Jason Miles, Sew Powerful co-founder discusses social enterprise as modeled in Thomas Vozzo's recently released book, 'The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life.' Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries is lauded for its innovative approach to dealing with those living in the 'Forgotten America.' We compare and contrast Homeboy to Sew Powerful and discover that both organizations operate with a remarkably similar approach. And the volunteers who serve both organization experience God's grace, growing in faith as they use their God-given talents to help those in need.
Homeboy Industries and Sew Powerful as Social Enterprises with Jason Miles
IN THIS EPISODE
Social enterprise, Homeboy Industries, Tom Vozzo, gangs, homegirls, jobs programs, Sew Powerful, sewing cooperative, Ngombe compound, Lusaka, Livingstone, Farm 12, the Dream Center, Caroline Barnett, God-given talents, sewing
We are Sew Powerful, How a Global Community of Seamstresses Is Changing Zambia One Girl at A Time, 2nd edition. By Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, © 2016 & 2020 Jason G. Miles and Cinnamon, all rights reserved.
The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life, By Thomas Vozzo, ©2022 Thomas Vozzo, Loyola Press, all rights reserved.
Willing to Walk on Water: Step Out in Faith and Let God Work Miracles, 2n edition. By Caroline Barnett, © 20078, Tyndale House Foundation, all rights reserved.
Farm 12: https://www.farm12.org/
Soul Kitchen: https://jbjsoulkitchen.org
Dream Center: https://www.dreamcenter.org/
ABOUT THE SEW POWERFUL PODCAST
The Sew Powerful Podcast shines a light on the people behind the mission to keep girls in school and create purposeful products in Zambia. Join us every week for a new 30-minute episode to meet new people, hear inspiring stories, and learn how you can join us in this global movement. Whether you sew or not, make purses or not, you will find something to enjoy in every episode. Listen today.
Host: Jan Cancila
Guest: Jason Miles
Jan Cancila, Host 00:04
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. This is your host, Jan. You know the sound of my sewing machine means it's time for another episode. So, let's get started.
Welcome to the Sew Powerful podcast. Today my guest is Sew Powerful co-founder Jason Miles. And we're going to do something a little bit different. We're going to do maybe a book report or a book review. We're going to talk about a newly released book called "The homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life." And Jason turned me on to this book, and we're going to have a dialogue about it and think you're going to find this book and the strategy expressed in the book really interesting. The author is Thomas Vazzo. And he was a big-time corporate guy, he was CEO of a $1.8 billion division, high charging type-A, get it done, get it done, shareholder value type guy, but it never really felt right in his gut. And in 2012, he became the CEO of something called Homeboy Industries, which is the subject of the book we're going to talk about. So, we're going to talk about Tom's transition. This book is written from his point of view, but there's so many interesting points in there. So good morning, Jason, how are you? We ready to talk about homeboys?
Jason Miles, Guest 01:31
Yeah, this is gonna be a fun conversation. I'm really looking forward to it. I'm glad you like the book so much. I you know, I don't know. I recommend books, whether people really get into them or not, but you really love this one. And so, did I. So excited to have a conversation about it. Yeah.
That's cool. So first of all, how did you discover this book?
Well, it got referred to me in a way. Homeboy Industries got referred to me, actually. And then I saw that they had just published this book for the last couple years. Well, literally, for the last decade. I've met every Saturday morning with my mentor. His name's Ron, and we meet for breakfast and on Saturday mornings. And during COVID, the restaurant we always used to go to was completely, you know, shut down for a while. And then they weren't reopening their dining room. And we searched around, and we found a different restaurant that was open that you know, would accommodate people during COVID appropriately, protocoled and all that. And it was called Farm 12. And it's here local, and when we went to it, we were just blown away of how nice it was. And it was big building beautiful new building the second event center with a restaurant and sitting right beside it is a little humbler building. It's kind of smaller old house, and it's a teen pregnancy crisis center. And then as you go into the restaurant, Farm 12, on the wall, they have a big thing that says, basically, Farm 12 was designed and built to support the teen pregnancy center. And so of course, that piqued my interest and like really like, Wait, what is this? How does this work? And so, so we've been going to breakfast there every Saturday morning for about a year and a half, two years almost. And what I found out I learned was that they basically, you know, have this thing, this social enterprise. And the social enterprise funds the charity. And through an odd turn of events. I actually know someone who works there as their director of job placements. I didn't know that when we started going. But I found that out. And when I talked to Elizabeth, the gal who works there, she said, you know, we learned a lot of this or the founder here, learned a lot of this from Homeboy Industries, which is a program in LA. And I hadn't heard of them. I don't think I had heard of maybe just the name or something. But I looked them up. And as it happens, the guy, Thomas Vazzo was just publishing his book literally, like right when I started to look into it. I thought, Oh, perfect. So, I listened to book on audio; loved it. And there you go. That's the story.
Yeah. And so you recommended the book to me. We had just finished reading a Malcolm Gladwell book about how to talk to strangers. And you said to me, well, if you like Malcolm Gladwell, you'll like this Tom Vazzo book. So, you're right. I did. You mentioned a couple of terms here that I think we probably ought to define as we get going. You talked about social enterprise. Could you just sort of define what that means?
Sure, there's a growing, I guess, you could say trend, or I guess you'd say sub industry or niche in some space between charity and business that is referred to as social enterprise. People also have things called a B-Corporation now instead of a C-Corporation. A B-Corporation is a for benefit business, and the people who pioneered this work over the last, you know, 15 years or so, really started to put together the pieces of an effective model. Now social enterprise specifically to answer your question is a business that's designed to have a charitable result or outcome. And in the case of Farm 12, this restaurant I mentioned that I go to on Saturdays, they have a beautiful bakery and restaurant and event center. And it creates job opportunities for the girls who are in the pregnancy crisis center. So, it's job opportunities. It gives them a resume kind of, you know, item to build their, their job history; it gives them the components related to being, you know, helpful and financially supportive. And so those are the merits of it, and it's designed to do something meaningful. So, these threads, you know, social enterprise are just so closely aligned to what we've done for, you know, over a decade now in Zambia. We haven't called it by that name. We haven't used these terms, per se. But the on the ground activity in in Lusaka and Livingston that we do is is very, very similar to these ideas of Farm 12 Restaurant here in the Seattle area and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Yeah.
Well, and I think there's a famous one called Soul Kitchen that Jon Bon Jovi owns and operates, and I think his target is he hires people that are homeless to work in his restaurant. So yeah, so Okay, so there's, there's some good examples of this. We're going to get into the parallels and the philosophy of Homeboy Industries with Sew Powerful in just a minute, but why don't we give our listeners a little bit of background about the book and exactly what is Homeboy Industries? What is their philosophy? And who do they serve?
Yeah, sure, happy to do just a brief recap, but it's basically founded by a believe Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle, who really started to work with gang members, but also people who are just newly released from prison. And that whole community of the who've gone into prison come out and in Los Angeles area, and really trying to figure out how to resolve issues related to them. You know, recidivism is, you know, going back into prison or not being a part of gangs or not. So that was his passion and his area of emphasis and began this program. And, in essence, these cottage industries, I guess you could call them, their bakery, their farmers market, they have several, I think they have six or seven businesses that they run that serve as job training opportunities. But also, ideally, they'll fund the program work. Whether they do or don't fund the program work is debatable. And that's part of the journey of the book that's interesting to listen to. But the idea is that they create a valuable opportunity for program participants to get job skills and play a part in the community.
Yeah, and I mean, it's, it's started out as a way to address the problem with gangs that are very prevalent in many big cities, Los Angeles, in particular. As I understand it, was started about 30 years ago by Father Greg. And, yeah, I just found it so fascinating. The other thing that was interesting to me is that he wrote this book started in April of 2020, which was when the whole world was just closing down from the pandemic. And then apparently, he worked on for a few months there, and then it was off to the publishers. But some interesting things have happened in the world of work since he wrote that book. You know, he talks a lot about joy at work. And, you know, we've all witnessed the great resignation. People weren't feeling joy at work. And so, as he wrote the book that hadn't yet happened, and I thought that was an interesting thing. You know, the services that they provide, to me are just amazing. So, somebody gets out of prison. Apparently, the word is out in the local jails in Los Angeles, you need to go to Homeboy Industries. So, people show up and the services that they offer are tattoo removal, which, you know, at first, I was like, why are they doing that, but all the gang tattoos are, you know, a pull back into that gang lifestyle. They also have case managers. They offer mental health and substance abuse counseling, counseling on domestic violence, they offer counseling on educational opportunities, and then they do work skill training, which, you know, when you check off this list, I mean, the education and work skill trainings, Man, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?
Yeah, it Yeah, does. It really is similar, isn't it? They have teams of people doing really interesting things. The tattoo removal caught my attention as well. That to me is a perfect example of local hiring for local impact. You know, those people who can remove the tattoos are doing something socially constructive for those beneficiaries because they're helping them, you know, avoid, you know, being acknowledged as a gang member, etc., etc. That's it. That's a great example. It's not a trivial matter. You know, it's not it's not a trinket that they would sell at Malibu Beach Boardwalk to tourists. It's something that is making a material impact in the community in which they're trying to serve and that one caught my attention because just such a great example of local hiring for local impact that we are so passionate about, you know, at Sew Powerful.
Right. And you know, one of the other things that was interesting, and I had never really thought about these people get into the program, but then at the end of the day, they go back home. And their home is in gang territory and talked about many people where every member of their family was a member of a gang. And it was just a lifestyle. And the head of the gang was an autocratic ruler, and that was the safety net that these people had. He talked about two Americas, which was the Privileged America and the Forgotten America. And the Forgotten America are the people that are incarcerated, that are in gangs, that are trying to survive, and have many obstacles in their path, that if you live in the Privileged America, and you have an accident with your car, and you don't have your car, you rent a car. If you live in the Forgotten America, and you don't have bus fare, you can't get to your job, and then you're fired from your job. So, an inconvenience in the Privileged America becomes a life changing obstacle in the Forgotten America.
Yeah, his description of the community that they're serving, there was very compassionately done and nicely presented. And I think that I listened to it. So, the listener of his book or the reader, I think, will come away with a deeper understanding of actual reality on the ground in, you know, Los Angeles for people who are caught in the gang lifestyle and the associated challenges and implications. One person has defined poverty as a lack of options. And when you listen to this book, you realize that that's a thread that, you know, does make sense in that community. It's a thread that makes sense in Lusaka, Zambia, as well. And I would say that there are parallels in the urban slum contexts in which we work in Africa in Livingston, and Lusaka, that are similar to what he describes in working in their community in Los Angeles. There are forgotten people almost in Africa as well. Yeah.
One of the things that they do at Homeboy Industries is on Thursday, people apply to become paid members of their staff. And these are people who must be willing to change. They have to had previously been a member of a gang or maybe even currently a member of a gang, previously incarcerated, and then have another big obstacle in their life, like maybe substance abuse. And so, they they interview these people. There's a selection committee. And so, what's interesting is they don't pick the people that they think, oh, this, this person is going to be successful and will help the statistics of our organization when we say we have X percent success rate. They pick the people that need them the most. And Tom Vazzo called that reverse cherry picking. Could you talk about reverse cherry picking in terms of what we do at Sew Powerful?
Sure, yeah, I love that story. And that phrase that he used, and it's very, very similar to thoughts and ideas that we've employed for a long time in our work. And the idea it just simply resonates with us so deeply this idea of helping what we would refer to as like the poorest of the poor. And the question is, how do you, how do you find the poorest of the poor? Like in a community like Ngombe compound, you know, when you go in it as an outsider, you just think, oh, everybody here is poor. But of course, that's not true. It's relative. And there are poor people when you go in and you ask someone in the community, "Who were the poorest people in this neighborhood?" that they'll know. And they'll say, oh, well, this lady or this family is really, really hard off. And so, our heart was always defined that the folks who needed help the most. In our context for the sewing program work that would frequently be, you know, a mom who's widowed or single, through some circumstance, frequently, HIV positive, frequently will have four or five, six kids, maybe more kids that she's, you know, kind of inherited, in essence, from cousins or whatever. And she's probably not literate or numerate. She probably finished school, maybe in second grade, third grade. And that's the cohort of people that we feel the most kind of energy to try to find and help in that community. It's not to say, we don't want to help everyone, but that's just the intention of her heart. And it's very similar to what they described in a program work in Los Angeles. So yeah, total kindred spirits in that regard. And I think there's value in thinking through that because a lot of times as charity workers, we'll construct programs that will actually have what you might call hurdles or barriers to entry, that we don't even understand what we've done, you know. If you say, for example, you want to employ the poor, but they need to submit a resume. Well, do they have access to a computer? Do they even have any back work background that they could put that isn't like, I was a gang member, and I sold drugs effectively? I mean, you know, having credible prior experience, those are all barriers to entry if you create a system that requires it. And those are the things you have to start to think about, as you put together program opportunities and projects.
When I was reading the book, one of the things that struck me was one of their little cottage industries, and I think this is the one that in their terms, the homegirls run, is the bakery.
And their objective is to make more bread to hire more homegirls. And so, you know, in the corporate world, you would have as few employees as you possibly could to maximize your profit,
And you would only make the amount of bread that you thought you could sell. And so this was just like turning that whole concept on its head. But when I read it, it was like, we're making more purses as volunteers at Sew Powerful, were wanting to hire more moms to make more pads, and it was just such a parallel. I mean, it just sort of smacked me in the face.
Yeah, this is very, very kind of kindred spirits, program design and thinking with us as well. The intention is to create an environment in which a good job is central to the mission and purpose. And so, for us, you know, when we started with the moms in 2010, really, when the sewing cooperative came together, the eight moms, we didn't have any space. So we rented a little very, very humble space with a roll up door, and we just had some sewing machines in there. You know, think of a storage unit or something. Well, you know, fast forward 12 years, or whatever it is, we have a beautiful Vocational Center, two story building, lovely lights, flooring, paint, and the walls are beautiful, the machines, the desks, the chairs. You walk into it, and you have a sense of, I work in a great place. And the intention of our heart is to make the job itself something that is achievable for that mom, who has got three, four or five kids who isn't literate, and comes in, but she could be trained to sew. And she walks into a community of other ladies that are similar to her but are also striving effectively for a good income and and are working there successfully. And the program design that we're trying to put together, creates the environment in which that is so beneficial. And, you know, in the sewing space, people have heard the phrase sweatshop. So, what's the difference between a sweatshop and what we do? Well, the difference is, we're something more like a social enterprise, where the employment component is central to the mission. In a sweatshop, they will to your point, have maximum cost reduction in every way possible. The lowest labor costs, the lowest facility costs, no benefits, you know, like the worst possible condition for a worker, but the best possible condition for the optimal revenue outcome that the, you know, the owner is trying to create. That's very, very different programmatically than a social enterprise that's really trying to employ as many people as possible for social good. And so there you go, that's sort of the dynamics at play with Homeboy Way programming work with our programming work versus a corporate, you know, profit generating system.
And one of the things that he talked about in the book is it's an 18-month program, if you get hired into Homeboy Industries, and they find a job for you in one of these cottage industries. And the other thing that they're trying to do is promote from within so that you come in, out of prison, you go through the program, you get yourself straight, and then they promote you and give you more pay before you've demonstrated, you're able to do the job as a way to boost confidence. And I thought that was a really interesting approach. So different than my whole career, where for a year and a half, you're doing the next job before you actually get the title and the pay.
Yeah, yeah, sure. Right. No, it is very, very interesting, isn't it? And so, a lot of people ask us about our program in Zambia. Like, are you graduating students that leave you to go get good jobs somewhere? And then, you know, like, it's literally somebody asked me that yesterday when I was talking to them. And I said, no, there are no good jobs anywhere. We're creating the good jobs. We are the employer of, you know, note in the community that we're operating. People want to come work for us. And when they do, they don't want to leave. Now, in Los Angeles, there's obviously huge community in which there are amazing jobs, and you know, people could find employment and all different opportunities. In our context, it's a bit more challenging. So we're trying to go for long term employment. We want our trainees to come in to learn the trade skill, and then join us. The heartbreak of our system, to be honest, is when we've had trainees come in, and they've learned the trade skill, and they've been a part of the program for the first six months, and then they haven't, you know, they haven't stepped into the long-term community of seamstresses. And that's happened a few times and, and I know the the gals, we've met them, and then we were so hopeful and optimistic. And then when they haven't joined for the long term for various reasons. Sometimes they move. Sometimes they wanted to be more entrepreneurial, and not have a boss and be supervised. Sometimes they just didn't have the motivational energy to come and show up and bring their best. And so for all those reasons, it's always sad in that regard, but the goal is to have an easy on-ramp to a good trade skill, and to a good long term opportunity, and create something that they would say, as a participant, this is amazing. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me. You know, that's the goal.
Now is word out in Ngombe Compound that Sew Powerful is the place to be? I mean, do you have people knocking on the door wanting to work there?
Yeah, we have so much human potential capital in that community in Livingston as well. We just don't have the budget to expand to be blunt. We have a facility in Ngombe Compound in Lusaka, that probably is about maximum capacity with 50, maybe 60 people employed there in our building before we'd have a physical building problem. You know, where do we put people? And in Livingston, we've just started out, you know, we only have 10 people there. We're using a rented space. We could have a beautiful Vocational Center in Livingston, and employ many, many more people. And so some of this comes down to fundraising and, and having donors come alongside us and say, Yes, I want to see that next vocational training center pop up, and to see it go from 10 people to 50 people and, and that that'll be massive breakthrough, to be honest, because the ladies there, they're ready, willing and able to be trained, and to jump into good employment opportunity. It's not a hard sell. Not at all.
Yeah, I was reading the book, I thought this book is about changing the gang members life so that they can go on. But the more I thought about it, Tom Vazzo went through a huge transition personally, from when he joined in 2012 as the CEO, and in fact, the first CEO, to the point where he was when he read [wrote] the book, and I felt like going on that journey with him that he had gotten as much or more out of the program. And he worked for free. He was a volunteer CEO, he has gotten as much out of the program as the people that were the targeted beneficiaries. And I feel that in the same way, as a volunteer for Sew Powerful, it's been a journey for me. At the end of last year, we did a survey and we asked people what it meant to volunteer for Sew Powerful, and I mean, I was just crying reading, "This has changed my life since retirement; This brings me joy; This is the closest I'll ever be to being a philanthropist." I mean, it works on both sides.
Yeah, totally does. And it's a great question to ask whenever you do a charitable venture: Who's benefiting you or them? And the reality is what we want as Christians, according to the teachings of Christ is so clear into the New Testament, what we want to do is sacrificial service, where it costs us something to serve the poor. But in doing that, when it costs us something, there's of course a reward. And you know, people like to say your reward is in heaven, but there's so much more reward, to be a generous giver, and to do something sacrificial. In the act of it, you realize your personal sense of calling, your personal sense of desire to serve Christ and to serve others is just magnified in your heart and mind. Something lights up in us when we're able to serve graciously and effectively and really just wonder of what's happened in the last 5, 6, 7 years at Sew Powerful is that we've just grown as a community, you know, around the purse program where people step in. And one of the frequent comments is, you know, I I'm so glad I found this. It means so much to me personally. I just read a comment recently where the lady who wrote it said I always wanted to be a missionary to Africa, and I never got the chance and now I'm able to through this program. And that sentiment, that expression of joy is part of us knowing, okay, we put something together, it's beneficial for both the donor, but also the recipient. And it's just an honor to be able to do that.
I wrote down a quote from the book, and I just like to read it, because it just reinforces what you said. Tom Vazzo said, "We need to realize God is pulling us to the margins to be with people who are the most demonized, forgotten and oppressed. We're on the margins to be in kinship with them, and to use our God-given talents to aid in their transformation, which may lead to systematic change, or it may just help one person."
Yeah, beautiful, huh?
Yeah. I mean, when he talked about using our God-given talents, that's what all of us who sew, we use that phrase all the time.
Absolutely. Right. Yeah.
Yeah. This was just such a great read. You know, last spring, just about a year ago, we had our Spring Summit, and one of our important speakers was Caroline Barnett, from the Dream Center in Los Angeles. Can you talk a little bit about what that program is, and the parallels you see between the Dream Center and Homeboy Industries and Sew Powerful?
Yeah, the time last year with Caroline speaking was just terrific. And her book is very good, Willing to Walk on Water. It's really a call for understanding how to step out in faith and see what God will do. And her work at the Dream Center, her and her husband, Matthew, have been doing it now for what, 25 years or something like that. And they took over an old hospital and turned it into basically a ministry center that does many, many things, many parallels and similarities to Homeboy Industries, where they have just terrific job skills training, vo-tech type opportunities, you know, career help, and they do huge feeding programs and that kind of thing as well. I think the heart of it is, and this is the heart of Sew Powerful is, how do we respond with wisdom and with our own sense of talents and energy to what God's put on our heart? And, and I think that's the ultimate thing that weaves us together is although you might be in Los Angeles, you might be helping us work in Zambia, the intention is how do we respond rightly to God's call in our life, to serve the poor, and to do something that's sacrificial in nature. And all of these programs sort of have that shared commonality and they're done, not just as humanitarian work. They're done in Christ's name. They're done because as Mother Teresa said, "We don't serve the poor, because they're like Christ. We serve the poor, because to us they are." That Christ is, is, is presenting himself to us, in these people. And the question is, will we stop? Will we serve? Or will we help? And it's a radical, radical thought, and most the time with our more selfish lenses on, we would say, well, we're busy and we got our own things going and we got our, you know, things to take care of. But the the call of the Holy Spirit in our life, so clear through Christ teachings in the New Testament, is to serve others. And that just is such a vibrant thread that defines the Christian community. And it's just neat to hear how it's played out through a Jesuit priest guy in LA and then the team around him and then know the Dream Center people, Assemblies of God, folks, Pentecostals, at the Dream Center, and and then what we do in Zambia. And there are threads between all of them. So yeah, it's really fun to think about.
Well, why don't we wrap this up? If you're interested in reading this book, the name of it is, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life. I got it on Amazon. And I think you could probably get it, you know, in any bookstore, audio book or Kindle readers. Jason, thank you so much for your time. It was really fun to do a book report with you. Where were you in high school when I had to do a book report?
All right. Thanks so much. It's a great conversation.
Okay. We'll talk to you later. Bye-bye,
If what you've heard today inspires you to want to make a difference, I urge you to explore the Sew Powerful website at www.sewpowerful.org That's SEWPOWERFUL dot ORG. The website has great information about the organization. It's where you can download the free purse patterns, or even make a donation. We hope you will join us again next week when we bring you another Sew Powerful story. Thanks for listening. Now, go out and have a Sew Powerful day.
ABOUT THE HOST
Jan Cancila has been making purses for Sew Powerful since 2014. She serves the organization as Director, Global Volunteerism, as the Region 8 Chapter Manger. She was a public speaking major at Hanover College and holds an MBA from Our Lady of the Lake University. Jan had a 25-year career with The Coca-Cola Company before owning and operating a linen and party rental business in Houston. She is married with two grown sons, a lovely daughter in law and two remarkable granddaughters. Jan’s published work includes more than 100 online articles for Examiner.com. Reach Jan with comments or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org