Author Talks: A tale of two Americas

Tom Vozzo spent 26 years as a top executive before pivoting to a nonprofit that rehabilitates gang members. The philosophies that help them reenter society, he says, would help corporate America too.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Tom Vozzo, CEO of Homeboy Industries and a former vice president of Aramark, about his new book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life (Loyola Press, February 2022). After nine years (and counting) as head of the world’s largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program, Vozzo shares the philosophies that help Homeboy’s clients advance their lives and challenges what he regards as the myths that keep corporate America complacent about the disenfranchisement of marginalized communities. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

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My book is called The Homeboy Way. It’s a story about following the many principles of Homeboy Industries, and how these can help you in the business world, help you in leadership, and help you change your life by understanding that we’re all part of one larger community. There is no “us” and “them.”

I’ve learned so much at Homeboy about how to help people who are on the margins of our society. I contrast that with 26 years working as a corporate executive. What I’ve learned at Homeboy is that there are people in our society who have just been forgotten. In the book I talk about these two Americas: the America that most of us live in, and then the America that the poor and the marginalized—the demonized people—live in.

To truly help those folks get out of their tough spot, as a society we need to do something different. What Homeboy Industries has done, all these years, is really a road map; it is a way of helping people who have been disenfranchised by our society to move forward. My hope is to shed light on the struggles of people in this second America, people who are poor and suffering, so that people in the business community can do things differently to help them out.

What has the pandemic meant to Homeboy Industries?

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We help folks who’ve been incarcerated, who want to leave the gang lifestyle and leave their gangs. We help them make that happen. We help them transform the pain that they’ve had—they’re victims of complex trauma. We help them find their resilience, where they can go out in society and take on what is thrown at them.

They’ve been demonized, they’re poor, they’re unhoused, and they don’t have food—food insecurity is a big issue. As this pandemic has come along, it’s that community that has suffered the most. During the pandemic, there has been this aspect of hopelessness in our society, and when there’s hopelessness, it’s the population we serve that feels it most. At the time of writing the book, there were seven—it turned out to be up to 15—people who were part of the Homeboy community who lost their life, and that was through gang violence, drug overdoses, domestic violence, and other brutalities out there. There’s a feeling of hopelessness for our population that the pandemic has exaggerated.

Another way of talking about hopelessness is that for most of us growing up in America, we think having tougher sentences will stop people from committing crime. Well, the silliness of all that, as I came to learn at Homeboy, is that nearly all our folks that we work with, all these gang members, they’re jumping into gangs at a young age—they think they’re going to die by 30 years old anyway, so they go off and do really horrible things along the way, not thinking about the future. This pandemic has brought back that unfortunate spirit of hopelessness for our population.

We’re a nonprofit organization, and over these past 18 months, 20 months, we’ve had enormous generosity from our donor base. Thankfully, people have been generous, but at the same time it’s been very difficult for our population.

We’re a nonprofit organization, and over these past 18 months, 20 months, we’ve had enormous generosity from our donor base. Thankfully, people have been generous, but at the same time it’s been very difficult for our population.

What makes you angry, and what gives you hope?

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My time at Homeboy, it’s been special. I’m very grateful for it—to have this second chapter of my career and to be part of the Homeboy community, where we live by the values of kinship and compassion.

Our clients are with us for 18 months. We can see how they change their lives, and it’s right before your eyes—that’s the hope. But, also, what I see is that the struggles they go through are struggles the rest of us, in the other America, don’t go through. Here are people coming out of the prison system who don’t want to go back to the gang life, but they have mountains of debt, trouble in housing, and trouble getting their kids back. Because there are so many hurdles society puts up in front of them, it’s hard to do “the right thing” to move their life forward.

I see firsthand the type of healthcare they have and the educational opportunities they really don’t have. We have a charter high school because once you go to a youth jail and you come out, high schools don’t need to take you back, which is nutty because that means youth is going to go back to running with a gang. We created a charter high school so we can get them a high-school diploma.

How can we as society, with how wealthy and well off we are, allow so much poverty? The poverty rate in America hasn’t changed in 45 years. One of my stories is about healthcare and Pauline, who was a wonderful person—in and out of our program, addicted to drugs, got off drugs, came back to working at Homeboy. But at around 35 years old, she had a heart problem and went to the hospital. I remember seeing Pauline four days later. She was walking around Homeboy after her heart procedure. I said, “Pauline, what are you doing here?” She said, “Well, I had no place to go. This is the only safe spot I can be at, and there’s no one else that can take care of me.” Fast-forward several weeks later, and she ended up passing away. I know for sure that if Pauline was my daughter, I would have made sure we had better healthcare, I would have found a way to get her help along the way.

I say that retrospectively, but there are so many struggles our folks have that we, as a society, as a business society, can do better with. We need to rethink how we go about making a difference. The anger is that we can do better. The hope is how magical it is seeing people change their lives.

How can Homeboy Industries philosophies be used elsewhere?

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One of the expressions I’ve loved at Homeboy is that we “bake bread to hire homies, not hire homies to bake bread.” When I first heard Father Greg Boyle say that, it was one of those head-turning statements and observations because here I was, a corporate executive, 26 years in the for-profit sector. I had all the hubris of a corporate executive when I first joined Homeboy. I believe in capitalism, and I believe in businesses—well-run businesses provide good jobs, and people can make their lives come true via the job.

What I saw at Homeboy was that in the context of a job, we can help people move their life measurably forward, particularly by leaving behind that trauma. Part of the obligation we see at our businesses is to provide more jobs and more job opportunities and have that as a method of allowing someone to move their life ahead. In our social-enterprise businesses, we have two times as much labor as a for-profit would have. Corporate America should see the value of saying, “We’re going to hire people we never would have hired before, we’re going to do it in a way where we provide a safety net around them, and we’re going to create work so we can hire more people and move more people out of poverty.”

I think corporate America can take on many of these ways, but it starts with values and what you’re trying to accomplish as a company, not just for shareholder value but for society’s values.

Why do you believe corporate America doesn’t often see its obligation to help out?

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I believe corporate America can help move life forward measurably for people who are poor, people who haven’t had work before. Many people at Homeboy Industries—nearly 90 percent of our folks—have never held a job for more than a month in their whole life.

For society to think that we can just have thousands of people leave the prison system, have some agency write them a résumé and get them a job, and then have them keep that job is kind of nutty because there are so many challenges. There’s so much support system you have to put around them to allow them to be resilient enough to do work. What I’m saying is that corporate America needs to think about this differently.

Many of the folks I’m talking about are victims, and have been victims all their life, of systematic injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice. They’ve been told all their life they’re no good. Corporate America needs to hire these people—not just hire them and put a safety net around them, but also be willing to work with businesses like Homeboy, which hires these folks and provides upward mobility for jobs that they never would have had. We allow the unemployable to become employable.

Here’s a real example of how unintended consequences of company policies go against what I’m trying to say. At Homeboy we have an electronics-recycling company, where you take your old iPhone or computer. It’s electronic waste; we’ll pick it up and bring it back to our facility; we de-manufacture it, sell its components, and that’s how we make our money. We’ve been knocking on doors at big corporations, looking to get access to their electronic waste. What I’m saying to these corporations is, “Change your purchasing criteria because when we pick up your e-waste, now we’re a little company and we do things the right way, so we’re going to charge you $100 to pick up as much e-waste as you can give us.” Someone else would do it for free, take the waste, and send it offshore and not do it properly. I’m employing the people that need the most help, and because we charge $100, we don’t get that business.

Many of the folks I’m talking about are victims, and have been victims all their life, of systematic injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice. They’ve been told all their life they’re no good. Corporate America needs to hire these people—not just hire them and put a safety net around them, but also be willing to work with businesses like Homeboy, which hires these folks and provides upward mobility for jobs that they never would have had. We allow the unemployable to become employable.

The point is you have to change your rules a little bit. You have to think about the whole supply chain and who you’re supporting. You put those types of values into your effort, and that’s how you make the change. It’s just not about saying good things and getting your folks and your company to think that you’re thinking the right way. You actually have to make action happen.

As I came to Homeboy, I heard so many things, sitting there listening to Father Greg and the team, about how they help the person. I would be sitting in these meetings, and as a corporate guy I would be thinking how I would handle it. Then it would turn out that they handled it a different way—almost 180 degrees different. I started seeing how that way was the right way to go.

Beliefs, practices, and assumptions we shouldn’t follow

At the end of the book, I summarize 55 notions to let go of, and that really is what the Homeboy Way is about.

You just need to work hard to get ahead’

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That’s a notion that we all grew up with. It talks about meritocracy in America. My point is meritocracy doesn’t work for the poor. Look, if you have a support structure around and you have the right education in place, absolutely, by working hard you get ahead. But if you’ve been poor and on the margins of society, people wagging their fingers and going “just work harder” to these people, that’s not going to get them ahead. They have so many other hurdles they have to get through besides just doing their functional job. So, let’s not always think it’s about telling somebody, “Just work harder and it will work out,” because that’s not the case.

Look, if you have a support structure around and you have the right education in place, absolutely, by working hard you get ahead. But if you’ve been poor and on the margins of society, people wagging their fingers and going “just work harder” to these people, that’s not going to get them ahead.

‘Good logic always leads to good business’

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I’ve been always very logical in my approach in my career and how I went up a corporate ladder in my for-profit days. What I’ve learned at Homeboy is that not everything can be planned. Not everything needs to be logical, and oftentimes you need to take a leap of faith. This is another way of saying you must have gut instinct. Get all the information around you, but sometimes it takes faith, and faith is about not knowing what tomorrow brings you, but knowing what you’re doing today is the right thing to do.

‘The boss creates the culture for the team’

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If you think about a start-up organization where there’s a strong entrepreneur, without a doubt the boss is highly influential. But, really, the team needs to own the culture, and that’s what keeps employees motivated. I saw that firsthand here at Homeboy. Everybody buys into the culture of Homeboy—of kinship, compassion, and nonjudgment. It’s the team that keeps it strong, even if the boss wants to move us left or right. It’s the team that has a real sense of what your clients need, your customers need, and what the employees need.

‘Proven expertise should come before diversity’

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I learned in my corporate days that your management team needs to look like your frontline employees in terms of diversity. Particularly at Homeboy, our management team needs to look like our client base in terms of diversity. If that’s an important aspect of what you’re trying to get done, which I believe it should be, you have to take someone who has the ability—not necessarily the proven expertise of all those years of education, all those years of experience—but take somebody that you think has that ability and put them into that job.

‘Advancement systems should be color blind and color neutral’

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If we want to make an effort to help the poor and marginalized population move forward and go up the economic ladder, we need to go out of our way to have positions, give a support structure, and have a blending of diversity on our team. Don’t always move to this extreme of being color blind and color neutral.

‘Promotions should always be earned’

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It took me a number of years to figure this one out. Why do I say that? Because at Homeboy, as we’re trying to get more people with lived experience into these roles, it is so important to invest in their abilities to promote them forward. In corporate America and in the corporate world, oftentimes when you get a promotion, you’re doing that job for five, six months before you actually get the official promotion. Knowing that, you work hard, you do those tasks, prove you can do it. You’re going to get the promotion.

But with the team we’re working with, all their life they’ve been disappointed, and nothing’s ever come through for them that was promised. Our folks have this natural hesitancy that if they extend themselves and do that work, they feel like, at the end, some other guy’s still going to get that promotion—they’re not going to get that. What I’ve seen is that to really move people up the economic ladder, up the job ladder, you have to put people in the role, give them resources, and tell them the expectations. In the end, they fulfill those expectations.

‘A merit-driven culture is good for everybody’

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This concept of merit-driven culture being good for everybody—I was a big proponent of it. I did well in my life, and it was sort of all based, in my mind, on hard work and merit. I grew up with modest means and moved forward. But this meritocracy for all doesn’t really fit the poor. Bootstrapping yourself up doesn’t work for people who are poor. Martin Luther King had a great statement; I’ll rephrase it, but essentially saying, “People can’t bootstrap themselves up when they don’t have boots.”

For the poor we’re trying to move forward in our society, it’s not about meritocracy—they need more of a support system. Oftentimes we, in our society, measure too many things, and we measure people. There’s no measuring of people’s self-worth, obviously. There’s no measuring of people’s understanding of their own faith. There’s no measuring of understanding if people are good at what they do in their mind, and how they go about it. As we work with the population who are poor and move them forward, we have to not lean into meritocracy. We have to lean into the individuals themselves.

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Tom Vozzo on the tale of two Americas

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