations attacking these barriers in innovative ways: I just needed to find them.

Enter REDF, an organization I learned about while collaborating with a group of other impact-focused MBAs at Michigan. I was drawn to REDF’s mission of community and economic development but even more captivated by their commitment to advancing racial equity. After an inspiring conversation with Sam Buck, a fellow dual degree student and Farber alumnus, I knew that REDF was the ideal place for me to expand my education-oriented self into the new and exciting areas of workforce development and employment social enterprise. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be accepted into the program.

Before the summer began, I had aspirations to leverage my background as an educator and work with social enterprises that supported opportunity youth. In a true “full circle” moment, REDF announced Civic Works – a nonprofit serving the very neighborhood where I used to teach – as a member of its Growth Portfolio. A match made in heaven! I eagerly onboarded with Civic Works and began working on a new market entry analysis and human capital evaluation for an existing line of business in their Center for Sustainable Careers (CSC).

As an employment social enterprise, CSC refers residents who have been disconnected from the workforce into its relationship-intensive program. Participants receive wraparound social services and paid training in a high-wage construction trade before being placed into a permanent position with one of CSC’s employer partners. I spent the first five weeks conducting interviews with Civic Works staff and industry experts, meeting with leadership, and poring over market research and labor statistics. However, it did not take long for me to realize the many challenges that CSC faces in finding a sustainable career path for its participants while ensuring its own long-term business operations.

With the support of incredible REDF portfolio managers, I took Civic Works through a structured process of feasibility analysis, meeting weekly to discuss progress and think through questions. On the surface, it looked like a traditional MBA project for new market entry – but a closer look revealed the additional layers of impact that Civic Works had to consider. Would employers in this industry support new hires in securing a driver’s license? Would they provide scheduling flexibility for court hearings or parole visits? Could participants immediately earn family-sustaining wages and advance without having to earn a degree? Oftentimes, the answers to these questions could mean the difference between “feasible” and “not feasible” for a social enterprise that values the wellbeing of its participants above all else.

Through the remainder of the summer, I realized that getting to an answer would take creativity, grit, and a lot of collaboration. I was blown away by the institutional knowledge within Civic Works staff as well as their closeness to the community. They had truly built an ecosystem of partners throughout Baltimore who were invested in the mission to support and employ vulnerable Baltimore residents. And much like the teachers and family members I used to work with, everyone was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the success of the organization and those within it. Concluding my project was bittersweet, because while we came to a consensus about the industries in which Civic Works could expand, I wanted to continue the work of design and implementation. Ten weeks was just not enough!

But that’s where REDF came back in. As Farber Fellows, we were in the unique position to hand off our work to the portfolio managers, capacity builders, and impact accelerators that make REDF so good at what it does. I am forever grateful to REDF and my fellow Farbers for investing in my learning, trusting in my abilities, and helping to solidify my goals to implement public-private solutions in pursuit of systemic change. I can’t wait to play a part in making employment social enterprises – catalyzed by REDF and its peers – the baseline for fair employment practices and inclusive community development.

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