Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tom Vozzo of Homeboy Industries Is Helping To Change Our World

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Meritocracy Works for Everyone: NO, it doesn’t.

This concept of standing with everyone and, in particular, the most despised, stands in stark contrast to how the rest of the world believes and values a merit-based system — a system of measuring up, the “old-fashioned work ethic.” The disenfranchised cannot “bootstrap” themselves up — they have no bootstraps to begin with!

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

Thomas Vozzo is a DEIB advocate, author, and the first-ever unpaid CEO of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program. Under his leadership, Homeboy has tripled in size, serving over 10,000 men and women each year, and increased its reach. His award-winning book, “THE HOMEBOY WAY: A Radical Approach to Business and Life, was published in 2022 by Loyola Press.

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?

After what many would consider a very successful career as a corporate executive, I still found myself wanting to really dig into an effort that was mission-based around people and not just driving shareholder returns. In taking that leap from the for-profit world, I found myself having lunch at Homegirl Café in downtown LA with a friend.

Homeboy Industries is a human services non-profit organization that help people leave the gang and criminal life behind. At Homeboy, we run 13 social enterprise businesses that provide structure and training opportunities for people who were formerly incarcerated and gang affiliated that we call clients. During that lunch in the café, surrounded by the workers — who were felons and gang members — I realized that these were folks I never would have hired during my for-profit career, yet here they were in the café, working hard, engaging with the customers and just trying to move their life forward in a positive way.

This was an “ah ha” moment for me, for that I realized that in the context of a job, people are changing their lives and perhaps my business skills could be used to help in some way. When my friend asked me to get involved, I took a leap of faith and started volunteering at Homeboy Industries.

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

It’s really a set of vignettes all with the theme that the people we work with, who are among the most demonized folks in our society, are truly the most authentic, humble and joyous people I have ever met. Homeboy Industries embodies the notions of kinship, community and relationships and to me, it’s remarkable that people I have nothing in common with are kind to me and offer genuine friendship with no expectations in return…

The other theme is the constant re-enforcing of the lessons that there is goodness in all of us and that we shouldn’t be judged for the worst thing we’ve ever done. Our folks are victims of extreme trauma and for them to transform their lives is like watching a miracle unfold before your eyes and to be able to experience it first-hand is truly moving.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?

The mistake is about thinking a situation is “all about me.” Coming out of the corporate world, I had all the hubris of a CEO. I was confident in what I knew and throughout my career, I commanded much respect. Well at Homeboy I quickly came to realize how erroneous those notions are. People in our program or even the working poor have so many life challenges that work is the least of their priorities. And so when they just don’t get something done, or are insubordinate, it’s not about them disrespecting me or my request, it’s about what is happening to them in their personal lives — it can literally be baby mama drama, their homie just got shot, the electric company is shutting off their utilities, etc. — real problems. So it’s about understanding, to figure out the issue that is causing the behavior and then to help them work through it.

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

I’m proud to say that our organization is positively impacting society every single day. For background, Homeboy Industries began in 1988 and has evolved into the largest gang intervention, rehab and reentry program in the world. Each year we welcome 10,000 people who come through our doors seeking to transform their lives. Our clients are embraced by a community of kinship and offered a variety of free wraparound services. Homeboy’s flagship 18-month program is offered to over 450 individuals each year, and approximately two-thirds of our senior staff are graduates of this program. We focus on healing and job training through our 13 social enterprises so clients can discover their true selves and live healthy lives, contributing to the wellbeing of their families and communities, breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

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

There are so many folks who have been helped by Homeboy so it is difficult to choose one isolated story. We go out of our way to provide some type of support for we know all their lives they have been turned away and told they are no good. We have part of our program where people are with us for 18 months to work on themselves and learn how to work (90% of the people have never held a job for more than a few weeks).

We literally have hundreds and thousands of stories of people who have turned their lives around — not running with the gang, gainfully employed, off drugs, reunited with their families… We have over 100 members of our staff who were once clients and are now running a sizable non-profit working to end the generational cycle of gang violence and death.

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

The poverty rate in America has been the same for 50 years. We need to do better as a society. Cleary a lot of money and ideas have been thrown at this seemly intractable problem and yet, Homeboy has figured out a way.

Homeboy lifts thousands of people out of poverty, and our efforts are all about employing the unemployable. The key is to be supportive with the approach and resources. I believe strongly that if businesses adopted more of the Homeboy philosophy that the amount of people living under the poverty line would decrease.

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

The two key ingredients for leadership are Smarts and Courage. Leaders need to think their way through situations and then have the courage to implement. Often times people think that being good at managing is enough or having good people skills will make a difference, but really those are basic requirements. As a leader, the whole organization depends on you to make the right decisions for long-term sustainability. The organization also relies on you to go a step further and have the courage to stand by your convictions.

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

There are actually 55 things I wish someone had told me when I first started at Homeboy. I wrote a chapter of my book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life where I break down beliefs, practices, and assumptions that we all need to challenge. Below are 5 that might resonate with you:

Meritocracy Works for Everyone: NO, it doesn’t.

This concept of standing with everyone and, in particular, the most despised, stands in stark contrast to how the rest of the world believes and values a merit-based system — a system of measuring up, the “old-fashioned work ethic.” The disenfranchised cannot “bootstrap” themselves up — they have no bootstraps to begin with!

The World is All About “Us” and “Them”: NO, it isn’t

It’s harder to demonize someone you know — relationship counteracts tribalism and judgmentalism. Get to know your coworkers. Seek to understand the lived experiences and histories of those who come from a culture different than your own. Don’t demonize anyone.

So-Called White Privilege Does Not Exist — YES, it does

Recognize that some of us do have privilege and some of us don’t. We must work to live in exquisite mutuality. We must work to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to live a healthy, happy, and dignified life. Those of us with privilege can use our resources at the margin of society to unite the margin with the rest of society.

A Business Is an Entity Unto Itself — NO, It’s Not

Business is not insulated from its surroundings. All businesses are local businesses. Being a stakeholder in the betterment of the community not only helps local businesses but also, by extension, lifts up everyone in the community.

You Can’t Trust People Who Have Felonies to be Good People — YES, you can

The Homeboy workforce in our social enterprises are just as valuable and competent as workforces in corporate America. The business managers in our social enterprises, who were once clients, are just as talented and trustworthy (if not more) as the managers who worked for me in my big corporation. Hire and invest in people who have done their time and paid their debt to society.

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 think we need to get back to basics and hire the working poor, which I define as the people who want to work and either haven’t been given a change or need a second chance…. We need to provide them with extra support including training, and then pay them a living wage. That is the movement we need in this country. Each of us can make a difference by altering our mindset, and you might even be surprised at how rewarding it is to provide stable jobs for the people who need them the most.

It all starts with letting go of your pretenses and inhibitions and moving to be in kindship with those on the margins of society. Not only will you be changing others’ lives for the better, you will also reap enormous personal rewards yourself.

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

I often quote our inimitable founder, Fr. Greg Boyle. One of his (many) quotes that I love is, “Sometimes resilience arrives in the moment you discover your own unshakable goodness.”

I also like to say that once you start to really believe in yourself and learn how to love yourself, you move to state of overall calm and perspective — and then life becomes more about experiencing joy through other.

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 recently read Matthew Desmond’s second (and lauded) book, Poverty by America. I would love to host him for lunch at Homegirl Cafe to show him THE HOMEBOY WAY in action. I really enjoyed his deep dive into the challenges of poverty in America and some of the reasons it hasn’t changed much in 50 years. At the end of the day, poverty has been and still is viewed as someone else’s problem and that the government should fix it. I’d like to have an in-depth discussion with Matthew about these concepts.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m active on LinkedIn so I’d invite you to connect with me there, as well as my website and I’ve included a link to my book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life. I would also encourage people to follow our Homeboy Industries socials, listed below.

And don’t forget that you can interact with us in real life too. You can visit our downtown LA headquarters and/or join us for lunch at our Zagat-rated Homegirl Café.

There are so many ways to engage with the Homeboy Community including Global Homeboy Network, which is our way of sharing the Homeboy “secret sauce” with people around the globe.

Connect with Tom:

My Book, The Homeboy Way:



Connect with Homeboy:







This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tom Vozzo of Homeboy Industries 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.