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Recode your Future – Dan Rhoton, Executive Director – Hopeworks

March 5, 2019

Dan Rhoton, Executive Director of Hopeworks joins us today on Real-World Branding. With two decades of experience helping youth and adults achieve their dreams, Dan’s career path is not one to miss.

With a focus on education, technology, and entrepreneurship, Hopeworks provides a positive, healing atmosphere that propels young people to build strong futures and break the cycle of violence and poverty in Camden, New Jersey.

Hopeworks connects youth to life-changing opportunities where their growing technology skills go to work for enterprising businesses within our community. The real-world, on-the-job experience they gain raises their potential and benefits our partners.

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands a boutique brand consultancy, and we have Dan Rhoton today, the Executive Director of Hopeworks, known in other areas as Hopeworks in Camden, which is really where their greatest impact has been, and where they began. An amazing person, who represents a tremendously inspiring organization. Hopeworks provides educational and support services for youth who have had some of the most significant challenges that one could imagine. Not only has Hopeworks helped them heal from traumas, but help them develop skills that enable their lives to transform, and for them to secure employment, as well as all along the way to provide technology services to businesses around the region and beyond. It’s an amazing model and Dan is an amazing leader who will tell you all about it. Enjoy Dan Rhoton.

Bill: Joining us at Fitch Brands headquarters is Dan Rhoton, who is the Executive Director of Hopeworks. It is such an honor to be connect with you and your organization and for you to join us today.

Dan Rhoton: It’s a pleasure to be here. We’re just so excited to be here.

Bill: Great. Great. We’ll definitely get into Hopeworks. We’ll get into some of the brand conversations and evolutions that have been made over the last little while, but your journey’s a fascinating one. I would love to hear about some of the milestones and what were the things that kind of drove you on this path to where you are at this point.

Dan: Sure. I think really, my journey, there’s three parts. The first part is at the beginning of my journey. I’d just finished getting a teaching degree. I was going to be a teacher. I was student teaching at this fancy, elite school. Great kids. Doing really smart stuff and then I was doing some volunteer work with a probation officer with some young people who were incarcerated. I went to the elite … I was trying to figure out what job offer to take. Frankly, my mother had a clear thing about whether I should work at the fancy, prestigious private school or in the jail. Private school was her option, right?

Bill: Yes.

Dan: I went to that graduation for the fancy school and it was great. Kids were going to Harvard and Yale. Very smart kids. Then I went to the graduation at the detention facility. The parents were excited. They were screaming. They had balloons. They thought that their kid might not be alive and this kid was graduating.

Bill: What a moment.

Dan: Yeah. I was like, “Wow. The pay’s not quite the same, procedure’s a little different, but this is where I’m going to spend my time. I started there. Really, I think, once I was there I was there for about 15 years. I was a teacher there. I was a vice principal there. The key lesson I learned there, so working there, I worked with kids. I always joked. They had to work pretty hard to get to me. In some ways, we were the most selective school in the region. You didn’t get there just for good grades. You had to steal not just one car, but sometimes two or three. You had to shoot somebody.

Bill: That’s impressive. Show some energy level.

Dan: Yeah. Actually, joking aside, that was it. The one thing. These guys were rough and they had done bad stuff. There’s no taking away from that, but the other thing is they had not been satisfied with the status quo. If they were sitting in a classroom and weren’t learning anything, they walked out. If they wanted to change their life, and wanted to earn some money, they went out to the corner and earned money. Now, it wasn’t the right thing. It wasn’t the right direction, but if they were in a different neighborhood they’d be Mark Zuckerberg.

Bill: Revealed some characteristics.

Dan: Bingo. Right. Nobody was sitting in their basement playing Fortnite. They were doing something. That’s really how I ended up at Hopeworks. Once you’re around that kind of energy, young people who’ve got fire, who’ve got drive, who are taking care of their families, who are ready to do something with the world, and just need some help to put it in the right direction. Man, it’s hard to work an ordinary job once you’ve been there. That’s really how I ended up at Hopeworks. From there, taking young people that have been through very similar experiences, kind of my expertise, working in that environment, and bringing it to Camden to help those young people just blow it up and do a great job.

Bill: Yeah, but you were a classroom guy and an administrator for a decent chunk of time, 15 years or so.

Dan: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. A long time.

Bill: You wind up at Hopeworks in 2012. The transition from the day in/day out teaching, I mean there is some structure, you’re trying to enforce it and make sure that the structure holds into the wild and wooly side of non-profits where you have, which will get into, a complex web of stakeholders and those you serve, how was the transition and how did it feel for you to make that jump?

Dan: Actually in a lot of ways, and this might be funny talking at a branding agency, it’s the same job. You know what the job is? It’s sales.

Bill: Yeah, right. Right.

Dan: When I’m teaching young people who have been dealing drugs and stealing cars, I’m selling. I’m selling a lifestyle. I’m selling them on the fact that what you’ve done up to this point has been energy intensive, but the lifestyle I’m offering is going to be better. Let me tell you why. Let me show you how to get there. Let me close that deal with you.

Bill: Yeah, right. Right.

Dan: In the wild and wooly world of non-profit, in a way, what I’m selling is not a product, although Hopeworks sells products and services. It’s not necessarily a service, although we do web design and GIS, but what I’m selling at the end of the day to our donors and supporters is the chance to go from being someone of success, someone whose earned money, someone whose business is important to be someone of significance in someone else’s life. That’s what Hopeworks can offer. We can take your success, your experience, your knowledge, that to this point has economically been very awesome, and transform that into a way to be significant for others. That’s the opportunity that I’m selling to folks and it’s pretty exciting to do it.

Bill: Sure. Well, you’ve done it. One of the things we were most impressed early in the way that we kind of came to know you is the board is really engaged. It’s a group of people who are not just writing checks because they feel good about writing checks or for whatever reason, but level engagement is really high. How did you … you got to Hopeworks in 2012 as Chief Impact Director. The executive director role, second ever in the life of this organization, is from 2015 to the present, talk about the transition for you into that executive director position, but also the folks that you brought along with you to serve on this board or to help support this organization, what are the success markers along that way?

Dan: Well, I’ll tell you really why sometimes I hesitate to take credit for how engaged our board is or how awesome our staff is because really my job, and I’m stealing this story from someone, but my job really at the end of the day is if you’re standing on a beach, and you see someone out there drowning, and you look over to your right, and there’s somebody with a boat, they’re going to help you. My job, really at the end of the day, is to just make sure that people that have the boats of this world, turn and see the people that are drowning. If I do that well, from then on, it’s just a matter of getting out of the way. Really that’s why our board is so engaged. Right, because they see the need. They see the transforming of impact they had, then my job is just not slowing them down. That’s really why it’s kind of easy to have an awesome board. It’s easy to have an awesome team. If I do my job of letting them see the person who needs help, and what they have, and what they know can help, then no one’s on the board for a resume because you see the purpose. That’s really my job.

Bill: Well, I can see just having some relationship with several of the board members and others how eager they are to share on social media, and advocate, and be ambassadors for this organization in a way that at least strikes me as well beyond the way that other non-profit folks may be engaged either in a donor level or even at a governance level when you sort of sit there, and you maybe write a check, and attend some meetings. It’s really powerful. Tell us about, educate our listeners on the Hopeworks model. There’s such power and strength in just what you do. Give us the scope of that.

Dan: Yeah. At the end of the day, what we do is we help young people who have struggled. Young people who are homeless, trafficked, coming out of justice system, stuck, not knowing what to do. We help them transform their lives and get where they want to go. How we do it? Three things. We train them. We train them in technology, web development, GIS, digital mapping, relational databases, but more importantly than that, we train and teach them in how to heal from what’s happened to them. We call it “Trauma Informed Care,” but at the end of the day, it’s helping our young people understand that bad things have happened to them, but just because bad things have happened in the past, it doesn’t mean bad things are going to happen in the future. We help them learn the technical skills, but we help them learn the professional skills, and emotional management skills to be successful. We train them. Then we employ them.

Dan: Hopeworks has several business lines. We build websites and provide web services to companies all over the region. We do GIS, digital mapping, and data editing for large enterprises and public utilities. Then we train schools and other non-profits in how to work with young people like the young people we work with. Young people with large trauma histories. When I say we, of course, I don’t mean me. Our young people do. Led by business directors with years of experience in industry, our young people deliver websites. They build mapping applications. They deliver trainings. Not only do they provide services to the community, but when those companies pay us, we pay our young people, and give them real professional experience working with real clients. From there, it’s tough not to get them hired. They’re well trained. They have technical skills. They have client experience. They have a portfolio of work and then they move on to industry. Our young people work at Cooper Hospital, Comcast, at American Water, New Jersey American Water, companies all over the region.

Bill: So they, simultaneously derive skills to cope with the trauma that they’ve endured, skills to handle a life moving forward, as well as skills that make them marketable, and they make things. The team has smartly chosen high growth or at least high demand industries around technology, so this isn’t a manufacturing, sort of old school set of skills that they developed. Becomes really marketable. What is the wingspan of the organization, and relate who qualifies, and how you source them, and how they move through, what that path is like until at some point, I suppose, they’re self-sufficient professionally and personally and then they exit.

Dan: The first thing is that our entry requirements are that you go on a tour and you decide you want to do it. That’s important to us. One way for an organization to be successful is front end filtering. It’s what Harvard does. They have great results, but one reason is they only let people who are pretty accomplished in. There are folks who do that and that’s great. That’s not our space. We meet our young people where they are. Then, once they come in, they start training with us. Some young people are pretty ready. They go through fast. Most aren’t. What we do is, rather than say you have to finish in 6 weeks, 12 weeks, or 8 weeks, we work with them until they’re ready. The analogy is, if I go to the gym and I want to do a hundred push-ups, but I can only do 8. I’ll tell you what is not going to work, is either saying it’s okay for me just to do 10. No clients going to do that. You’ve got to be able to do the work, but it’s also not okay for me to kick me out and say come back when you can do a hundred. The way to get good at doing push-ups is doing more push-ups.

Dan: That’s what we do with our young people. We work with them until they’re ready. Once they’re ready, we move them on into industry, working for us, giving them that extra skill portfolio and polish, and then at the end of their internship with us, usually it’s about 6 or 8 months, then we’re moving on to industry where our youth cannot only deliver great product for clients, but more importantly deliver a different life for their families.

Bill: So this began anchored in Camden. Could you give a sense of the orders of magnitude approximately how many folks have come through the program, what are some of the high level statistics that track all that Hopeworks has accomplished?

Dan: Yeah. I would say over the last 17/18 years, we’ve probably worked with over 3000 young people. I would say that’s not the most important number. If you wanted to increase that number bigger, I would just open the front door. I would open the back door. I would give everybody $10 to walk through. The more important number is, for over the last 12 months, 87 percent of our young people who start an internship finish that internship and move on to not just a job, but a job that pays $35,000 a year or more, or if they’re going to school, the hourly equivalent of that. It’s important to us because it’s not just a job, it’s a job that’s going to allow them to transform their lives. Of those young people that start the job, over the last, again over the last 12 months, 94 percent of those young people are still employed 12 months later at that same job, and 87 percent of those young people are still employed at the job 24 months later. That’s what it is at the end of the day. The best thing is, of those alumni, we now have Hopeworks alumni hiring Hopeworks interns for their own companies. That means your doing it right.

Bill: Well the ripple of all that goes far.

Dan: If we’re successful, the only reason a child of one of our youths should come to Hopeworks, is to make a donation. That means we’re doing it right.

Bill: No question. Camden is where this all began and much of the life cycle has been … thoughts about expansion, geographies of the services, what’s sort of on the plate moving forward in terms of what you could share?

Dan: No. I’ll tell you the question we have to answer. Right now, we have young people from Camden. We have young people come from Philly. We’ve had some folks come from Covenant House in Atlantic City because they see opportunity and it’s kind of like how we started the interview. Young people have the fire. They’re going to get it if you can help them. The question we have to answer now is our mission isn’t, and has never been, to have buildings in every city or to be named as a regional or national organization, our mission is to transform lives. So, when we think about how we grow, and how we’re invited to grow, the question is, it sounds cold but it’s a matter of efficiency, how can we transform the most lives for the fewest resources because when a donor, or a grantor, or even a customer gives us dollars or gives us resources, they’re not giving it to us. They’re giving it to us as stewards for our young people. Every dollar we get, we have to think about that. As we go forward, what we’re really working on is, which parts of our model are most efficient, most scalable, and can transform the most lives. We’re going to scale those and really grow those.

Bill: Sure. We really got to know the organization as you approached a branding endeavor in the last 9 months or so, what led you to a point where you thought this might be an area that needed some focus, and then what were some of the major milestones in that process? Reflect a little bit on what the end result has been. The new website looks amazing, tag line, other things, talk about the role of the brand and how this has all transpired.

Dan: It’s easy to talk about the stuff that you know happens and you guys know well. You know our website traffic is up. We’re able to bid on larger contracts because we appear more professional and appear more capable. Folks are more excited to work with us. All those things are true. For me, none of those make the rebrand worth it though because the real benefit for us was something that a young man T.J. said to us shortly after. He walked into our space where we had rebranded the space. He had looked at our website, which was rebranded. He looked at our materials, the work we were doing for clients. Shortly after that, he went and did a mock interview at a main Philly tech company, lots of folks. He walked out of there. We checked in, how’d it go? How’d you do? What was your impression? What he said was the most important thing about this rebrand, he said, “I think I did great. I think I interviewed well, but you know what was really different Dan?” I said, “what, what.” He’s like, “They didn’t seem like that bid a deal.” That’s it right.

Dan: Because we’ve taken the time to demonstrate to our young people that they are a worthy investment. They deserve to work in a professional space with professional branding. They deserve the same level of corporate quality and synergy that these see all around them, and then maybe, just maybe, they belong in that space. Maybe, just maybe, they belong in a skyscraper somewhere, not necessarily in the basement of a church or something like that. That’s a powerful message. I would say the last thing, for us, the branding for our clients was amazing, for our donors was amazing, for our grantors was amazing. Everyone noticed, but I’ll tell you who really noticed. Our young people realized that they’re worth the investment.

Bill: Right. That’s really powerful stuff and I think that we always from the beginning thought that this was, you know, sometimes some projects are about thinking of something new or shedding some baggage of the past. In this case, it really was about bringing the presentation up to the level of the services that are delivered and the value of the folks who deliver them and receive them. Just digging in to some of the elements of the brand here, the logo, the color scheme, the tag line, “Recode your future” is the tag line, talk a little bit about why that resonates with you, and why it sort of fits what you’re doing, and is the right kind of banner for all of us to kind of march underneath.

Dan: I think, for me, what it means to me, is for our young people, when you look at them, when you look at their histories, when you look at where they’re coming from, or what has happened to them, you imagine you know what’s going to happen next. Our young people have a path laid out to them. It probably involves police. It probably involves poverty. It probably involves public benefits. What Hopeworks, we’re keeping our promise to our young people. If we keep that promise, what we’re doing is we’re allowing them to recode that future. We’re allowing them to write a new algorithm for how this is going to end. That’s our promise to our young people. That’s what we say is going to happen. It’s really awesome for a young person. The first thing that they see about Hopeworks is we’re going to recode your future. It’s not going to be what other folks have told you it has to be. That’s why it means a lot to me.

Bill: Yeah. Definitely. Recode is a word that anchors us a little bit and taking away it reflects the services, the instruction that’s received, and what we deliver to our businesses. I remember during the logo development process, it may have been a board member, and he may have been the only person in the world who saw an early version of the logo, there’s some interlocking o’s there in the way of talking about cycles. There was a concern, we don’t want these to look like handcuffs. There was one guy who thought they looked like handcuffs so there’s a level of sensitivity that needs to be brought into a process like this, and obviously that wasn’t the intent, but talk a little bit about colors, and logo form, and just how that fits into the overall story.

Dan: I think when you look at the colors and the logo form, again I’m no expert in any of those things, but I think, what I see, and what I hope our staff and young people see is, there is a hyperlink that’s part of the log that brings us back to our tech groups, but more than that is connection. Is that link that if it was on the world wide web it was to resources and knowledge, but hopefully if we’re doing our job at Hopeworks, there’s that link to warmth. There’s that link to the professionalism. There’s that link to a future, which is that the thing that our log and I think more importantly the colors really bring to life. It’s that balance of warmth and genuineness, professionalism, and future. That’s what I really see when I look at those colors and logos.

Bill: Nice. So, you’ve talked about some of the impact of this. It isn’t in a vacuum. It’s occurring amidst so many long, rewarding days and success often measured in smiles and light bulb moments as opposed to some of the other wonderful statistics that you cited. It seems like it’s part of an overall just progression for this organization into broadening its focus, and increasing its impact, and all of those different things that you’ve been leading.

Dan: Yeah.

Bill: No.

Dan: Absolutely.

Bill: It was a statement question. To the degree that you can share, I know you’re always working on things, what are some of the … everyone’s going to be watching this organization because it’s so cool, and the impact is so great, what next? What are some other major priorities that are kind of on your plate as you think about taking advantage of the branding thing, the advantage of the impact, and progressive.

Dan: I think our next challenge, and what we’re really eagerly pursuing is growing our business offerings. We’re happy to grow our donations. We’re happy to grow our philanthropic review, but we love when folks give us a donation, give us money, but we’d rather earn it. The reason why we’d rather earn our money is because then we get the review and we can also employ young people. As we look at companies, large enterprises that have web work or have data editing needs, or mapping needs, or we even have several young people now who are licensed drone pilots, who are creating 3D models of neighborhoods for community development corporations. If there’s companies out there that have that kind of work, don’t give it to us, and please don’t give us a donation, but give us a shot to bid on it. We’ll win it. When we win it, not only will that company get some great results with better accuracy than anyone else, they’ll also get a chance to know that they’ve changed lives. By doing business, they’re also going to do good. At the end of the day, that’s where we’re really trying to grow.

Bill: Yeah, but you think there’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations that have varied technology needs, some of which are heavy lifts for high priced development team, others of which are perfect. A lot of this is applicable and there’s a lot of opportunity out there. As you reflect on what you’ve helped to build, the impact that you’ve had, as well as some of the twists and turns along the way for you, as you made your own transition in your career, as you thought through your own options, are there, for those who have been inspired by that path, are there words of wisdom that you would want to share with folks who are maybe going through some soul searching of their own or thinking about as they start out how to become something of the sort that you’ve become?

Dan: Well, I would say, I’m not sure about becoming what I’ve become, I’m sure that lots of folks who know me well might say that might not be a goal, but I will say this, if you want to help, and if you want to change people’s lives really the first thing to do is spend time with them. Come to Hopeworks. Spend time with our young people. Come to Camden and spend time with them. It’s hard to help someone change their life, and get where they’re going if you don’t know where they’ve been, and you don’t where they’re headed. One of the analogies I use is that a Ferrari is an incredible car. It’s fast. It’s red. It’s beautiful, but if you don’t know where to put the keys, you end up pushing it, and then it’s slow, and horrible, and a pain. Just taking a few minutes to listen and learn about what a young person needs, what they already know, and where they’re going allows you to go from pushing that car up a heavy hill and not going anywhere to having the young person get in the car with you, turning the ignition key, and doing amazing things.

Bill: Yeah. You’re off. It reminds me of something that’s very easy to forget in today’s busy life, which is in philanthropy and the act of giving, often the most profound impact is on the giver. To your point, the ability to immerse yourself, and spend time kind of unlocks so many different things it would seem both for those who need it, and those who have it.

Dan: Although, I’ll disagree with you on one thing because there’s one thing, the giver does amazing things, but I’ll tell you one thing that folks who make a donation don’t know that I get to see every day, and often someone will come to me and say, “I can only give $10, $100, a million dollars.” All those are fine, but a million’s nice, but there was one of our young people Brianna, who taught me a really important lesson about this. We were sitting in huddle every day. We start the day in the huddle in a big circle, and we announce that some corporation or foundation had given us a grant. Everybody clapped, almost everybody. You know who didn’t, Brianna. Not only did she not clap, she was making this ugly looking face. She had her face all scrunched up. I meant to ask her, but then she had to run out to class.

Dan: She goes out to class. I’m kind of waiting for her the rest of the day. I’m like, “I’ve never seen that before. Normally, money’s a pretty good thing.” She comes back from class. She says, “Dan, can I talk to you?” I’m like, “You bet. I’d like to talk to you.” She’s like, “Me first.” Got it. She says, “Listen, you know I’ve been struggling in math. I’ve really been having trouble.” I’m like, “Yes, I know.” “You know how everyone at Hopeworks has been telling me to ask my professor.” I’m like, “Yeah, we know. We also know you haven’t done it.” She’s like, “Well, I asked my professor for help today, and he was super helpful. He tutored me. He stayed after. It was awesome. I was kind of happy, but then if I’m honest with you, I was also a little like, that’s awesome. I’m very excited.” “I’ve got to ask you, we’ve been telling you to do this for two months, what changed?”

Dan: This is the part I wish every person who thinks their volunteer time or their donation isn’t enough or doesn’t mean anything, to hear what she said next. She said, “When you told me at huddle that someone who had never met us gave us their money to help us, if even those fancy people (those were her words, right) want to help us and they don’t even know us, then maybe my professor meant it when he said he wanted to help.” That’s it right. The donation no matter how big or how small, it helps because it pays for a salary, or it pays for rent, it keeps the lights on, but more than that, it tells young people who often have had to do everything by themselves, it shows them what many of us know, which is if you ask people for help, they will give it.

Dan: That’s the world that I know. That’s the world that you see on the day. That’s not the world that many of our youth have grown up with. Something as simple as when our young people see people that they don’t know, sometimes fancy people giving money, time, and effort, it shows them that just because what they’ve experienced up to this point, isn’t how the world always has to be. Once a young person learns to ask for help, and realizes that people are out there to help them get where they want to got, it’s hard to stop them. That’s the value of that donation or that volunteer hour for me.

Bill: Building that level trust probably makes a difference across the entire spectrum of life.

Dan: It does.

Bill: That’s perfect. We’ve kept you longer than we said we would, but Dan Rhoton, thank you so much for joining us for the opportunity to play some small role or whatever in the growth of this organization.

Dan: That’s right, because we’re awesome.

Bill: Thank you. We’ll be watching with pride. It’s amazing what you all have done. I appreciate your time.

Dan: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much.

Bill: You can probably hear the sincerity, and the warmth, and the passion even through this microphone and through your earbuds, that Dan Rhoton brings to what he does, and to the organization that he represents, and I can vouch for the fact that all of this is true. It was an honor, it is an honor to know him, know them, and to have had a small role in at least in how they look, and what they are this day moving forward. So much power and impact. We’ll continue to watch, and be proud of our affiliation with Dan and with Hopeworks. Three ways to help us on real-world branding as always, click subscribe. I’m going to do these fast today. I’m sick of doing them because hopefully you’ve all heard it by now, and you’ll take some action. Click subscribe so you don’t miss an episode, that’s one. Rate us. Review us in the app store or the podcast store of your choice, that’s two. Then give us a bit of feedback on Twitter. Ideas for guests or topics or just generally what works, and what doesn’t about what we do. We want it to be ever better, and to have the kind of value that we always imagined when we set out to do this, and as we invest our time every other week in putting one of these interviews together, so those are the three ways. Hope everyone is doing well. We’ll sign off at the cradle of liberty.

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