Eleanor Josaitis is a world-class leader in one of the toughest businesses in the world — the business of hope. For more than 30 years, she has been working in Detroit to affect the lives of disenfranchised people — and to demonstrate to other people that it is possible to fight hunger, bad schools, and poor job training. And she has delivered results. “Not long ago, at a nice fund-raiser,” she recalls, “a woman walked over to me and took my hand. She said, ‘Mrs. Josaitis, I want to thank you. I’m about to get my PhD, and I used to be on your food program.’ Then she walked off.”
Who knew that hope could be such a high-growth business? Back in 1968, Father William Cunningham, a professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit (and Josaitis’s parish priest), joined Josaitis in founding a nonprofit organization called Focus:Hope. Early on, Focus:Hope looked like many other nonprofits. It was staffed by volunteers working out of a basement. It had an ambitious goal: to unite the city’s black and white communities. And it had one primary service: feeding infants born to poor women. “The scientific community was telling us that malnourished babies were going to lose their long-term brainpower,” Josaitis explains.
Thirty years later, Focus:Hope is a Detroit landmark — a big, powerful organization that’s helping to chart the future of the city. Forget basements: Its campus now occupies 40 acres along Detroit’s Oakman Boulevard. It still depends on volunteers (51,000 at last count), but it also has 850 employees — and an annual budget of $72 million. As for ambition, Focus:Hope still runs its food program, which helps feed 48,000 people. It also runs a training program for machinists, a day-care center, and several for-profit manufacturing companies, whose plant and equipment are worth $100 million.
“We knew we had the fire in our belly to make a difference,” Josaitis, now 67, says of herself and Father Cunningham (who died in 1997). How did they go from having fire in the belly to achieving results in the real world? “We made a conscious decision to run this organization with the sophistication of a business,” she says.
Hope Is a Business
Three principles govern Focus:Hope’s businesslike approach to social change: Think big. Demand results. Invite people to help. The group’s first leap forward came in 1981, when Cunningham and Josaitis launched the Machinist Training Institute (MTI), which has taught precision machining and metalworking skills to more than 1,500 students. What’s the link between bending metal and feeding kids? “We wanted to get parents off food programs and into the mainstream,” Josaitis explains. “We wanted to train men and women to go into the highest ranks of technology, to have the education and the skills they needed to meet the demands of industry. And we wanted them to be so well trained that the color of their skin would not make any difference.”
The MTI program, which continues today, offers a 26-week course that covers manufacturing theory, blueprint reading, and technical drafting, and places graduates in jobs that pay an average of $11 an hour. Students who complete this “Core 1” class can then enroll in Core 2 — another 26-week course — in which they learn to work with manual and computer-controlled mills, grinders, and lathes. Talk about results: Students who have completed both Core 1 and Core 2 enjoy a job-placement rate of 100%.
And MTI keeps growing and diversifying. Its most “high-end” offering is the Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT), a demand-ing program that accepts promising MTI students and immerses them in a course of study for two to four years. CAT students, who are known as “candidates,” spend three hours a day in class and another eight hours a day at TEC Machining Inc., a for-profit engineering company located on the Focus:Hope grounds. TEC Machining is serious business. The physical plant occupies more than 220,000 square feet, including a 180,000-square-foot manufacturing floor. Candidates working for TEC bid out contracts to — and receive compensation from — six major companies, including Chrysler, Ford, and Detroit Diesel. CAT candidates, for example, manufacture every pulley on every Detroit Diesel engine.
Josaitis insists on running TEC Machining as a real business, not as a charity case. “Nobody is going to give us anything,” she declares. “We have to be as tough as, if not tougher than, our competitors. I don’t want anybody to pat me on the head or to give us a contract because we’re nice. We earn the business we get.”
Students who need remedial help rather than advanced training get on the “Fast Track.” This seven-week program, introduced in 1989, teaches communication and computer skills, as well as reading and math, and serves as a feeder program for MTI. In 1997, Focus:Hope launched another program, called First Step, for students who are not ready for Fast Track.
One principle unites this array of offerings: Students choose to enroll in each program, and once they do, they are held to nonnegotiable performance standards. “That’s why we have it over the high schools,” says Thomas Murphy, 61, who manages Fast Track and First Step. “Most of these people have been out of school for a couple of years, and they know what it’s like out there. They want to improve, to get a career for themselves.” First Step and Fast Track boast a retention rate 0f 75%. The 25% who drop out are casualties of a set of strict rules that Focus:Hope makes no apologies about enforcing. Drug testing takes place at the discretion of instructors; neither tardiness nor unexplained absences are tolerated; and lowering standards for individual students is prohibited.
“We’re not in the rehabilitation business,” Josaitis says. “We’re in the business of giving people opportunities. It’s up to them to accept each opportunity, take it, and run with it. We have a saying here: ‘No missionaries.’ A missionary will say, ‘Honey, I understand that the bus didn’t come today, or the dog bit the cat’ — or accept some other excuse. But when companies don’t hire students because they don’t have the right work ethic, what good have we done?”
No one questions April Hunter’s work ethic. Hunter, 33, who has completed both First Step and Fast Track, is the mother of an 11-year-old, a set of 3-year-old twins, and a 1-year-old. She hopes that the math and technical skills that she’s acquired at Focus:Hope will one day help her become a computer programmer. But she has acquired other skills as well. “The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how to interact with people on a professional level,” she says. “Our communications class has speaking sessions in which we read articles aloud or discuss them. A classmate can say to one of us, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t say this word that way.’ We also have free-for-all discussions in which we debate issues. The objective is to learn to consider other people’s opinions and to avoid conflict. A lot of people are shy — they don’t like to stand up and speak — and this exercise helps them.”
For Hunter, being in the classroom is easy — getting there is what’s hard. After waking up at 5 a.m., Hunter dresses her four children, sends her 11-year-old to school, and — with her infant and the twins still in tow — boards the first of three buses that bring her to Focus:Hope. Such dedication, although extraordinary, is not all that unusual, says Murphy. A former command sergeant major who still speaks in the brogue of his native Ireland, Murphy tells the story of another student whose commitment seemed shaky — at first: “A young man had started class on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, he came to me at 5:45 and asked, ‘Mr. Murphy, is there someplace I can take a nap?’ That’s the wrong thing to say to me at that hour of the morning. Well, it turned out that he had left here the evening before at 4 p.m., gone home, slept for three hours, gone to his factory job, worked until 5:30 a.m., and then come here. He did that for seven weeks, without missing a beat.”
Focus: Hope has come under attack for its unforgiving standards. But Josaitis argues that by setting high expectations, the program not only challenges people to reach their potential but also respects their dignity. And dignity is a major theme of the Focus:Hope experience. For example, the group has set up its food bank to resemble a grocery store so that children don’t feel as if they’re getting handouts. And all of the students in the training center wear identical industrial smocks. “It gives you a businesslike feeling,” says Hunter. “You know how you see doctors and nurses wearing lab coats? Well, in the same way, that smock makes you feel that you’re someone important.”
Hope Has a Price
By any measure, Focus:Hope is a dazzling success. but the path forward has involved some major detours. Some of the battles have been waged in public — such as Focus:Hope’s 13-year lawsuit against the American Automobile Association (AAA) for racial and sexual discrimination. “A lot of people said, ‘Shame on you,’ and withdrew their support,” Josaitis says. “But we felt it was the right thing to do, and we won the case in federal court. Trying to change a society is not always easy.” AAA has since become a staunch supporter of Focus:Hope, and today it contributes both volunteers and money.
Other battles have been more private. When Josaitis and Father Cunningham founded Focus:Hope, Josaitis’s brother-in-law, appalled by her high-profile commitment to racial integration, asked her to use her maiden name, so that she wouldn’t embarrass his family. And when Josaitis moved her family into an integrated neighborhood, her mother, concerned for safety of Josaitis’s children, hired a lawyer to try to get custody of them. Both family members eventually came around — “Now my brother-in-law thinks I’m cool,” Josaitis laughs — but there’s no denying that the early years of Focus:Hope were fraught with pain. “Perseverance is the greatest skill that you can have,” Josaitis says.
Does it trouble Josaitis to know that so many well-off people — disillusioned by decades of failed social policy — seem reluctant to support a campaign to rebuild urban centers? Absolutely not. “I believe with everything in me that there are many people of goodwill who are waiting to be invited to do something,” she says. “If I ask you to deliver food to a senior citizen and you don’t find that intimidating, then I can say to you, ‘By the way, describe the neighborhood for me when you get back, would you? Tell me how many shopping centers you saw.’ You’re likely to come back and say, ‘My God, I didn’t find a supermarket anywhere.’ Then I can ask you, ‘How do we get a supermarket in there?’ I want your imagination and your creativity, and if I can bring those things out by asking you to do something that’s not intimidating to you, then you can become part of the solution.”
So far, 51,000 volunteers — including some of the most high-profile people in Detroit — have accepted Josaitis’s invitation to become part of the solution at Focus:Hope. Lloyd Reuss, 62, is one of those people. Six years ago, he was ousted from one of the biggest jobs in the world — the presidency of General Motors. Now he’s executive dean of the Center for Advanced Technology. “He’s breaking the barrier,” Josaitis remarks. “His economic status is entirely different from mine, but he takes what he’s learned, along with his passion, and shares it with the people he meets in his social surroundings. He breaks perceptions. He brings people here.”
And Focus:Hope brings people to Detroit. In 1997 alone, 60,000 people visited the organization. Looking for ideas, role models, and sources of inspiration, they came from as far away as South Africa and China. In fact, to accommodate the flow of visitors, Focus:Hope is building its own residential learning center, called the Tech Villa. “I want people to come here and stay as long as they want,” Josaitis says. “We will share everything we know — about what’s worked and what hasn’t. And we hope that they will take that knowledge back to their communities.”
Sidebar: Shaping Steel, Shaping Lives
Six years ago, Lloyd Reuss was ousted from one of the most powerful jobs in the world — president of General Motors — after he and GM’s chairman, Robert Stempel, failed to reverse the automaker’s decline. Reuss’s setback was hardly a devastating financial blow: He was set for life. But how could he, at 56, stay in the game? How could he continue to make a contribution?
He found the answer at Focus:Hope, where he is executive dean of the Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT). “For 38 years, I worked at shaping steel,” Reuss says. “Now I’m shaping lives.” Reuss talked with Fast Company about how Focus:Hope has shaped his ideas about teaching and learning.
Teach business, not just technology. We refer to our candidates as “renaissance engineers.” They not only understand the fundamentals of engineering, but they’re also very strong communicators. They can feel comfortable in various disciplines, including marketing, finance, and sales. And they feel comfortable working with a diverse group of people. They come away from here with an engineering degree, but by the time they leave, they’re also excellent businesspeople.
Play for real stakes. Our candidates actually produce parts for industry. When we meet with companies about product problems, the candidates are on the firing line. They’re the ones who conduct the meetings and make the reports.
For example, we’re machining a part for the Northstar engine, which is used by Cadillac. The candidate who’s leading that project works with engineers at GM, he works with engineers at the casting supplier, and he works with purchasing people. Sure, you can study project management at a university. But this is the real world, so our candidates have to deal with real problems.
Banish your biases. The suburban stereotype of inner-city youth — they’re lazy, they don’t want to study — is not grounded in reality. Inner-city kids are entrepreneurs. So many people here have worked to overcome tremendous odds. Many of these young people really blossom once they get any kind of opportunity.
Curtis Sittenfeld (email@example.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. You can learn more about Focus:Hope on the Web (www.focushope.edu).