Our 2020 Thomas M. Owens Mission Award recipient reflects on the launch of Cleanslate, producing The Road Up, and why you should eat your dessert first.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…
It was 2004, I was living in New York and working for Goldman Sachs. They announced this Public Service Fellowship Program, where you work with an organization for a year to help them achieve their objectives. What I thought was really clever was Goldman Sachs didn’t give you a list of organizations to choose from. It put the burden on the individual to fill out a very detailed application. I think that was a good filtering process.
I didn’t have an organization at the top of mind, and I had no awareness of Cara up to that point, but the program interested me and I wanted to spend a year in Chicago as my then-girlfriend, now wife, was living there. I had a friend, Dan Brennan, who had just joined Cara’s Board of Directors, and he facilitated a meeting with Cara founder Tom Owens and then-CEO Eric Weinheimer.
When I met Tom and Eric, I fell in love with this organization right away – the people they serve and their approach to workforce development, coupled with the long track record of success and just how I felt about those two guys. So, I laid out the Goldman Sachs program and asked whether I could fit and help their organization and goals in any way. Of course, Tom had a million ideas.
I knew nothing about Cara so I had no sense of what was possible, but Tom’s and Eric’s enthusiasm sold me right away and it helped me sell the process and opportunity to Goldman Sachs.
“We wanted everyone to feel like they owned this…no one was going to let this thing fail.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could start our own business?”
One thing that was discussed was the difficulties of placing someone with harder barriers to employment – particularly someone with a criminal background, which was 35% of their population. We then thought “wouldn’t it be great if we could start our own business to hire those participants?” I immediately gravitated to that idea.
I took the opportunity while in New York to research other organizations and companies. I came across the Doe Fund and was really impressed with what they did and the population they served and the communities they were in with their Ready, Willing, and Able program. Plus, it had just expanded to Philadelphia so as I felt it was really something that we could replicate in Chicago and it gave us some credibility as we took this to the Mayor and different city leaders in Chicago.
Early on we said, “This isn’t ours.” We wanted everyone – the mayor, aldermen, streets and sanitation, local parishes…the entire city – to feel like they owned this. We wanted everyone to be a part of this. And that helped the conversation as we met with those groups. It wasn’t a struggle to persuade people that concept of Cleanslate was worth trying. Everyone felt like we did – this makes all the sense in the world. We had a big cheering section when we launched. The struggle and the challenge was making sure we included everyone in the process. We had one chance to make this work.
I knew this was going to succeed just because of the people who were behind this. No one was going to let this thing fail.
“Billy Hill was a man who had endured a tough life, SO much personal tragedy. The chance to get to work with him and his quiet, positive energy and thoughtfulness and caring in spite of everything he had gone through…he could do damn near anything. I remember that every day and will moving forward.”
“It feels like I went through Cara myself.”
After that first year ended, Tom asked me to stay on the Board of Directors. It was an honor and I still view it as such 15 years later. It is a privilege to serve this long on the Board. Working with Eric and Tom, and (current CEO) Maria Kim and (Board Chairman) Bill Conroy, and the entire Board, it’s been a real highlight for me. I’ve gained so much. It feels like I went through Cara myself. As a by-product of my first year, I was a Cara graduate as well. I think the challenges that students go through as a Cara student, and the transformational lessons that are taught – everyone can benefit from it.
The feedback from Goldman Sachs on Cleanslate was very positive. They felt proud to be involved in this. It created a kinship and close connection to Cara that still lives on today. They’ve been a great partner. The whole idea was for Goldman Sachs to put an individual Into an organization to help wherever they can and then return to Goldman to evangelize the work of the organization within and find ways to make an even bigger impact. That virtuous cycle worked and it would be great if more organizations made that kind of commitment. It is non-insignificant.
Cleanslate was only one business. I think there are a lot of opportunities that could fall under the social enterprise umbrella that would complement Cleanslate. I just think expansion for expansion purposes isn’t the goal, but expansion to meet a need or an opportunity is the goal. I feel so happy when I see more and more communities and businesses taking on Cleanslate – and Cleanslate being a big part of the Cara organization. The trajectory is good and I think there is no end to how expansive and impactful Cleanslate, and the other businesses, could be.
Navigating The Road Up
During that first year, I remember talking to my wife about Cara, and she thought, “What a great idea for a movie.” I filed that away as I thought it would be something I would love to explore that day.
I was talking to a friend who worked with Siskel/Jacobs Productions and she introduced me to the team. It was seven years ago and we met for coffee and explained what Cara was, what it did, and why it potentially may make a great subject for a documentary. We arranged for them to visit Cara to see if they felt the same way. They absolutely thought this had legs.
Two things I did not want to have happen with this project: to not have this movie make a political statement in any way, and, while we wanted Cara to be featured, we did not want this to be a PSA or infomercial for Cara. When people walked out of the film we didn’t want them feeling hit over the head with one or the other.
I remember the first time I saw a scene with Jesse in a Transformations class. The emotion and the power came through and that was exactly what we intended. It’s not a clean, easy arc of a story. People don’t just come in and take the class and have a fairy tale ending. It’s a continuous struggle and I hope people watch the movie and reflect on it and realize most of us have more in common with the Cara participants than we may have thought, and most of us have benefitted from and relied upon the support of families, friends, and communities more than we realized.
I never thought what my role would be or what Cara would grow to be – other than remembering my first impression of Cara which was “More people should know about this,” and that hasn’t changed.
“To continue to work with Tom and Cara in that year and beyond…I was the winner there.”
“Eat your dessert first.”
When I began the Fellowship year in 2005 with Cara, I didn’t know if I felt more pressure to produce something for Goldman Sachs or for Tom Owens. What can you say about Tom? He was accomplished, humble, caring, bright, smart, firm, he was all of that. The opportunity to work with Cara was one thing, but the opportunity to work with Tom…he was really involved in my year there. He loved the idea of Cleanslate and was so enthusiastic about it – he was enthusiastic about everything. His business skills combined with his commitment to service and his unending hope and his ability to look for the good in others. Working with Tom was a graduate school in compassion.
To continue to work with him and Cara in that year and beyond…I was the winner there.
The one thing I learned from Tom is his firm belief that everybody has a need to serve so by asking people to help or get involved or just come see Cara – it wasn’t a sales pitch. He knew this about people. People wanted to get involved and he knew that by introducing them to Cara, he was serving their need, really giving them an opportunity to exercise that need that all of us have to help others. He brought the opportunity to them.
Not to sound trite – but to have any role in Cara creating more opportunities in more people it feels great. The need is greater. So, it is humbling. When I think about Tom, he often told me to eat my dessert first. Which over time I realize was more profound than I initially gave it credit because what he was saying was focus on the endgame, focus on what matters. Don’t take things for granted. He would tell me that, I would pause, and I would say thanks.
Congrats Mark Carroll on being the 2020 Thomas M. Owens Mission Award recipient.