Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Shawna Smith of Hope Builders Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

Organizational alignment is essential to achieving big goals. It allows you to be in a state of constant readiness. It’s hard work to maintain, but worth the effort.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawna Smith.

Shawna Smith is the CEO/Executive Director of Hope Builders who joined the non-profit organization in 1998 and has been serving the community of Orange County, CA for over 20 years. For over 26 years, Hope Builders has empowered young adults with mentorship, life skills, and job training that meets the needs of employers. To date, over 6,000 young adults have found their path and begun careers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Fresh out of college I had the opportunity to participate in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps — a yearlong program that places volunteers in domestic and international service projects for a year-long assignment. I had the opportunity to work in an emergency assistance center focused on keeping families out of homelessness by providing monthly grocery supplements and rental and utility assistance among other things. This profoundly changed the way I viewed poverty as nearly all of these families were working families. What was even more compelling for me, however, was that even with this extra help that was provided it didn’t help families emerge out of poverty. They were stuck. As a result of that experience, I decided to stay in the non-profit sector and to focus my education and experience on work that disrupted the cycle of poverty and empowered people to become upwardly mobile economically. Providence led me to Hope Builders where I channeled my efforts and helped young people build pathways of prosperity of themselves and their young families.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?

What stands out are the moments when I’m going through my everyday life — shopping at the grocery store, stopping for a coffee on the way into work, attending one of my children’s sporting events — and I run into a Hope Builders’ alumni doing the same thing. Every time it is a powerful reminder of what they’ve overcome and the truly transformative power of a technical skills career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started at Hope Builders, I was a young, idealistic changemaker or so I thought. After about 6 months on the job, I wrote up all my observations about the organization outlining where it could be doing better and gave it to Sister Eileen McNerney, the founder and Executive Director, unsolicited. She very kindly accepted the three-page document and promptly never mentioned it again. Over the next few years, however, she continued to give me “special assignments” — new projects that had no resources and were light on details. These were a great training ground for my idealism and helped me mature in my leadership skills. When she stepped down from her position as Executive Director and gave me the reigns 10 years later, she handed me back that document I had written. Thankfully she recognized my passion and potential in those early years and overlooked my arrogance.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Hope Builders is laser focused on breaking down the barriers that keep people in poverty. Over more than 25 years, it has developed a four-stage model that walks young people out of poverty. By focusing on opportunities in the labor market where there is high-demand for skilled workers and equipping young people with the skills and behaviors they need to be successful in those careers, Hope Builders benefits both the young person and local employers. All of this only serves to strengthen the community at large. More recently Hope Builders pushed its model even further and integrated a social enterprise component to its efforts. Using a staffing agency approach, Hope Builders sources talent for local employers for a fee allowing it to reinvest this revenue and grow the number people it can upskill each year. Its what you call a win-win-win.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

It’s impossible to talk about individuals who have impacted Hope Builders without first mentioning the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, our founders. The Sisters are a congregation of Catholic religious woman who have used their significant talents (and faith) to serve the needs of each community in which they live. Through entrepreneurial activities in education and healthcare they have built highly effective and profitable safety net systems that care for the “dear neighbor” without distinction. In a time where leadership with integrity can sometimes seem to be an urban legend, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange continue to prove that values-based leadership can also be profitable.

In addition to the Sisters, I have been extremely fortunate to work with many talented, accomplished and generous individuals over the years — many of them highly successful business people and titans of industry in Southern California. Most recently, Tim Blett of eMaxx Partners and Greg Palmer of Supplemental Health Care, have served as invaluable advisors in advancing our social enterprise venture. They are helping us build Hope Builders for the next 25 years.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Think long-term — quick fixes don’t typically result in lasting change — to address systemic and root causes the perpetuate injustice and disenfranchisement that keeps people locked in poverty you’ve got to stick with promising solutions until they’re ready to scale.

Fund regional organizations with proven results — replicating national models isn’t always the best option. Local organizations often have context expertise that’s important to achieving the greatest impact. Hope Builders is a great example of this.

Put politics aside and invest in people.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership in terms of integrity. Effective leadership strives to align vision, people, practices and resources in a manner that drives results. That is not possible without leaders who are accountable, committed to continuous improvement, and worthy of trust.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Organizational alignment is essential to achieving big goals. It allows you to be in a state of constant readiness. It’s hard work to maintain, but worth the effort.

You’ll never please everyone. Your job is to ensure the organization thrives not win a popularity contest.

Lead from the heart. Authentically show people who you and what you care about.

People will follow leaders they trust even if they make mistakes.

Make the hard decisions sooner than later.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to see a robust network of post-secondary technical and trade schools with equivalent resources as the more traditional state college systems we see today across the country. We have undervalued technical skills for too long leaving too many people in low skill jobs that offer little economic security and businesses starved of talent. Hope Builders is part of exciting work happening out there around career pathway programs that leverage community colleges, business, and community-based organizations to solve this very problem. We’re just scratching the surface of what could be and need to think beyond the current educational paradigms.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Treat others how you want to be treated. This is at the core of who I am and how I strive to act in all aspects of my life.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have lunch with Michelle Obama. She’s not afraid to lead when its needed but knows how to be a team player. I am inspired by how she uses her voice as a professional woman, wife and mother. She’d also make a speaker in our 10 Days for Building a Pathway to Prosperity campaign. We are pairing inspirational speakers who have achieved greatness and with Hope Builders alumni who have overcome obstacles and unlocked their own greatness to raise awareness.

How can our readers follow your organization on social media?

Linkedin — Hope Builders

Facebook — @tsjhopebuilders

Instagram — @hope_builders

Twitter — @TSJHopeBuilders

YouTube — Hope Builders

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Shawna Smith of Hope Builders Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.