A Summer of Endless Opportunity – John Burgoyne, The Wharton School

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Nearly a decade ago, Carl Phinney had a bold dream: “empowerment through opportunity.” Carl was recently released from prison and had found a good-paying job in the construction industry as a flagger. Flaggers are workers who protect the safety of a construction site by managing the speed of traffic and overseeing the site. The job had two unique characteristics Carl took note of: first, anyone could work the job, even if they had a history of incarceration, and second, it paid enough money for people to “dream again,” as Carl describes.

Realizing the opportunity this job presented not just for him, but for others who were justice impacted, or who faced some barrier to work, Carl sprung to action. He wanted to empower more people by bringing this flagging opportunity to them. He founded Opportunity Construction (OC), asking a trusted local bookkeeper in the Harrisburg community, Ms. Gloria Sweet, to join him as a co-founder. Ten years later, OC has helped hundreds of people not just gain a job, but join a supportive community that will help them accomplish their dreams.

John and Opportunity Construction Founder & CEO Carl Phinney

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to help OC expand their impact over the summer. One of Carl’s aspirations for OC was always to expand beyond the Harrisburg region. He knew how big of a problem mass incarceration is in this country, and wanted to be part of the solution by creating jobs that can reduce recidivism.

To help OC evaluate their expansion options, I analyzed the national flagging industry, documented key aspects of the OC model they could expand, mapped out different expansion options, and facilitated conversations with potential expansion partners.  By the end of the summer, I developed recommendations for OC to expand its impact locally in Harrisburg in the short-term and mapped out options and partners for geographic expansion in the longer term.

I came into business school hoping to better understand how business can be a force for good, and my experiences with Opportunity Construction, REDF, and the other Farber Fellows provided an ideal opportunity to do just that. I left with a deeper understanding of how businesses can create jobs for those who are too often left out of the workforce. Two key takeaways are around the power of lived experience and the potential of the employment social enterprise model more broadly.

In terms of lived experience, it was incredibly valuable for me to work so closely with Carl throughout the summer. In a site visit to Harrisburg, Carl was very honest and direct with me about the role lived experience plays in his business. Carl doesn’t just serve as a boss to his employees. He is an inspiring example of someone who had been incarcerated, secured a job as a flagger, and is now living out his dream of running his own company. For OC team members who are also justice system impacted, Carl gives them confidence that they too can succeed in this job, because they have Carl as an example and as a mentor to look up to.

There are so many justice system impacted leaders like Carl who have so much to offer and deserve greater investment and support. This summer helped me better understand my own role as someone who can use my privilege, education, and networks to distribute power to those with lived experience, who are often best placed to address the challenges they themselves have experienced.

In addition to my experiences with Opportunity Construction, this fellowship also provided greater insight into the employment social enterprise field more broadly. We had a memorable REDF Community Retreat, with over 150 employment social enterprises across the country coming together in Minneapolis to share lessons learned and build community. I learned about different models of employment social enterprise and met several leaders in my hometown of Philadelphia.

After the event, we organized a lunch in Philadelphia for local employment social enterprises to meet up and brainstorm around shared challenges. The lunch went so well that we will continue meeting on a regular basis as a group. During my second year at Wharton, I want to visit more employment social enterprises and explore how Wharton and Penn more broadly can better support the employment social enterprise ecosystem through its vendor management and hiring practices.

Lasty, I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out my Farber Fellow class. With 16 fellows, the class of ’23 was the biggest in Farber history, and we deeply valued our time together. Whether it was collaborating on projects with similar focus, talking about our career goals in the impact space, or simply sharing life stories, my time with the Farber Fellows has been an absolute highlight of business school. I am really looking forward to watching as all these impact leaders grow and shape the world positively.

Overall, the summer provided a transformative experience that aligned to my career goals in social impact. I built some life-long friendships with my Fellow Farber class; developed a deeper understanding of how businesses can have lasting, social impact; and drew inspiration from the amazing work at Opportunity Construction. I feel very grateful for this opportunity and am excited for all to come from REDF and the employment social enterprise community!

What I learned this summer (A Poetic Reflection)

A summer with the Farbers in the Growth Portfolio
Alongside the Employment Social Enterprises, I did learn and grow

Learned how strong financials can lead to strong impact
Learned about the tensions inherent in making money while giving back

Learned about jobs in construction, tech, and sustainability
Learned about so much untapped talent and ability

Learned a job alone is not always enough
Learned that ‘wraparound services’ means so much important stuff

Learned about policies from the government
Learned about the people who are growing a big tent

Learned that while the work is hard, it can be fun
At the end of the day, I learned a TON

Most important, I think, I learned how I can make things better every single day
By being a connector that brings people together in a hopeful, inspiring, practical way