‘I Want to Grow’: Hundreds of Young Adults Interview, Get Hired for Jobs at Dallas Opportunity Fair

By Kelly Sheppard / Starbucks Newsroom

Dallas – Michael Thomas, 24, spent most of his early years in the Oak Cliffs neighborhood of south Dallas, moving around often as a kid.

“I lived in rough neighborhoods, Section 8 housing,” he said. “I grew up poor and right now, I’m trying to change that.”

On Friday, he was among the hundreds of those attending the Dallas Opportunity Fair, event where more than 30 companies, including Starbucks, are conducting more than 1,700 interviews throughout the day. Some will result in job offers on the spot. Participants between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t in school and aren’t working – known as Opportunity Youth – can get help with their resumes, learn interview tips, practice tying a tie, build an online job candidate profile and interview for jobs.

It’s a place of fresh starts and new opportunities.

Above the din of voices in the main hall of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Thomas recounted where he began and where he wants to go.

Growing up, he lived with his mom, Chante, and two siblings. His father was absent from his life. He met him for the first time when he was 22. He bounced around from school to school as his mother moved the family with every new job she found. She worked with temporary services that landed her jobs with restaurants and grocery stores.

“As a kid, I was always in trouble,” he said. “I felt neglected by my mother, so I would act up, talk back to teachers and start trouble with other kids in order to get her attention. I learned that negative attention was not the kind of attention I needed.”

At 16, Thomas was arrested for stealing. Six years later, he found himself in trouble with the law again, which landed him time in jail.

“Jail was life changing and I’m never going back,” he said. “It’s not the life for me.”

He’s trying to find a more positive path to follow. He and his girlfriend have two daughters and he found work at a local diner. He learned about the Opportunity Hiring Fair at his kids’ daycare center. He was hesitant to attend at first because he thought he didn’t need help finding work, but realized that it was OK to accept the help.

“Growing up, my mom was a demonstration that people have to help you and I didn’t want to be like that. I always thought that I didn’t need any help, but I was wrong. When I need help and you offer it, I’m going to take it,” he said.

On Friday, Thomas made his way through the various stations at the fair and when he got to where mock interviews were being held, he was greeted by Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz.

“Howard asked me what my expectations were of the fair and what I wanted out of the day,” Thomas said. “I told him that I don’t want to stay at the bottom, I want to grow.”

Soon after, Thomas applied for a job at Starbucks and was hired on the spot.

“I feel great. I’ll now be in a better environment and that means a better Michael.”

Changing perceptions

Hiring Opportunity Youth is good for companies too, said John Kelly, senior vice president of Global Social Impact and Public Policy at Starbucks, who was at the fair Friday.

“We are changing the perception of CEOs and hiring managers about the nearly 5 million young Americans who are out of school, not working, and facing barriers to employment and success,” he said. “Our experience is that if Opportunity Youth are given a chance, they will make your enterprise more successful. We believe and have demonstrated that there is tremendous value in this undervalued, and often neglected population.”

This is the fifth Opportunity Fair since Starbucks committed in August 2015 to hiring 10,000 Opportunity Youth and partnered with more than 50 other companies to launch the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. Since then, Starbucks has hired more than 40,000 Opportunity Youth, and announced earlier this year a new goal of hiring 100,000 by 2020. The coalition has a goal of hiring 1 million by 2020.

Earlier in the day at a panel for company executives and civic leaders Starbucks’ Schultz highlighted the role of businesses in lifting others up.

“The only way that we can succeed as a society, as businesses, as citizens, it to be more compassionate and understanding,” he said. “We can’t succeed as a society if we leave millions of people behind because of their station in life.”

Building connections

Soft-spoken 20-year-old Kylah Taylor, knew exactly what she wanted when she set foot inside the dimly lit exhibition hall at the Opportunity Hiring Fair. She wanted a job with Starbucks.

Taylor was the third of about 60 people who had lined up this morning before the fair started. She grew up in east Dallas with her grandmother, Belma, and aunt, Teresa, after her parents passed away when she was just 7 years old.

“My grandmother and aunt had to take on the role of mother for me,” she said. “They taught me how to be a strong African-American woman and how to take care of myself.”

Taylor is a dancer and expresses herself best through movement, she said. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual Arts in 2015 and went on to Texas State University to major in kinesiology and minor in dance. She will begin her junior year in the fall.

And she’s getting another new start today. This afternoon she sat down with an interviewer and then was offered a job as a Starbucks barista.

“I’m really excited about getting the job,” she added. “They could have said no, but they saw something in me and decided to give me a chance.”

Her mission at the fair was so clear because she had an idea about the advantages of working Starbucks.

“It’s good to get connected with people, which is what I see baristas doing at Starbucks,” she said. “You never know who you will meet and how they might be able to help you and possible lead you to something new in life.”

That’s exactly the point of the fair, said Larry James, CEO of CitySquare in Dallas, a non-profit organization that provides support to those in need. He attended the fair on Friday and represented his organization.

“For a significant number of people who attend the Friday event, things will happen that they’ll look back on years from now and tie to the day their lives took off,” he said. “No doubt lives will be changed Friday because of the prospect of having a job with a major company that provided a pathway to career and out of the difficulty of poverty.”

A success story

Kimberly Pham is living proof of the kind of difference a new start can make. She grew up in small two-bedroom row house in North Philadelphia on a corner where heroin, crack, cocaine and everything else was sold.

“I lived in the roughest section of the city in a very impoverished area,” said Pham, now 25 and a college graduate. “It’s a completely hopeless environment even to this day.”

Pham, shared her story of trouble and, eventually, triumph at a panel earlier today. She shared the stage with Schultz; Kim Dixon, the chief operating officer for FedEx Office; and Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings.

Pham was born in 1992 to a mother who fled Vietnam and the war that killed her husband in 1968, she told the audience. Later, her mother met another man whom she hoped would be a stable role model for her two sons, and had Pham and then her brother. The household was unstable from the start.

Her father left the family by the time she was 4 and, with her mom working long hours at a bread factory, “we were raising ourselves,” Pham said. “I had to learn a lot on my own before I went to school.”

Things only got more difficult from there. She was abused for years by a family friend and dropped out of school when she was 12. She spent the next four years in and out of residential treatment centers deciding, when she was 16, that something had to change.

She earned her GED, enrolled in Eastern University and received an associate’s degree in liberal arts, she told the audience.

“I had an inner strength and a voice telling me that God had me here for a purpose and I had to keep going until I found it,” she said.

Over the years, she’s been open about her story and what she’s been through. Eventually, she started getting asked to speak at events. At one event, she met Lisa Nutter, the president of Philadelphia Academies, Inc., a nonprofit aimed at connecting students’ interests with their career aspirations to make high school education relevant to kids. Nutter became Pham’s mentor and offered her a fellowship with the nonprofit in 2012. Pham accepted and simultaneously began attending Temple University part-time. She hopes to get her bachelor’s degree by 2019.

“This has been such a stressful and traumatic journey for me but fortunately, God gave me the opportunity to accomplish a lot since I turned my life around,” said Pham. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, you can’t let that hold you back. You have to grow from your experiences and try harder for those who come behind you.”