Providing support for reduced educational requirements can identify people who are a better fit for available positions.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dani Houchin Petrie.
Dani is the Executive Director and Managing Trustee of Origami Works Foundation. After a career as a management consultant and business owner, she now applies resources and know-how to help disadvantaged jobseekers secure rewarding employment. A first-generation college graduate, Dani has a degree in Public & International Affairs from Princeton University, and a Masters in Instructional Technology from Columbia University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?
I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and was the first in my family to graduate from college. As a teenager, I applied only to in-state schools until a fellow trumpet player in the all-region band told me that he was going to attend Princeton. I decided to apply there as well, and after I was accepted, a local Princeton alumnus convinced my parents — my father painted houses; my mother a factory worker and special education aide — that it would be the perfect fit.
At Princeton, I spent part of my senior year studying remotely in Baltimore, writing my senior thesis on workforce development at that city’s Human Development Institute. The organization trained AFDC recipients — welfare moms — in how to secure jobs, placed them in paying jobs, and provided support. Getting to know those women as well as the employers who hired them was a transformative experience.
After graduating, I spent most of my career as a management consultant, helping organizations bring new ideas to life. Over time, my super-power became translating ambiguous ideas into concrete strategies, goals, deliverables, budgets, action plans, and deadlines. I led initiatives and managed change.
During those years, I always felt a call to address talent gaps, while helping employers create a diverse and inclusive workforce. When I had the opportunity to apply my skills and resources to that field in 2018, I established Origami Works Foundation. Now I focus exclusively on career development for those who face barriers to employment.
I think my experience has given me a special ability to empathize with people who haven’t had the experience or family support to take advantage of available opportunities.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In 2012, I took an unexpected career detour. One day I walked into my local yoga studio and saw a sign posted on the door: “We are closing at the end of the month.” My heart dropped right into my stomach! As a casual and not particularly consistent yoga student, I hadn’t realized how yoga had become an important respite and sanctuary. It seemed a shame for the community (and me!) to lose such a great resource.
So… I bought the studio. And I ran it for six years (while continuing management consulting work). I grew the studio’s revenues by a factor of ten, and then sold it to a yoga teacher.
Running Reach Yoga taught me about the transferability of skills. My background in large-scale corporate change management, technology, and instructional design was solidly applicable to running a tiny main street business. And what I learned there — email marketing, social media engagement, talent management — has been invaluable to my work in the nonprofit sector. Who knew?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” — Theodore Roosevelt
I’ve loved working since I was 13 years old. Work has taught me my most important life lessons, delivered enjoyment and pride, and introduced me to wonderful people who became close friends. My belief in the redemptive power of work is the reason I work in career development today.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I can never express enough gratitude to Ted McAlister, a Princeton University alumnus who convinced my Texan parents that I would be fine at college in New Jersey. My undergraduate education changed my trajectory and equipped me for the life I lead today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Origami Works Foundation is a grantmaking institution, and we also identify and execute initiatives. For example, we kept hearing that career pathway programs were available to Chicago high school students, but needed to be more visible. So we partnered with the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance to build Chicagoland CareerPathways.
We are a small foundation. But our ability to provide both resources and know-how to get stuff done helps us punch above our weight class.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Cook County employers are facing unprecedented challenges related to recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining talent. Free and subsidized solutions are available, but until now, there has been no single place where employers can easily explore the range of programs available to them.
We partnered with the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development and the Network of Employer-Led Workforce Solutions (NEWS — ten employer groups) to build an online directory of talent solutions for employers.
Talent Solutions Connector increases the transparency of free and subsidized programs that solve employer talent challenges while prioritizing diversity and inclusion.
Connecting employers with these services is a win-win-win, because employers needed workers, workers need employment, and more employment makes Chicago a better place to live for everyone. I am excited that the Talent Solutions Connector is the next vehicle to help connect the dots.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am so fortunate and grateful to have lucked into substantial financial and intellectual resources. Sharing those resources through Origami Works Foundation is both a privilege and a pleasure.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
First, I’d like to expand on the idea of diversity and inclusion. Truly inclusive employment moves beyond standard diversity efforts. It requires employers to innovate around how they hire to include those who face barriers to employment — poverty, lack of education, criminal records, substance abuse histories, transportation challenges. It also requires employers to support these new talent pools to achieve their potential.
A focus on truly inclusive employment impacts the bottom line in multiple ways:
- Truly inclusive employment expands the pool of potential workers. For example, tech firms fill positions that might otherwise remain unfilled for months through programs such as Year Up. Manufacturers (such as Schulze & Burch) can access new sources of talent (e.g., Cara Collective) at no charge. Working with programs such as these can dramatically reduce the cost of recruitment.
- Agencies support employee retention. Workforce service providers often support employees even after they are employed. For example, East Bank Club has benefited from retention services provided by its Skills for Chicagoland’s Future as well as other agencies. Turnover is expensive, and working with an agency that fosters truly inclusive employment can reduce those costs.
- A broader talent base facilitates greater understanding of customers. For example, companies who go beyond traditional hiring methods to seek marketing professionals among first generation college students benefit from a more diverse range of perspectives and values. Appealing to a broader customer base enhances revenues.
- Providing support for reduced educational requirements can identify people who are a better fit for available positions. Aon found that claims adjusters with four-year college degrees tended to short tenures. A two-year apprenticeship program that offers part-time employment combined with an associate’s degree brings new talent that better fits available positions and tends to stay longer.
- It’s the right thing to do. Intentionally extending opportunities to those who face barriers to employment brings goodwill to the organization and enhances the well being of the broader community — for example at Kronos Foods.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?
In a past life as a training and development professional, I learned that when inevitable economic downturns occur, professional development often takes a hit. Most organizations could take greater advantage of free and subsidized services, including training subsidies. Many local services and subsidies can be found in the Talent Solutions Connector directory.
What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?
Make sure leaders reporting to you know what the organization is seeking to accomplish. Set meaningful metrics. Monitor, share, and coach.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Oprah Winfrey. I admire how she accomplished amazing things early in her career, and yet has never stopped trying to do more, more, more to create value and make the world a better place.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Origami Works Foundation LinkedIn page
Talent Solutions Connector
Talent Solutions Connector LinkedIn page
Chicagoland CareerPathways LinkedIn page
Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.