Tom Vozzo on what success looks like at Homeboy Industries

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

 

Listen to the full conversation: 

 

You can see within the first few moments of this week’s story that Tom Vozzo likes to win.  But what drew us Tom’s fascinating story is how that vision of “win” has evolved in the second act of his career.

After spending 26 years as a successful corporate executive, Vozzo swerved. When he started volunteering at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles after he retired from Aramark Corporation, he was simply giving his time to a worthy cause while he evaluated options for his next venture.

But as Tom quickly discovered, being around Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy has a way of changing your perspective on what you can be, how you can give, and ultimately, who you are.

Five years after he accepted Boyle’s offer to become CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the country, Vozzo, after leading people and companies for most of his adult life, is wonderfully still discovering Homeboy definitions of“winning” and “value” and even “success.”

Imagine coming from a world where you oversee almost 20,000 employees in meeting goals to create shareholder value: living the challenges of efficiency and margin and leadership and huge scale.  And soon thereafter looking into the tattooed face sitting in front of you and figuring out how to get him a sustainable job after he’s made the choice to leave gang life behind.  Or of embracing the challenge of getting a recently incarcerated employee from day one to day two of their new life.

“Best decision I ever made,” Vozzo says smiling, recalling his somewhat unorthodox choice to jump into the world of Homeboy Industries.

Every day, Tom is challenged by the very nature of what Homeboy seeks to do.  “We don’t employ homies to bake bread,” Father Greg says.  “We bake bread to employ homies.” It’s part of Tom’s job to find employment for the 200 men and women that Homeboy serves at time.  Because the 18 months that Homeboy commits to the people it serves is not just learning the recipe for baking bread, it’s learning the recipe for the rest of their lives.

“First,” Vozzo says, “they need to heal. They’ve been through some complex trauma . . . 90% of people we serve have never held a job for more than a month in their life.  For society to think that they’re going to get some government resume writing help and get a job and keep a job?  It’s crazy. These people have so many challenges.” And though the ultimate goal is sustainable employment, getting to that point can be a long and tender process.

Each day at Homeboy starts with the morning meeting Vozzo references in this week’s video.  It’s a time for prayer and a roll call of the day’s activities, but more importantly, it’s a time to listen to the story of one homie’s life, one homie’s transformation.

On the day we were there, a woman named Brandy gave that morning’s thought of the day.  As she looked around thankfully at her Homeboy colleagues and mentors, she told her story of how their support spurred her to therapy, reflection, and ultimately, resilience. As Tom says, corporations would love to have the consistency and the passion for mission that one morning meeting at Homeboy demonstrates.

Homeboy’s mission is to “positively alter the arc of people’s lives,” Tom explains. “When you see that, you experience it . . . that is success.”

I read as much as I could find about Tom before we spent time with him.  Driven, type A, fast-talking, buzz cut, Johns Hopkins’ educated, buttoned down, numbers guy, somehow even more incongruent with the landscape of Homeboy than Father Greg.  None of it fit—not until we sat down with Tom and saw his face light up with the passion for the people he serves, the people he leads.

Then you spend a minute within what Father Greg calls the radical kindship of Homeboy Industries and the façade of status and background and even time and place come crashing down. And you realize that among all the things that got you here, the only thing that matters is how you treat people.

It made me think of a conversation we had with one homie.  “Where you from?” he asked us.

“Philadelphia” we replied.

“I don’t know where that is.”

We were slightly perplexed: “It’s on the East Coast.”

“Is it far?” he asked.

Starting to understand, we said “Not too bad, just about six hours.”

“Did you drive?” At that point, it dawned on us that our homie friend couldn’t care less, but was trying his very best to just make us feel welcome, to share himself with us.

We looked at each other and had the same thought.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re here.”

Later, I thought of the part of Luke’s Gospel where Christ says you’ll find salvation when you stop worrying about where it comes from and realize that “the kingdom of God is among you,” or depending on the translation, “within you.”

It doesn’t matter which translation is right, because they both are.

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This story is part of an ongoing series in partnership with Encore.org. Encore.org is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Encore uses the power of personal stories to challenge conventional thinking about aging and create a new narrative for later life, characterized by individual renewal and social impact.

Comment (1)

  1. Joanna

    I often find myself seeking the thought of the day from Homeboy as my joy and inspiration, my connection to the community where I feel at home. After spending 3 months at Homeboy with the Running Program, people say oh what a success and how great I must feel about making a difference. My response to this is awkward, as until you know Homeboy success you won’t understand what real success is. Part of the family now.

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