Kathryn Gardner, L’20, WG’20 reflects on her WISE Fellowship with the Social Impact Accelerator, where she analyzed an innovative business model that helps a local staffing company tackle homelessness.

It never occurred to me that a staffing company could reduce homelessness and help reentering citizens. Then, I learned about First Step Staffing through my WISE Fellowship.

My path to working with the WISE Fellowship started with an interest in becoming more involved with the Philadelphia community and learning how to engage in the social impact space.

As a law student, I have had the opportunity to become involved with local pro bono legal projects, but I wanted to engage further on the venture side of social impact. Furthermore, my background in engineering instilled in me a solutions-driven orientation when tackling a problem, with a focus on tracking measurable change. So the Social Impact Accelerator — the specific project I worked on with WISE — was the perfect vehicle for me to learn more about how impact is measured and what it means for an enterprise to enact real change.

Through the Accelerator, I had the chance to evaluate a company that is doing just that. First Step Staffing is an innovative, mission-driven staffing company that uses a business model that is almost completely self-sustaining to help create a path out of homelessness.

Each year in Philadelphia, over 15,000 people seek access to shelter. The city also has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation at over 26%.

Research shows that a reliable way to help people break the cycle of homelessness is to provide employment as soon as the individual is ready to work, which is exactly what First Step Staffing does. Individuals who meet basic requirements can apply and start working within a day.

Not only does the company help employees find work, but it also provides subsidized transportation to the job site from a central dispatch location. This solves a significant barrier to finding work in a city like Philadelphia, where traveling on public transportation can take hours due to complexities in bus routes. The fewer challenges individuals face in getting to work, the more likely they are to continue in the job.

Unlike many socially-oriented nonprofits, First Step requires only a small percentage of funding from grants (which it uses mostly for transportation-related expenses). Most of First Step’s funding come from earned revenue — the company is paid by the businesses who hire employees from First Step. This innovative operating model is more akin to a typical start-up or business, and it helps the organization be scalable and transferable to any city in the country.

Our work with First Step Staffing involved conducting research on social issues, analyzing key metrics, and performing a deep dive into how the company enacts real change. Our team came from a variety backgrounds, from public policy and social impact work to my experience in business and law. I enjoyed engaging with other graduate and undergraduate students as we learned from each other’s strengths and experiences to solve real problems.

As I am new to the social impact space, I found this work to be an engaging task outside of classwork and clubs. Working as a WISE Fellow was a refreshing way to add meaning to my time at Wharton — our work has the potential to provide measurable impact. I hope to use the skills I learned here throughout the rest of my time at Penn and in my career, as this work has given me an increased interest in innovative ways to enact positive change in communities.

— Kathryn Gardner

Posted: July 16, 2019

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