The Beacon Show: From Corporate Executive to Gang Rehabilitation Leader with Tom Vozzo (Full Episode)

Nonprofit CEO Tom Vozzo shares about fundamental business practices for nonprofit success and the importance of a trauma-informed approach to leadership.

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Running a successful nonprofit organization requires many of the same business principles as running a for-profit business. But for those who want to start or lead a mission-driven nonprofit, the path to applying those business principles in a new context can feel daunting. So in this illuminative episode of The Beacon Show, Tom Vozzo reveals fundamental business practices and leadership mindsets that have contributed to his nonprofit success.

Tom Vozzo is the CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world. Under Tom’s leadership, Homeboy has undergone an unprecedented expansion, launching new social enterprises to increase its impact in earning national recognition. 

But Tom’s journey to this role was anything but a straight line. After a successful 26-year career in the for-profit sector — culminating in a role as the CEO of a $1.8 billion company — Tom thought he was ready to retire. But a chance lunch at Homeboy’s café changed everything. 

Moved by the dedication of Homeboy’s staff and clients, Tom realized that his corporate experience could help the organization thrive. He began volunteering and, within months, Homeboy’s founder asked him to step in as CEO. 

Since then, Tom has helped Homeboy grow from $12 million to $45 million as an organization while maintaining its core mission of providing hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. 

In this insightful conversation, Tom shares the fundamental business practices that have contributed to Homeboy’s success, the importance of a trauma-informed approach to leadership, and the personal transformation that he’s experienced along the way. 

Whether you are in the nonprofit sector, a leader looking to increase your impact, a business executive feeling called to a new purpose, or simply someone who believes in the power of second chances, Tom’s wisdom will leave you inspired and equipped to lead with excellence and heart.

Watch or listen to Tom’s full interview on YouTube and Apple Podcasts!

Tom’s Journey From Corporate Success to Nonprofit CEO

Born to a family of first-generation Italian-American immigrants, Tom Vozzo says he didn’t have a specific dream for his career while earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. Instead, he focused on getting an education and finding a job where he could apply the skills he had to earn a living. 

“I learned that if I worked hard and did well and applied my smarts, then that business did well, and thereby I would do well,” he says of his 26 years working in for-profit businesses. 

While Tom firmly believes that well-run businesses are beneficial for society, he also observed over the years that many for-profit companies operate to serve the shareholders first, ignoring the needs of their employees. 

So Tom left the corporate world in search of something different: a vocation that prioritized people over profits. 

He found it in a surprising place. A friend, who happened to be on the board at Homeboy Industries, invited Tom to lunch at the nonprofit’s Homegirl Café, where he went on to invite Tom to get involved with the organization itself. 

After volunteering at Homeboy for just a few months, Tom was asked to come out of retirement and take the position of CEO. “I didn’t think I was going to work again,” he admits. “But to be in the environment where people change your life, in the context of a job, is pretty special.”

Transferring For-Profit Business Skills to the Nonprofit Sector

Homeboy Industries’ focus is on providing jobs for former gang members and helping them build a better future for themselves and their families. Although Tom didn’t have experience working with that particular demographic, he did have something Homeboy Industries needed in order to accomplish their mission: business skills. 

“What I started realizing is that I could help people at Homeboy and in our society based on my life experiences,” Tom says. “I didn’t have to be an expert in mental health. I didn’t have to be a gang expert. I could just use my skills to help people.”

By applying his business expertise, Tom was able to transform Homeboy’s strategy, manage its expenses, and establish good business practices to help the organization grow. 

Tom’s story is a powerful example of two important truths. First, that no matter what skills and experience we already have, we can find a way to use them to help others. And second, that running a successful nonprofit organization requires many of the same principles that are needed to run a successful for-profit business. 

Fundamental Business Principles for Running a Successful Nonprofit

For people who want to start or lead a nonprofit organization of their own, Tom offers several pieces of advice. 

  • Learn how to run a for-profit business first. Many key operations for nonprofits function exactly as they do in for-profit companies. Once you understand how to perform those operations well, you can carry them over into the nonprofit sector. 
  • Identify your mission. Your mission determines your focus. So begin by identifying your mission, and then design the organization in such a way that it directly supports that mission. 
  • Change happens slowly and gradually. When people are part of a mission-oriented nonprofit, they naturally feel protective of the organization and how it runs. So you need to be patient and involve many people in the process of planning and implementing any kind of change. 
  • Lead with empathy, not judgment. Especially when working with marginalized and stigmatized populations, it’s essential to look beyond appearances, listen with the intent to understand, and have compassion for each person’s unique circumstances. 

“When you’re talking to somebody, particularly a client needing help, you’ve got to be front and center,” Tom says. “Understanding that the only thing you’re thinking about and working on is helping them and listening to them and being in relationship with them. It’s not only about solving their problem, it’s just about being in kinship with them.”

Tom’s Legacy: Making a Positive Impact on People’s Lives

When it comes to the legacy he wants to leave behind, Tom says his time at Homeboy has taught him to prioritize relationships with people over measurable results.

“I see at Homeboy that people change your life,” he says. “So it’s not just believing in my God, my Lord, but it’s also putting those thoughts into actions and moving to help people who are been marginalized — moving to the margins with people, to be in kinship with them… My job is to live for today and help as many people as I can.” 

While Tom didn’t get involved in the nonprofit sector until after he had already retired from climbing the corporate ladder, he stresses that you don’t have to wait until the end of your career to do the same. 

You can begin today by volunteering time or money in service to those in need. And you just might be surprised at the difference you can make — not only in other people’s lives, but also in your own. 

About Tom Vozzo

  • Created 14 social enterprises including Homeboy Electronics, Homeboy Threads, and the brand-new ventures, Homeboy Pet Spot and Homegirl Bloom.
  • Bolstered the internal ranks at Homeboy with homegrown leaders. 70% of Homeboy’s management team is now comprised of formerly incarcerated gang members who began their tenure at the organization as trainees. 
  • Launched the $12M Homeboy Ventures & Jobs Fund, providing philanthropic funding for new, LA-based businesses to create more high-quality jobs for the people who need them the most.
  • In 2020, Homeboy was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest humanitarian prize presented to a non-profit organization judged to have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.

Prior to leading the team at Homeboy, Tom was an executive leading highly successful businesses in the service, retail and distribution industries, exceeding earnings targets, even during challenging economic times. His last corporate role was CEO of the $1.8B ARAMARK Uniform and Career Apparel Group.

His award-winning book, “The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life,” outlines practical ways to address some of our most vexing social issues and provides a unique path for personal and business leadership.

Today, Tom continues to be passionate about helping those who live on the margins of society and addressing the challenges of racial, economic, and systemic injustices.

Thomas J. Vozzo is an author, speaker, and Fortune 200 executive turned nonprofit CEO at Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry organization in the world. 

Taking the helm at Homeboy Industries in 2012, Tom utilized the skills he’d perfected in the corporate world to help steer Homeboy into an unprecedented phase of growth and success, quadrupling the organization’s size, and significantly increasing the impact. 

Visit the Homeboy Industries website here. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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