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Three Unexpected Lessons from Social Enterprise – Sarah Burns, Duke University Fuqua School of Business

This summer, I worked at Roca, an employment social enterprise organization located outside of  Boston that empowers young men and women disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration by helping them to build the behaviors and skills needed to lead safe, stable, independent lives. The young people Roca serves have been court-involved and/or street-involved. Often, they are disconnected from school and have little or no work experience. Roca’s four-year intervention model helps young people build a critical set of soft (e.g., emotional regulation, conflict management, teamwork) and hard (e.g., vocational certifications) skills through a mix of classroom learning and employment on a transitional work crew.

I focused on assisting Roca’s executive team evaluate and improve their engagement with the employers who hire, or have the potential to hire, Roca’s young people once they complete transitional employment. Successfully maintaining employment is key to leading a safe, stable, and independent life, so Roca’s relationships with employers are an important component of their intervention model.

After examining Roca’s process, I developed an operating model for external employer engagement that outlined the responsibilities of the central executive team and of individual sites, along with a plan for implementation.

I was initially attracted to REDF’s Farber Summer Fellows program because I believe the societal challenges we face are too big and deeply entrenched for government or non-profits to solve alone. I, like the REDF team, believe there is a role for business to play in tackling these challenges. Through the Farber program, I wanted to learn what it takes to make a social enterprise ‘work’ – how to balance profit and purpose, measure impact, and manage a complex network of external stakeholders. I definitely learned a lot about all those things, but I also learned a number of surprising lessons that I didn’t expect at the start of my summer.

Lesson 1: Failure is part of the process

At Roca, it’s expected that a young person will experience a behavioral relapse (e.g., fall back into substance use) or a contact relapse (e.g., avoid youth worker outreach) while enrolled in the program. Roca believes that until a young person has relapsed, and sees that Roca is 100% committed to their success, relationships can be relatively superficial and transactional. It takes a relapse—and a rebound—to build the type of trust that enables sustained behavior change.

Roca’s theory behind relapse is supported by data. Roca’s historical data show that participants who experience a relapse within their first 24 months of engagement have better outcomes, including lower recidivism rates and better employment retention than their peers.

Lesson 2: Communication is key – inside and out

Roca’s team consists of 100+ staff spread across six sites, many of whom spend the majority of a typical week outside the Roca building working with young people. While the day-to-day responsibilities of each staff member might vary depending on their job function (i.e., classroom educators vs. crew supervisors), all staff serve the same group of young people and need to be knowledgeable about Roca’s entire intervention model. For example, crew supervisors, who provide on-the-job mentorship and coaching, need to know how youth workers, who work closely with young people to build life skills and engage in Roca programming, talk about “emotional self-regulation” with young people so they can practice it with their crews while on the job. Youth workers need to partner closely with employment specialists on everything from resume writing to making sure a young person arrives on time to his/her first day of work at a new job.

In other words, to provide the type of consistent wraparound support that young people need to make positive changes in their own lives, the Roca team needs to move in lock-step. Software platforms that facilitate information gathering and sharing — from the simple (group messaging apps like GroupMe) to the more sophisticated (data management system) — can help to bridge information gaps, but they can’t fully take the place of strong internal processes for internal education of staff and change management.

Lesson 3: Social enterprises can’t do this work alone.

Roca does amazing work to help young people fulfill their potential; but skill-building and behavior change at the individual level cannot dismantle the broader web of systemic barriers that Roca’s young people face. There is unfortunately no shortage of examples of barriers to point to – discrimination in hiring, and an inability to access social services like housing and loans for individuals with previous court involvement illustrate just a couple.

Roca is acutely aware of this. An explicit part of its strategy is developing the same sort of transformational relationships it develops with young people with external stakeholders in law enforcement and policymaking circles. During my 10-week internship, I attended forums at the Massachusetts State House, sat in on meetings with national advocacy groups, and accompanied site leadership to meetings with local Chiefs of Police. Roca doesn’t always agree with its counterparts in these groups – sometimes on specific charges and sometimes on broader legislative issues — but that makes it doubly important to remain engaged and willing to work together.

After this summer, I’m more convinced than ever that the solutions to our most entrenched social challenges won’t come from just the social sector, government, business, or philanthropy. It will take collaboration among all, with organizations like Roca at the center, demonstrating by example what a different approach can look like and proving through outcomes why it matters.

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