Leading a Butterfly Effect of Positive Change
Taking a drive down to L.A.'s Skid Row to interview the CEO of an organization that helps homeless people find gainful employment was not this writer's idea of a five-star field trip. Yet Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger assured me that he walks the route every day, and I was not in mortal danger by paying him a visit.
As I walked down Main Street, between 5th and 6th–which used to be the Grand Central Station of L.A.'s crack commerce–I prepared myself for the task of rebuffing whispered overtures from drug addicts (or worse), but I was pleasantly surprised. The area has undergone a measure of gentrification; trendy loft dwellers and long time residents of low-income housing coexist in the neighborhood that is now lined with popular restaurants, bars, and galleries.
However, Skid Row still attracts a homeless contingent, and many roam right into Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a pathway to self-sufficiency for homeless and low-income individuals. Upon my arrival, a shabbily attired woman with long gray locks held the door open for me. I stood behind her as she spoke to the woman behind the front desk. She was there to see her case manager and was expressing her excitement about a promising job prospect. I would have avoided this woman if I saw her on the street, but in that brief moment, I was rooting for her...
I had barely crossed the threshold of the Chrysalis offices and I could already see the positive effect this organization was having on people. Everyone who walks into Chrysalis has a story, and CEO Mark Loranger is no exception. Happily married with a prestigious job that promised financial security, Loranger recalled one day sitting at his desk, looking around and having the stark realization that "this is not the job I want, this is not what is going to make me happy, [and] I don't want to be here." Comfortably ensconced in the corporate world, toiling at IBM in New York City, Loranger was on the fast track to leadership with only five more positions to climb to get to the top. He decided to take a detour.
"My boss's jobs didn't look appealing," he recalls, "and I didn't even want to go through the process to get there." His job was to move money around, help others make money, and get his cut. He remembered a core value that his parents instilled in him: "When it comes to community, don't think of yourself first, it's important to care for others." At IBM, he wasn't making a direct impact on the world, and he could see that was not the kind of work he wanted to be in forever. So in 1992, he leapt. He left IBM and returned to California, starting a West Coast outlet for Take Out Taxi, a multiple-restaurant delivery service he regularly patronized in New York. He sold his interest in Take Out Taxi in 2005, after 13 years of ownership. After Take Out Taxi, Loranger swore he would never be in a business with low-wage, high-turnover employees again, due to the management hassle. However, when he was offered a job in 2007 to run operations for Chrysalis, Loranger adopted a fresh perspective. He decided that the cause of Chrysalis influenced him more than his previous experience with management of this kind. Chrysalis is giving people a last chance at employment and for most, a last chance at living a normal life. This was why he left IBM, to find himself in this position to impact the world. At 47, a year-and-a-half after joining Chrysalis, Loranger became CEO.
Chrysalis helped 1,783 people find employment in 2011. This number might have been higher if Chrysalis didn't have a very important way of interpreting the word help. At Chrysalis, help means getting a hand up, not a handout. They believe in teaching their clients to help themselves. Every client comes in with barriers, whether it is a criminal background, homelessness, or limited work experience. Chrysalis requires all potential clients to be sober for at least 30 days and to have a sincere interest in finding work.
If the requirements are met, the client is assigned to a case manager to begin what is called a Self Directed Job Search. This involves identifying work interests, learning how to search and apply for for jobs online, creating a resume, and so forth--every detail including how to dress appropriately for a job interview. "When they work hard to get the job, they work hard to keep the job," Loranger says, explaining the "teach a man to fish" values Chrysalis enforces. Self Directed Employment has proven to be very successful, but there are clients who are considered to have the "greatest barriers" to employment, who are employed by Chrysalis Enterprises (i.e., street maintenance and temp staffing), with the expectation of transitioning to a regular job in 6 to 12 months.
Gregory came to Chrysalis in July 2010, just one month after being released from prison. After being behind bars for three decades, he didn't know what email was or how to work a cell phone. He showed up to Chrysalis before 8:00 a.m. every day, and after working his way through the program, he received one day of employment through Chrysalis Enterprises at the Abbot Kinney Festival in Venice. This single day of working gave him hope that he had a chance. Months of showing up and proving his competence and dedication led him to a temp position with Gilmore and Associates in the Old Bank District of Downtown Los Angeles, and he was offered a full time position in June 2011.
Loleatha came to Chrysalis in 2009 after a tragic event led her down a path of self-destruction. Despite having over 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry, she lacked confidence and the ability to assert herself as a job seeker, and she was missing one of her front teeth. After going through classes, practice interviews, the Women's Empowerment Program, and replacing her front tooth, she finally started to regain her strength and believe in herself. Vons Supermarket hired her a year after she walked through Chrysalis's doors, and she is now an assistant baker.
When it comes to funding, Chrysalis relies on individuals and corporations who believe in second and third chances.
"We all know how hard it is for us at times, and it is just as hard for homeless people," points out Loranger. "Finding work is key to survival."
When a client gets a job they ring a bell in the lobby of the Chrysalis offices. Everybody stops what they are doing, congregates in the lobby, and listens to the story of how the person got the job. "This is quite possibly the first positive recognition this person has ever gotten, and that inspires me," admits Loranger. He may not have walked through the doors of Chrysalis under the dire circumstances of most of the organization's clients, but Loranger is not so different from the people who walk into Chrysalis everyday; he made a decision to change his life for a chance at something better, and he succeeded. Today, every time that bell rings, Loranger is reminded of why "this is by far the best work I have ever done."
Go to changelives.org to volunteer or donate clothing for interview purposes (Dockers, collared shirts, blouses, dress pants, business skirts, heels, dress shoes, etc.).