Homeboy Industries is in the business of changing lives. The non-profit operates a bakery, a café, and other businesses in Los Angeles, all to provide jobs and training to former gang members.
The mission of the organization was never to make money.
“It wasn’t about how much business they did, but it was to … hire homies to bake bread,” explains CEO Tom Vozzo. “So the whole point was, let’s grow the business to provide more job opportunities for these young men so they can get out of gang life.”
Homeboy Industries has been around since the 1980s, when Father Greg, a pastor at Mission Dolores Church in East Los Angeles, decided he wanted to help curb the pervasive gang violence in the city. Now, Homeboy Industries is one of the largest gang intervention programs in the world, helping about 8,000 people a year.
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Tom joined Homeboy in 2012 after leaving his career as a corporate executive. On one of his first visits, he had lunch at Homegirl Café and was immediately struck by the energy of the workers—people who might have been in rival gangs, all working and joking together to work toward a common goal.
“I’m thinking to myself as I’m eating, in my for-profit job, I would’ve never hired any of those people, because we had restrictions on hiring felons,” Tom explains.
But it’s this type of thinking that perpetuates the cycle of gang violence and poverty. Many of the people working at Homeboy were second- or third-generation gang members.
“All these folks, they don’t wanna go back and join the gang and do crime,” Tom says. “They actually wanna earn a decent wage.”
And Homeboy is able to give them that and other training, so they can go on to work at other companies when they leave Homeboy’s program. Some of them stay at Homeboy and rise through the ranks, learning management and technology skills.
“In all of our businesses, 90% of our management teams are former clients,” Tom says.
Homeboy Industries is now a $30 million nonprofit. Less than 10% of its funding comes from the government, so it has to make most of its money through donations and revenue. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that meant Homeboy Industries had to start selling more baked goods and merch online, and encourage customers to make purchases with a social impact.
“We’re trying to put our branding out there via our products,” Tom says. “People’s dollars can make a difference in moving people’s lives forward by purchasing with us.”
And the people the brand has helped are a big part of spreading the word. Homeboy Industries often shares stories through social media of the lives it’s changed.
Tom says Homeboy’s work is changing the way people think about former gang members, and the program has become a model for others around the world.
“What I’ve learned at Homeboy is, by taking the chance, hiring the working poor, and giving them a support structure … that’s going to change how society grows and evolves,” Tom says.
To hear more about Homeboy Industries’ mission and how it supports its employees as they re-enter the workforce, listen to the full episode of Shopify Masters.
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