Philadelphia job fair pairs potential, opportunity

PHILADELPHIA – Uniqua Williams pulled out her phone and there it was, captured in all its photogenic glory, a Starbucks vanilla bean crème Frappuccino copiously covered in whipped cream.

"It touched my heart," she said, praising the whipped cream, the nutmeg, the waffle cone and the spirit of the barista who made it for her.

It touched Derrick Holiday's heart too.

Because, with that photo, Holiday, a new store manager recruiting for Starbucks at Thursday's Hire! Philly job and resource fair, knew he might be looking at a future barista. What he saw in Williams, 19, was someone with the love of the product and enough personality and friendliness to keep customers coming back.

Someone like him.

And also, to be truthful, someone maybe a little lost. Just like he had been.

"Some people want to do good, but they don't have that direction," said Holiday, 27. "I understand it, because I was one of those kids."

Jobseekers’ stories echo recruiters’ journeys

Picture a job fair like Thursday's at the Pennsylvania Convention Center -- rows of tables, covered in cloth. Behind them, recruiters. In front, the jobseekers -- scared, anxious, hopeful, yet too afraid to hope too much.

With employer logos on giant posters behind them, the recruiters waited there, clipboards and pamphlets in hand, wearing their company polo shirts, or in the case of the recruiters from Starbucks, their trademark green aprons. The shirts, the aprons, the logos, the clipboards -- they're the badge, the signal: “We've made it. We've arrived.“

But it wasn't long ago that many of them were the ones looking, hoping, hurting.

The recruiters might be someone like Starbucks store manager Malama Watson, 36, who was nearly homeless and addicted to drugs, struggling to cope with her family's rejection as she transitioned from male to female. She found a welcoming environment in Starbucks. "They became my family."

Or Marlene Rodriguez, 31, now a store manager, then a single mother at age 17, who was glad she could count on a meal from Starbucks during each shift. At least she'd get something to eat that day.

The recruiters were people like Michael Robinson, 58, director of community outreach and engagement at Temple University, there to find janitors, adjunct professors and college staff members for Philadelphia's largest state-run university. He grew up in public housing. "No one helped me to navigate the world of business."

Many of these recruiters didn't need a briefing paper to acquaint them with what was at stake for some of the about 1,700 jobseekers who walked through the door Thursday. They may not have known the precise statistical outline of poverty in Philadelphia, but they understood it well.

Starbucks, Philadelphia “create something together”

With a 26 percent poverty rate, Philadelphia is the city with the highest poverty rate among the nation's 10 largest cities. An estimated 400,000 Philadelphians live below the federal poverty line and nearly half of them are in deep poverty, meaning their annual income is less than half of the federal poverty limit, living on less than $10,000 a year.

Thursday's Hire! Philly fair at the Convention Center was the beginning of the efforts by the Hire! Philly Coalition. This new employer-led coalition, co-founded by Starbucks, Aramark, PECO, PNC Bank and Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, aims to engage local employers in bringing employment and opportunities to Philadelphia.

The Coalition recruited more than 30 employers and three dozen social service organizations to come to the job fair.

But the intent of this fair was not just about jobs, it was about providing connections to critical resources in the community that could help break down barriers to economic opportunities. Volunteers helped with resumes at one computer center and job seekers crowded around another filling out online applications. They hired a disc jockey to keep the atmosphere lively, hosted rapper Meek Mill as a speaker and invited LinkedIn to help with profile coaching and take photos for professional portraits.

At the job fair, applicants and recruiters were too busy with resumes and interviews to think about what happened earlier in the year at a Starbucks store in Center City, not far from the Convention Center.

But in a corner, in the back, where Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney, Starbucks executives and other dignitaries addressed local business leaders, it was not forgotten.    

On April 12, police arrested two African-American men waiting in a Starbucks for a friend. The manager had called the police. Video of the incident went viral, condemnation was swift and the story made headlines around the nation. Starbucks' top management immediately flew in from Seattle working to right what had gone wrong, and chief executive officer Kevin Johnson described the incident as "reprehensible."

At the fair, Kenney talked about it another way. "That incident that happened was a teaching moment," he said, commending Starbucks' "clear-eyed, transparent response to something that was wrong."

Beyond what happened at the store, Kenney said, the incident educated the city in the implicit and explicit biases held by all.

Acknowledging the incident Thursday, Starbucks chief operating officer Roz Brewer said it showed Starbucks that "Philadelphia and Starbucks could create something together."

Job offers and hope

At the fair, the something was hope -- hope and opportunity.

A single mother of two daughters who recently relocated from North Carolina was exuberant. After the day, Tamiera Talley, 26, thought she had real shots at several jobs, including at PNC bank and PWRT Services Inc. "I'm feeling the love in Philadelphia," she said.

Shakia Sutton, 33, who got out of prison in September after serving 12 years, sat patiently as Amanda Melendez, 22, a makeup artist, brushed on eye shadow and mascara. "I didn't think I deserved to look nice," she said.  She almost left, too scared to apply and too overwhelmed, but a mentor walked her around the job fair and stayed with her while she filled out applications.

High school advisor Ron Sizer brought about 20 students from Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia. Eighteen of them received either job offers or promises of interviews. Some got donated suit jackets and ties. Some got haircuts from volunteer barbers brought in to give applicants a professional look.

Starbucks managers gathered around Mercy Morgan, 17, clapping and singing. She was overcome by her job offer. For her, Starbucks' debt-free college program suddenly makes a degree seem possible. Her two siblings started college but dropped out, overwhelmed by debt. "This is a great opportunity for me," she said.

Xavier McElrath-Bey remembers how that felt.

"What changed my life was the opportunity to work for Starbucks as a barista," said McElrath-Bey, who calls the company his “life vest.”  McElrath-Bey went to prison at the age of 13 after being involved in a homicide. He had already been arrested 19 times. At the age of 26, he was released with two associate’s degrees and a bachelor's degree, but no one would hire him -- no one, except Starbucks.

Now he's a senior advisor and national advocate for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which sent McElrath-Bey and other representatives to Thursday's fair. 

"I see great potential," McElrath-Bey said. "You have to be the world of possibilities for them.”

“You can’t teach drive”

Potential was the word of the day.

It could be measured in statistics: 38 companies ready to hire; 38 social service agencies ready to help; and with just 50 percent of the day's results reported as of publishing, already at 480 job interviews, 580 people who left with follow-up steps or appointments, 100 haircuts, 300 jackets or blazers distributed. 

It could also be measured another way -- what Starbucks manager Derrick Holiday saw when he looked into Uniqua Williams' eyes during her interview, as she showed off her Frappuccino photo. 

Fiercely independent, Williams said she struggles to overcome feelings of being lost and confused. Her biggest challenge? "It's hard to pick one," but she counts abuse and harassment among them.

Her parents split up, and she's moved back and forth between them -- her mother's house is crowded with other children and Williams needs her own space.

Holiday's story wasn't so different. As a youngster, he too experienced abuse. "Everything broke down," he said. He bounced around among family members. After graduating from college, he landed and lost a lot of jobs, preferring to party with friends. Finally, at Starbucks he found a place where he can use his talent for leadership. "I have a two-year-old son and I want him to have a better life than I did."

What he and Williams have in common is drive. "You can't teach that drive," he said. "If you have someone who shows that, that's huge."

Around 5 p.m. Thursday, Williams got the call. She was hired.

"I'm astonished and excited," she said. "This means I can do anything I want to do."

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Starbucks college admission program helps partners bridge to a better future, no matter the road they take