Del Seymour, the founder of start-up Code Tenderloin, spared a day to show Cambridge Judge Executive MBA participants like Melissa Stringer what’s really important.
Last week, Cambridge Judge Business School orchestrated one of the best weeks of my life. My 80 classmates and I met up in San Francisco, to spend an intense seven days packed from morning to midnight with company visits, lectures on international business, inspirational guest speakers, fantastic dinners, and of course, plenty of dancing and imbibing of local ‘culture’! I’m inspired, to say the least… the trick is to keep the passion with you and turn it into action.
For me, the most affecting experience has been the day we spent with Del Seymour, Code Tenderloin founder, and some of the graduates and existing pupils within his work readiness training programme. Five years ago Del created Code Tenderloin, a charitable organisation that works with Tenderloin residents, and through a combination of personal mentoring, social rehabilitation, technical education and business etiquette training, he readies these pupils of the program for professional work, in ‘real’ jobs.
Employers, predominantly local tech-based companies, have been extremely receptive to Code Tenderloin’s initiative, although the early days involved a lot of door knocking and constant daily persistence from Del and his team. Supporting employers of the Code Tenderloin program are Wework, Equator Coffee, The Hall, Pianofight, Zendesk, Spotify, Twitter, Dolby, and AirBnB.
Code Tenderloin have over 80 graduates, of which over 80% have kept their jobs, and Del is personally in touch with all of these individuals, every week, checking in on them to make sure they’re still on the straight path. The mutual respect, gratitude and raw emotions are palpable as we hear from Del and his pupils.
Del’s own story is beautiful and heart-breaking, and he shares it with missionary zeal. In brief, he was a Vietnam War veteran turned vagrant, who lived homeless on the streets of Tenderloin, San Francisco for 18 years, becoming the most prolific cocaine dealer on Market Street. One day he was called over to a small gathering across the street by a clergyman who handed him a $300 suit and offered to help him clean up his act. While Del initially intended to extort the generosity of the community church, he was gradually won over, by what he calls ‘the grace of God’.
Some quotes from Del Seymour:
- “Spread God’s love horizontally, not vertically.”
- “I’m 67 and it worries me that I haven’t invested in a pension for my old age. I can’t stop the mission, even if I’m tired. I will spend my pension in heaven if I work hard now.”
- “Let’s not send the police, let’s send HR. Send HR and we’ll clean up the problem.”
San Francisco is a hub of extreme wealth, generous VCs, budding start-ups, tech unicorns and, an incredibly high cost of living. Even in the poorest areas of the city, a one bedroom flat will rent for over $3000. It’s no wonder then that economic diversity is unsupported, and once affordable apartment blocks are being sold off to tech companies for millions, to be converted into prime-location office blocks. There’s a real concern that the remaining affordable housing hotels will eventually be sold, but Del is convinced that the owners of these buildings share in the mission to protect and integrate the poorer citizens of Tenderloin with the evolving business ecosystem.
Del’s ultimate mission is to pave the way for economic integration between his Tenderloin citizens and the surrounding tech community, but, he says, the power to affect change lies with every individual, and he says it isn’t about money: He points to our tour guide, a reformed drug dealer, homeless from the age of 11, who is now a Supervisor in a local company. “What this young lady needs most in the world is someone at the end of the phone. She needs someone to call when she’s got a problem at work, or if she gets an interview, or if something good happens in her life.” If there’s nobody to tell, outside of the immediate environment, how can you celebrate your successes and avoid seeking comfort in familiar habits? We all need someone to believe in us so we can make them proud.
Del and Code Tenderloin work closely with Glide Memorial Church, based nearby, which promotes inclusiveness, rehabilitation through ‘radical love’ and protection from political, economic, racial, sexual, and mental health marginalisation. Glide serves over 2000 free meals a day to the denizens of Tenderloin and provides counselling, rehabilitation and medical support to the most vulnerable neighbourhood residents. Glide has formed such a close relationship with the tech community of San Francisco and Silicon Valley that it survives almost independently of state support (accounting for a pitiful 18%) and is consequently afforded some immunity to the politics of government administration.
The story of inner city gentrification and the resulting expulsion of poorer citizens from local, affordable housing is happening in many cities around the world, and seems particularly real here, from my office window in Fenchurch Street, London, looking toward Whitechapel. The district of Tenderloin is undoubtedly more heavily populated with addicts, mental health sufferers (Del tells us that a third of all residents in the Tenderloin have a serious mental health disorder) and dealers on every corner, than anywhere I have ever been, but, there are also community, rather than government, backed organisations trying to fix the problem.
I’m not exactly sure what to do to emulate the good work of Del Seymour at Code Tenderloin, but I feel the weight of responsibility to do something. I’m sure that’s what our incredible professors at Cambridge Judge Business School had in mind when they structured our programme. Social responsibility and giving back to the community is one of the most important values that the EMBA programme imparts: We have a moral duty to change the world for the better. I can’t wait to see what my amazing peers (and I) will do in the next few years.