Charleston entrepreneur writing new story for day laborers

Charleston entrepreneur writing new story for day laborers August 8, 2016

Looking for a better story

In 2010, Snook and his best friend and business partner Peter DeMarco began researching the day-labor industry, especially “alternative staffing organizations” (ASOs), a different type of labor agency that melds a temp staffing approach with supportive services for workers. Soon, they hit the road, traveling to Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago to observe several innovative ASOs that they had identified as potential models.

In 2011, they launched In Every Story as a nonprofit temporary staffing company with a mission to offer workers a more dignified and rewarding work experience. Most of the 65 ASOs across the country (including the three models that Snook and DeMarco visited) are nonprofits, said Janet Van Liere, the director of the Alternative Staffing Alliance’s community jobs program. The sector, she said, currently serves an estimated 30,000 employees and had $180 million in earned revenue in 2014.

After the launch, In Every Story ramped up quickly; fueled by customer and employee referrals, it was soon growing by 80 percent a year. Even so, the nonprofit status was starting to limit the agency’s work, Snook said. The constant need to raise funds from grants and other sources began to detract from their mission.

In 2014, they reorganized In Every Story as a for-profit limited liability corporation (LLC) that directs a portion of its profits toward employee bonuses, rewarding hard work and worker reliability.

Van Liere said Snook is among a handful of solo entrepreneurs in the last eight years who have entered the field with for-profit companies that they hope to expand to multiple markets.

Today, IES’s office is located on the upper reaches of Meeting Street, near newly renovated historic storefronts that house trendy restaurants and tech startups. A once low-rent part of town, it’s an area undergoing transformation, with new hotels and upscale apartments going up right and left not far from homeless shelters and housing projects.

Day laborers gather outside the In Every Story office in hte early morning
IES is located in a transitional part of Charleston, just a block from the Star Gospel Mission.

It’s also an ideal spot for In Every Story. Here men and women show up between 6 and 7 a.m. every weekday to pick up their job assignments and, hopefully, begin to transition to a better life, toward living their best stories. Henry is saving wages to put a roof over his family’s head, and Little Joe (both men declined to give their last names) is “trying to make my way” after 12 years in prison. Like the neighborhood around them, they are in a time of transition, trying to reconstruct a life and move from being the working poor to the sustainably, maybe even fully, employed.

Making the transition

Many at IES have made that transition. The company encourages customers to hire workers who’ve been on a job for 90 days and celebrates each IES worker who gets hired full time. Last year, 40 workers gained full-time jobs through an IES placement.

IES presents the employee with a plaque, places another plaque on an IES office wall and sends a celebratory email notice to 1,500 people and customers, heralding the worker’s success story.

Plaques on a wall
A wall of plaques honors workers who have obtained full-time jobs through an IES placement.

One recently installed plaque and email bulletin depicted a beaming Daniel Scott, who talked about his “sense of accomplishment” when he was hired full time by the O.L. Thompson Construction Company after six months as an IES temp worker. Another featured Theodore Wright , whose new job as an equipment operator at Landmark Construction gave him stability and “means I can take care of myself and my family.”

“These celebrations reinforce the message to our customers that IES workers are valuable assets whom they should consider for full-time employment,” Snook said.

The company gives a similar message to workers in a variety of ways, perhaps none more clearly than the annual employee Christmas harbor cruise and steak dinner. It’s all part of the culture of pride, loyalty and excellence that Snook and his team try to instill.

“We want our employees to feel appreciated and valued,” Snook said.

Although In Every Story is rooted in Snook’s faith life, Christianity is not an obvious component of the company or its work. A prayer request box sits on the front counter, and the staff prays together at weekly staff meetings. But otherwise, religion keeps a low profile at IES.

Prayer requests box
A prayer request box on the front counter is one of the few overt signs of faith at IES.
Snook said that too was a deliberate decision. The goal, he said, is to succeed on business merit alone. If the company promoted itself as a “Christian” business, it could be counterproductive.

“It can strip dignity from our employees to be viewed as another nonprofit social service recipient,” he said.

High hopes for IES

Snook has high hopes for the company and said the market for temporary staffing continues to grow in the post-recession economy. He estimates that as many as 300 new temp agencies are needed across the country and would like for IES to play a role in that expansion.

Jack Hoey, a Charleston business leader and the IES board chairman, said that IES has a sound business model that can enable it to grow.

From the start, he was attracted to Snook’s vision for an organization that helps people make progress rather than profiting from keeping them stuck, unable to move ahead. He also liked that the model was self-sustaining rather than dependent on fundraising or subsidies.

“It conveys that we’re trying to solve a problem, not simply subsidize our failure to solve it,” Hoey said. “Derek’s focused, profit-oriented decision making is balanced with trying to see the image of God in each human being he works with, and that’s a powerful way to live and lead.”

Are your church’s ministries aimed at solving problems or subsidizing a failure to solve problems? What’s the difference?

If IES is able to expand (they hope to open a second branch in 2016), it could put pressure on other staffing agencies in the area to adopt a similar approach, Hoey said.

“The impact then broadens from not only improving the economic outlook for direct employees who are hired but to an indirect impact that comes from reshaping the marketplace,” he said.

The company’s approach is clearly a hit with both workers and customers. IES regularly polls both groups with a standard survey tool used throughout the staffing industry and receives satisfaction ratings near the top of the field.

“It basically means they are happier than at the average staffing agency, which is a great sign,” Snook said.

Man wearing an IN EVERY STORY safety vest
IES worker Keshawn Reid accepts the company’s challenge to “live your best story.”

In the end, Snook has stayed true to the vow he made in Kenya.

“I’ve learned that the ultimate reward to pursuing the story written for you is that you grow closer to the author of your story,” he said.

That’s true not just for himself but for everyone connected to IES — employees, customers and staff.

“We encourage them to engage the story written for them, believing that in doing so they will better understand the author of that story and, in turn, themselves.”

Questions to consider

  • How are you and others “bringing heaven closer to earth”?
  • Who is invisible in your community? How can you participate in life with the invisible to understand their situation?
  • How do you make the necessary steps from recognizing injustice to creating conditions for all to flourish?
  • Where does your church or organization want to help but not really know how? How do you close that gap?
  • Are your church’s ministries aimed at solving problems or subsidizing a failure to solve problems? What’s the difference?
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