Investment banker Adlai Wertman was fed up with Wall Street -- so he moved to Los Angeles, took an 85 percent pay cut and got a job on Skid Row. Two years later, he says he's never been happier.
Wertman, 42, is the president and CEO of Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people find jobs in order to become economically self-sufficient. It wasn't a sudden revelation that changed his life. "I always felt what I should be doing was some sort of community or public service," said Wertman, whose 18-year banking career included senior positions at Bear Stearns and Prudential Securities.
He said when his brother died six years ago, "I came to realize that if there were things I needed to do with my life, I really couldn't put them off. I had made a bunch of money, but I didn't make a difference in the world or in people's lives."
After serving on the board of directors of Chrysalis, he threw his hat into the ring when the agency's top job became available. "I find this mission of helping people who are asking for a hand up to be unbelievably compelling," said Wertman, who studies Torah weekly and is particularly moved by "Pirke Avot."
"I can point to 100 spots in Torah and Talmud that tell you why the mission of Chrysalis is so compelling," Wertman said. In addition to the tikkun olam work he does with Chrysalis, Wertman serves on the board of directors of his synagogue, Kehillat Israel, and on the board of governors for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Additionally, he is in the Wexner Fellowship Program.
Wertman isn't asking everyone in the private sector to quit their jobs and join him -- although some of his friends have. Leveraging his business connections, much of his time is spent talking to executives about hiring Chrysalis clients, making financial contributions and spreading the word. But you don't have to be a CEO to help. "I think people will feel really good if they get involved in these issues," he said.
Wertman likes to quote a colleague who said, "Skid Row is the rug under which L.A. sweeps its homeless problem." Chrysalis estimates that 25,000 homeless people live within the 40 square blocks of downtown's Skid Row. Many have not worked in years or not worked at all.
Each year, 2,000 people walk through the doors of Chrysalis' sites in Skid Row, Pacoima and Santa Monica. About 35 percent are referred to other agencies because they don't meet three basic requirements: sobriety, living at least in temporary housing so they can focus on employment and a willingness to take ownership over a job search. "Our best numbers show a vast majority of that 35 percent will come back later," he says.
The people who do become clients meet with an employment specialist and enroll in a series of job preparation, job searching and interviewing classes. The agency provides computers to create resumes and search for jobs, a phone bank to call employers and receive messages and professional clothes for interviews and office work.
About 93 percent of those who completed Chrysalis' job readiness program last year found jobs. With the agency's retention program, 85 percent were still working six months later.
One of Wertman's favorite parts of his work is the moment someone gets a job: They ring a bell and all work stops. Clients, staff and visitors gather in the lobby to congratulate the job-seeker, who tells his or her personal story. "That moment is worth its weight in gold for everyone here."
Recently, four people rang the "success bell" in 30 minutes. Wertman joked that Chrysalis' motto, "changing lives through jobs," doesn't really refer to the agency's clients, "but to the people who work here."
For more information or to get involved, contact Chrysalis at (213) 895-7777 or visit www.chrysalisworks.org .
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