A Crazy Business Model Makes an Impact on Social Issues

15 Oct

I was in Los Angeles recently to attend an undergraduate business school class at the University of Southern CA (USC). I also had the privilege of meeting the creator of the class: Adlai Wertman, founder of USC’s Society and Business Lab launched in October 2008. It is one of 13 centers of excellence at USC’s Marshall Business School.

Over lunch I found Wertman to be intelligent, compassionate, religious (an observant Jew who teaches the Torah) and an idealist. For 18 years he was an investment banker on Wall Street. But over time he wanted to change his life and make it more congruent with his faith belief and help the world.

So he left Wall Street and founded a non-profit company in Los Angeles that employs homeless people to clean up the streets of L.A. and eventually train them to have the needed skills in finding and keeping another job in the city. (Truly a Don Quixote impossible dream!)  

Wertman called his company “Chrysalis.” It has grown to be the largest street-maintenance business in the LA County, and it actually runs at a profit now so it can keep on hiring and helping more homeless people. Today Chrysalis is an award-winning $4-million business.

Nearly half of the 2,500 people hired by Chrysalis were deemed “unemployable.” Wertman saw that as a challenge, so he took on the task of socializing the unsocialized and employing the unemployable. He had a crazy business model of not hiring the best but hiring the worst of the worst. He hired the homeless, trained them and then fired them where they were ready to find work in another company. So far Chrysalis has had a 93 percent success rate.

Taking his idea of using business models to do good in the world, Wertman approached UCLA, Pepperdine and USC with the proposal for a center for society and business. USC Marshall School Dean Jim Ellis called the next day.

In an interview in April, Ellis said, “Adlai was proposing a way to use business in a positive manner, to be the economic driver behind some opportunities to help with society’s issues and he wanted to use our student brain power and enthusiasm to set that up. He had a great idea, and I said, ‘How fast can you get over here?’”

Today the Society and Business Lab is a reality as three foundations responded with generous donations.

USC has one of the top business schools in the country and it is known for its entrepreneurial emphasis. This Lab provides a home for idealistic students who were looking for a different type of business education; one that would give them business skills to not necessarily make themselves rich but to do good to change the world.

As Wertman said, “Historically, there has been a wall of separation between business and business schools and social issues. If you cared about social, environmental and health issues you didn’t go to business school. The business discipline was pure profit mode. Now, we are saying, ‘No, we need your business skill set to address these global challenges.’“

Programs like these give me hope. Someday I wish a seminary would offer an MBA so that Christians could be trained in the best business practices to bring more efficient ministry to nonprofits and churches. The one that does that first will find it can’t build a big enough door to keep students out.

I’ll be returning to USC next year. I was asked to teach in one of Wertman’s classes about how our church [www.fpchawaii.org} uses a business-social-religious entrepreneur model since we moved our traditional church campus into a 242-acre golf course that runs a banqueting/ conference center business known as Koolau Ballrooms and Conference Center (www.koolauballrooms.com). I also head up a leadership training ministry (www.himonline.org) and so I will include in my class how all three run a profit and do good for God and the community.

I have hope for the world because of people like Adlai Wertman who is training the students and leaders of tomorrow to use the best of capitalism for the good of society.

I also have hope in seeing the collegians’ high energy, participation and enthusiasm in the classroom discussions. They want to do good and run their operations efficiently.

May our churches’ Sunday schools and Adult education classes do no less. May we cultivate high morals based on Scripture and create a spiritual entrepreneurship that changes the world in a way that gives glory to God.

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One Response to “A Crazy Business Model Makes an Impact on Social Issues”

  1. Kirk Leavy October 16, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    Instead of success to significance, it’s successful significance; I like it!

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