DePaul Industries is a social enterprise that has been creating job opportunities for people with disabilities for more than 40 years. Today it’s a $30,000,000 organization with offices in 6 states, with the majority of job opportunities offered through three business divisions: staffing, security and consumer products. DePaul also has a job readiness and placement program for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. DePaul is a nonprofit, but it runs almost exclusively on earned revenue and doesn’t take part in traditional fundraising activities. Think Tanky sat down with DePaul Industries President and CEO, Travis Pearson, who has been with DePaul for over a decade, to discuss this unique model.
Let’s get right to the biggest question: are you a non-profit that doesn’t fundraise?
That’s true – DePaul today doesn’t have a formal fundraising program. We’re 99% reliant on earned income, so we will accept donations and grants, but what we’re really focused on are jobs so that we can put our people to work. Every week we have nearly 50 potential new employees coming through our doors looking for work. Our staffing and security units are where the majority of our folks are employed, but we’re also continually looking for new opportunities, and it feels like our business has changed every year that I’ve been here. One of our more recent and successful partnerships is with Benchmade, who supplies the knives that our people assemble and then sell to the military for a very successful and ongoing contract.
How does this process start for DePaul?
For our staffing business, our sales process is very similar to that of a traditional staffing firm. Our account managers prospect, make cold calls and visit businesses just like their counterparts at for-profit firms do. When businesses decide they want to utilize our services, they’ll talk to an account manager to provide details about the position like the requisite skills, experience required and pay rate. Then we start looking through our database of candidates looking for work for the right fit and match skills and interests. We are always actively recruiting and we work with many community partners such as veterans organizations, nonprofits that provide support to people with disabilities and homeless shelters, in addition to recruiting through more traditional routes.
If you come to DePaul looking for work, you’ll first meet with one of our Employment Specialists. In addition to filling out all of the regular paperwork required to get a job, our candidates are asked whether they have a disability. There’s still a certain amount of stigma around disabilities and sometimes people don’t feel comfortable disclosing them, so we try to make this conversation very comfortable and encouraging. By learning more about our candidates’ disability or disabilities, we can ensure that we find them a really good fit.
Who are DePaul’s temporary staff? Who applies and do they drive themselves, take a bus, who do you meet as potential employees?
Our employees are a very diverse group. Because different people have such different definitions of disability, we like to revisit what this term actually means. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. That can include conditions like diabetes or chronic fatigue syndrome, mental health conditions like bipolar disorder or major depression, or being in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. People from all walks of life have disabilities, and many of these disabilities are invisible, so you can’t make an assumption based on appearance. The Census Bureau reported that 19% of the U.S. population had a disability in 2010. While not all of these people are working age, there are a lot more people with disabilities in our communities than you might think.
Our employees really vary based on the areas where our offices are located. Our Maryland office, for instance, has a strong partnership with the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, so that location has a higher proportion of vets. Companywide, we employed 142 veterans in 2016. And Idaho is home to many refugees, so we have a number of employees at our Boise office who are refugees. And some of our employees face one or more barriers in addition to a disability, such as the experience of homelessness, a criminal record, or not having graduated from high school.
A disability or other barrier is also just one part of a person, and doesn’t define them – our employees have all sorts of talents and hidden capabilities. We had a knife assembler named Charles, and during an after-hours event around Christmas, Charles is just belting out Christmas songs with this amazing voice. I thought it was a recording – but I walk in and this dude can sing! We also had an employee who was a former heart surgeon from the eastern bloc. He was willing to do whatever it took to provide for his family and ended up working on a production line, even though he was better educated than anyone in the building. There are so many stories like that.
Can you talk about your training and business readiness programs?
DePaul has offered a variety of training programs over the years, but today we don’t have a formal centralized training program. What we’ve seen is that many training programs aren’t demand-driven, so while individuals may learn a lot and gain skills, they can’t find a job once they’re finished. So our staffing group primarily looks for candidates with disabilities who are ready to work.
Our security group, on the other hand, does provide training. Our security officers all complete a two-day course that meets the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) requirements. Our security department staff members have extensive backgrounds in military, law enforcement and specialized security, so this is an excellent course that prepares our officers for the variety of situations they’ll face on the job.
And our program for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities provides the highest level of support, primarily on a one-on-one basis rather than in a classroom environment. Individuals in this program receive training that’s tailored to their individual needs. Our job coaches and job developers will assist with areas like resumes, interview preparation, and training on soft skills like managing emotions and time management.
You must have a million stories that pull on your heart strings working here as long as you have, any you want to share?
Definitely. One is Mr. Scott, an amputee who was missing his left arm. He applied to DePaul about eight years ago and worked as a temporary employee, first at our customer Hayden Homes and then at a company called Coffee Bean International. Everybody really liked Mr. Scott. Then he had a death in his family and had to move back home to California, where he started his own car wash. Today his business is hugely successful and he owns six car washes. Every year at the holidays I still get a card from him thanking DePaul for giving him a chance.
Former board president, Dennis Doherty joined our conversation and offered a different and keen perspective: At the board level, we talk about this ‘triple bottom line; about supporting the community, making a difference by supplying these companies with a quality workforce, and maintaining financial viability. And we have a wall full of honors acknowledging this incredible work not because we hire people with disabilities but because the staff we use are doing incredible work. No employer really cares, and some do not even know, that we are staffing them with people with disabilities – they just want qualified staff to show up and do the work at hand. That’s what you’re getting with DePaul. I’ve had conversations with Portland community members who don’t know or really care that DePaul works with people with disabilities, but they do care about their DePaul staffers who are the only ones showing up during snow storms. These people are serious about their jobs and they are dedicated – that’s why DePaul is so important to me and how we’re able to measure its success. Maybe we’re competing from a place of a perceived disadvantage, but we’re outshining our competition and that’s a very unique model.
Out of curiosity, who are your competitors?
In the staffing realm, it’s primarily mainstream, for-profit staffing firms. Our staffing model is known as alternative staffing, and other organizations around the country use this model to help various populations, whether that’s people with disabilities, people who’ve been incarcerated, or people living in poverty. But DePaul is significantly larger than most other alternative staffing organizations, likely because we really know and understand business. This keen business focus could be an example for other non-profits in the social entrepreneurial sector; while it won’t work for many nonprofits, we think there are huge opportunities in earned revenue for many different organizations.
Did you ever have an urge to change peoples’ perceptions about the disabled?
I came to DePaul after getting out of the military. A friend hired me to help create some trainings and workshops for DePaul’s security division. It wasn’t until I went to the building across the street, which DePaul used to own and which housed production lines, that I really started to understand DePaul’s mission. And then it didn’t really seem like a big deal. This was a place where people found work. I had only planned on staying at DePaul for six months, but I’ve stayed because I wanted to do something that was bigger than the individual and to feel fulfilled in my work. I want to be in a place where I can make a bigger impact, and that’s DePaul. 13 years later…here I am.
As for our customers, they’re primarily hiring us to fill their business needs, not because of our mission. We’re competing for business with mainstream staffing companies, so we need to be on par with them, and we are. I have a buddy who works at another staffing company and he said he hates going up against us. I love hearing that.
Dennis said: DePaul’s vision is to change the landscape for people with disabilities. We’re getting people jobs, not going to DC to force policy change but I think we do change perceptions one employer at a time. Stories I love to hear are about the workplaces that change because of these people with disabilities. It’s not we are doing them a favor - it’s actually, they have done us a favor because these are skilled, dedicated and hard working team players. I hear time and again how the atmosphere changed when they hired DePaul staffers.
What’s it like working at DePaul, how do you stay with the times, hire Millennials, create culture, etc?
DePaul is a bit different than your average non-profit employer – since we run like a for-profit, this is a really fast-paced place to work, and our staff members have to be resourceful and think on their feet. They get to have an impact on top of a paycheck, and that creates a unique culture of committed, highly successful people. Everybody is working more than 40 hours anymore, and sometimes our jobs can be thankless, so we offer some flexible schedules and options to work from home. And we want to make this a fun environment, so we have things like an employee lounge with a fridge full of drinks and a foosball table. We strive to attract the best and let them do their jobs, because then they’re going to give it all they got.
We have a company intranet called ‘The Dispatch’ that features things like updates, articles about employees, staff announcements and information on disabilities, which helps to keep employees at all of our locations connected and engaged. We recently celebrated a retirement for one of our longest-term employees. He came to DePaul 17 years ago as a security officer, worked his way up, and was very well-liked by his colleagues and our customers. The whole Portland office attended his party. We have celebrations like this to recognize good work and help people feel appreciated.
What’s the secret sauce to DePaul?
I think our balance of mission and business is really unique. We understand our employees and the challenges they face, but we’re also keenly aware of how businesses function and what they need. It can be a precarious balancing act at times, but I really think it’s a differentiator and gives us an advantage. And because we’re an entrepreneurial organization, we’re also really tuned into business trends and always seeking new opportunities. DePaul employees know that if they see an opportunity, or a way we can make something run better or more efficiently, they should bring it up. I’m stoked where we are right now but the future is going to be even bigger and more impactful, from both a mission and business lens. That’s it; that’s worth it all.