Greg Block is the Southeast U.S./Caribbean regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
Imagine if you carry everything you own on your back. Imagine being a victim of spousal abuse and having to seek refuge but having no means of supporting yourself or your kids. Imagine if at the end of the day you were deciding whether to sleep in plain eyesight of people or tucking yourself somewhere hidden. Imagine for a moment that you were faced with the experience of being homeless and had nowhere else to turn without a clear path toward self-sufficiency, dignity or housing.
Coming back from any of those scenarios takes a special kind of resilience and courage and requires external support. Since 2007, First Step Staffing, a nonprofit staffing agency in the United States, has helped 20,000 individuals experiencing homelessness face these issues, defy the odds, and become self-sufficient.
First Step Staffing Founder and former CEO and YPO member Greg Block died from adenocarcinoma, a non-smokers non-small cell lung cancer in August 2020, but not before setting the nonprofit up for long-term success.
About First Step’s clients, he has said, “They are heroes. I believe the perseverance, the strength and the courage to pull yourself up off the street and move toward reentering main society is a Herculean task and one that’s worthy of our admiration. The odds against these folks succeeding are dauntless. Their journey, their battle, is mostly unobserved by mainstream society. However, seeing and supporting these men and women battle their way back to a life of dignity is a great honor.”
At the age of 38, Block sold his textile business and was intent on making a difference in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He believed he could do it; he just did not know how.
“I grew up in a household where civil service and leadership was ingrained in everything our family did,” Block told Forbes in 2017. “So, you could say helping others and working for the betterment of society and my community was definitely entrenched in my DNA.”
A serendipitous luncheon in 2005 with A.J. Robinson, President of Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), opened his eyes to the issue of homelessness in his community.
Homelessness is often seen as a housing problem. But Block chose to address some of the underlying causes of homelessness, not the symptoms, which many organizations were already tackling. His vision for First Step was simple: provide jobs for the homeless and help them take that first step on the path to self-reliance, self-confidence, self-worth and stability.
Solving a problem
America prides itself on being a place where anyone can succeed. Yet, that dream seems woefully out of reach for most homeless men and women. Block recognized that by getting back to work they may have a second chance at life and economic mobility.
Amelia Nickerson, the current CEO of First Step Staffing, recounts Block’s words, “We can’t build our way out of homelessness, but we can work our way out.” And in 2007, at 40, Block started First Step to provide homeless individuals, previously incarcerated, struggling veterans and others with employment barriers, more opportunities to work in dignified jobs and earn a sustainable income to improve their circumstances.
As he told Forbes, the path out of homelessness requires paying jobs to help support hard-working employees.
Block built relationships with employers in supply logistics, food processing and manufacturing, hospitality, printing, and cleanup and restoration services who “had the same sensitivities he did for putting homeless men and women to work in Atlanta,” says Joe Guerra, Block’s friend and fellow YPO member and CEO and owner of Turf Star Western and Board Chair of SoCal First Step Staffing. Block then partnered with various organizations that were helping the homeless to recruit and train potential candidates.
Many businesses are highly skeptical about hiring people experiencing homelessness. “Everybody wants to solve the homelessness problem, but nobody voluntarily raises their hand and says ‘let’s hire the homeless,’” says Guerra. Homeless men and women typically lack a recent work history, work training, and most importantly, invitations to work. They also lack reliable transportation, which is a huge obstacle to employment and overcoming this became a cornerstone of First Step’s success and differentiation.
First Step created support services that minimized the perceived risk in employing these men and women and, as Nickerson says, “allowed us to grow and made us a preferred vendor for a lot of our employer customers.” To address the transportation barrier, First Step figured out how to provide a cost-effective way to help people overcome it. After initially owning its own vans to get people to and from work, First Step now partners with Enterprise Rideshare to provide 5,000 rides a month.
The organization also offers employees housing placement assistance, benefits services and comprehensive job and life coaching to ensure they succeed once they are in the workplace and to “help inspire them every day to go to work, sustain execution and stick with it,” says Guerra. “First Step is a culture that is highly impactful to the individual, and those values and beliefs permeate with our clients.”
Becoming a social enterprise
While the organization had grown organically to USD2 million in revenue over the years, its growth had stalled by the time Block was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
“His dream was that his grandchildren, whom he would never meet, would see those First Step vans going through the cities wherever they were visiting, and they would know that he started that, and he was still helping people,” says his widow, Monica Block.
As a businessman, he understood the fastest way to grow — and realize his dream — was through acquisition. While mergers happen all the time, they rarely happen like this one did. What Block wanted to do — buy a much larger for-profit staffing company and convert it to a nonprofit social enterprise model employing the homeless — had never been done before.
The key to his success was his fearlessness and perseverance. “Sometimes it takes being unreasonable to get things accomplished,” says Guerra.
In December 2015, First Step raised USD7.2M to acquire LGS Staffing, Atlanta’s fifth largest for-profit staffing company, and its existing business relationships and leadership team. The deal was debt financed using a unique combination of funding sources, including government and commercial grants, loans, and financing from traditional banks and foundations.
I believe the perseverance, the strength and the courage to pull yourself up off the street and move toward reentering main society is a Herculean task, and one that’s worthy of our admiration. ”
— Greg Block, Founder, First Step Staffing share
“He told me it was like crawling over broken glass to get people to listen to him initially,” says Nickerson. The acquisition model is primarily financed by Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI), which play an important role in generating economic growth and opportunity in areas of need. However, workforce development was new and unique for them at the time.
“He used to say, ‘You miss all the shots you don’t take,’” says Nickerson. “He could take a lot of no’s because he knew he eventually would get a yes. He would ask anybody for anything because he was so passionate and believed so fully that he had a good solution for a very large national problem, and he just needed the right people at the table to help him solve it.”
Creating a scalable, sustainable solution
Homelessness is an issue that every community faces. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) annual report, more than 580,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in early 2020, an increase of 2.2% from 2019. This was before the pandemic. It is predicted that over the next three years, those numbers could rise by 40%.
Knowing that he had a scalable, sustainable solution, Greg set out to eradicate homelessness in other parts of the country. To do that, he had to identify willing sellers, secure funding and obtain government approval. “The biggest lesson,” Monica says, “is to never give up.”
From 2015 to 2020, First Step expanded in two ways: by acquiring additional for-profit staffing entities and converting them into nonprofits in Atlanta, Georgia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles, California, and by establishing client-requested agencies in Nashville, Tennessee, Orlando, Florida, and Trenton, New Jersey. “It really speaks to how well the model works, because if we weren’t performing our job well as a staffing company, our customers wouldn’t ask us to serve them in multiple locations,” says Nickerson.
While homelessness might often be seen as an intractable problem, First Step’s delivery model is proving that is not the case. Of its clients, 70% maintain employment and successfully re-enter the workforce permanently. In 2020, First Step Staffing employed 8,300 marginalized men and women during the pandemic, paid USD50.4 million in wages and provided more than 65,300 rides to and from work.
Block did not want to be in a position with starting a nonprofit that continually needed funding. His goal was to solve a problem in a self-sustaining way, and in 2020, First Step became 95% self-sustaining with more than USD59 million in revenue.
“As a model, because we are meeting a business need in the community, we’re able to generate a tremendous amount of earned revenue because we’re providing a service not only for the people in need in the community but also for the businesses that need to hire people in the community,” says Nickerson.
Taking that second step
Block’s favorite saying from his wrestling days, “Do your best work when no one’s watching,” applied to his final days. “Imagine facing your mortality and giving every ounce of your energy and time outside of battling cancer to growing and impacting as many lives as you can,” says Monica. “That was what he woke up to, and that was his focus every day.”
While privately undergoing cancer treatments, Block shepherded First Step from an organization that helped a few hundred people in Atlanta to nearly 2,000 each week in six metropolitan areas. He handpicked Nickerson as his successor because, “he wanted somebody in charge who had a vision and goals for the organization that could build off the strong foundation he started,” says Nickerson. “His goal was that First Step would continue to be innovative and grow and change, and that he would only consider it a failure five years out if First Step was doing the exact same thing in the exact same way in the exact same place.”
Nickerson is focusing on deepening the impact of First Step within the communities it currently serves, becoming a best-in-class agency that competes with for-profit companies and expanding in other markets on a smaller scale. As part of a Second Step program in Atlanta and Philadelphia, First Step proactively connects clients to training opportunities so they can move from that entry-level job onto a career path. The launch of First Step’s impact support services this year places a greater focus on connecting men and women experiencing homelessness with resources they need beyond job placement. The programs save the U.S. government USD15,000 to USD40,000 per client per year it would have spent on social services, while helping participants get further ahead.
At the heart of First Step are the men and women looking to start over. For them, “the job is about more than income. It means self-respect, the ability to be a role model for their children, the ability to control their own destiny,” says Nickerson. “It’s changing people’s mental mindset; it’s changing their social connections; it’s giving them hope.”