Female Disruptors: Katy Sherratt, CEO at Back on My Feet, has shaken up how we care for the needy

The nature of what we do is disruptive. Our program is meaningful and impactful to people who have lost a supportive network and to the communities of people who believe in them. That support structure is the missing link — it is what we provide that other people and organizations in this space do not. We can help our members get out of the shelter and transform their lives for the better — a steady job, a home of their own — sustainable change. I don’t know how you couldn’t be passionate about it. Since the organization’s launch, Back on My Feet has helped more than 5,500 individuals find employment, housing, or both. Collectively, we’ve run almost three quarters of a million miles. Of those members who secure employment, 83 percent retain their jobs; in the first year, 21 percent get a promotion and 44 percent get a wage increase. Last year, almost half of Back on My Feet’s close to $8 million budget was supported by corporations. The next biggest source of funding was from individuals. Our goal is to expand to even more cities, as well as to branch out and serve other populations.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Katy Sherratt, Chief Executive Officer of Back on My Feet (BoMF). Katy joined Back on My Feet in 2012 as Chief Operations Officer and was appointed CEO in early 2015. During her tenure with BoMF, the organization has launched in three new major cities and a fourth is in the works, increased programmatic impact by 60%, grown revenues by 30% and introduced new and important measurements to demonstrate the holistic impact of the program. In addition to the measurement of the program’s health impact and sustainability of the employment and housing improvements, she recently commissioned an Economic Impact Study confirming for every one dollar invested in Back on My Feet, a minimum of $2.50 goes back into the US economy.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Originally from Manchester in the UK, I graduated from University of Leeds with a degree in Management Studies and French. Prior to joining Back on My Feet, I was a leader in Accenture in their UK and US based Strategy Practice team, overseeing client projects in both the corporate arena (Financial Services and Energy clients predominantly) and in the latter part of my career the nonprofit space including the United Nations and a variety of large and small nonprofits. Through my nonprofit clients, I saw how income and education inequality, addiction, trauma and failed support networks lead to cyclical poverty. The work myself and my teams did added value to these organizations, building capacity and improving infrastructure to enable better outcomes.

Why did you join your company?

I first heard about Back on My Feet when leading projects in Accenture’s Strategy practice in New York. A Back on My Feet representative came in and was looking for someone to help develop their growth strategy. My first thought was ‘homelessness’, ‘running’ reeeally?? Not the most likely combination; or so I thought. I decided to get up that next day and see what one of the morning runs was all about. It was there I met Sandra. I heard she’d not been doing so well in the program — struggling to get really involved and walking most mornings. I hadn’t had my caffeine fix and was already starting to regret the early morning, so I asked if I could walk with her. In all honesty I’d actually had my second hip surgery about 3 months prior and was still a little nervous about running despite my doctor saying I could try. As we watched the others run off into the distance she and I started to walk and talk. She was quiet at first, occasionally apologizing for being so slow. I told her I heard they wait to all circle up at the end together anyway so not to worry we can just go at our own pace. Slowly she started to open up, talking about her life, asking me about mine (and why I have a silly accent — given I’m British), where she’d grown up, the environment she’d grown up in, the abuse and trauma she’d suffered and her hopes and dreams for the future. I’m not here to talk about Sandra’s story — that is hers to tell — but needless to say no individual should have to go through what she’d been through — no-one. I realized listening to her that there was most definitely a survivor in there and quite possibly a runner, so I suggested we try to run just the last block. She reluctantly agreed and immediately started to complain that she felt stupid, was jogging too slow and just couldn’t be a runner. But then we heard them. We heard the cheers of the other members and volunteers from the finish line. Shouting ‘go Sandra’, ‘you got this’, ‘you can do it’ and something just changed in her face. She was smiling. This huge, heartwarming smile. Complete contrast to the distant and vacant look in her eyes when she talked about her upbringing. I’ll never, ever forget that smile. As we crossed the finish line we hugged it out (we do a lot of that at Back on My Feet), tears were starting to run down her face and she looked me in the eye and said, ‘thank you, no-one has ever believed in me the way you all just did’. Just take a second to think about that sentence. ‘no-one has ever believed in me the way you all just did’. All we did was run a block with her and cheer her across the finish line but in that moment, I understood. I realized the immense power of the Back on My Feet program. Empowering others to change their own lives. Helping them see what they are capable of and providing the support, tools, skills and resources to get there. You see what we all have, may even take for granted sometimes, family and friends — a support system, these individuals don’t have any more and Back on My Feet becomes that support system, so they can achieve what they never thought possible. Not to mention the support and inspiration she provided me that morning — I’ve not looked back from the hip surgeries and have been running ever since (granted — I am a lot slower now!). Sandra carried on running back to the shelter that morning, ran every morning since then, lost over 30 lbs in weight, and found a job and home with our support. She’s just one of 1000s of Back on My Feet success stories. As for me — I took on the pro bono growth strategy consulting project at Accenture and within a few weeks was handing in my notice at Accenture, giving up the corporate career, meeting with the Back on My Feet National Board and ultimately leading the operations for the organization nationwide. I’ve not looked back since.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The nature of what we do is disruptive. Our program is meaningful and impactful to people who have lost a supportive network and to the communities of people who believe in them. That support structure is the missing link — it is what we provide that other people and organizations in this space do not. We can help our members get out of the shelter and transform their lives for the better — a steady job, a home of their own — sustainable change. I don’t know how you couldn’t be passionate about it. Since the organization’s launch, Back on My Feet has helped more than 5,500 individuals find employment, housing, or both. Collectively, we’ve run almost three quarters of a million miles. Of those members who secure employment, 83 percent retain their jobs; in the first year, 21 percent get a promotion and 44 percent get a wage increase. Last year, almost half of Back on My Feet’s close to $8 million budget was supported by corporations. The next biggest source of funding was from individuals. Our goal is to expand to even more cities, as well as to branch out and serve other populations.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

I see mentors as a broad term to encompass not only those individuals who you frequently seek career advice and guidance from but also those individuals who champion you when you do good work and because of their positions can provide opportunities you may not otherwise be able to obtain. All of my early career ‘mentors’ were strong, successful, independent women that I gravitated towards as they inspired me and were a representation of what I wanted to become. At every step of my journey I can pinpoint a strong female role model who helped me get to the next position, the next role in a company — really championed me. Melissa Stark and Deborah Schneider from Accenture, Anne Berkowitch Co-Founder of Bionic and on our Back on My Feet National Board — all of these women have fierce, incredible minds that always made me strive to be smarter, better and more impactful at what I do. There have been supportive male mentors too — most recently the Board Chair of Back on My Feet — Jay Shipowitz — he navigated me through my first years as a new CEO — where you have to learn to be beyond ruthless at prioritizing. I always appreciated his clarity of vision and refreshing directness on how to navigate the triumphs and pitfalls of being a CEO. I’m now excited to work with and learn from our new National Board Chair — Dave Guilmette — President, Global Employer and Private Exchanges at Cigna. There are so many more from our National Board that I could list — all have supported and provided guidance along the way. You have to find those folks — be smart about who you target — build a real rapport with them — you’ll learn so much and they can take you places career wise you may never have thought of or imagined.

How are you going to shake things up next?

For Back on My Feet it’s time to get really serious about growth. 12 cities are is great but there are 100s in the US, and we have to structure ourselves better to extrapolate growth. That’s going to mean changes — pretty big changes — but exciting ones that provide opportunities for some of our top talent and new talent to come into the organization. What we do really works — no other organization tackles poverty and homelessness from a psychological standpoint as well as a practical standpoint. For those struggling within the homeless and recovery population that our program works for, we need to reach them all — across the US. This means we have to build a bigger and more powerful network, empower our former members, now ‘alumni’ to continue to work and bring more folks struggling and suffering from poverty, homelessness or addiction into the fold. This isn’t just about helping X number of individuals get a job — this is about revolutionizing the way homelessness is viewed and tackled and — having a societal level impact. Too often everyone who is homeless is lumped into the same bucket, — but there are so many complex issues — some of which should be tackled and supported entirely differently (i.e. mental health). You have to be smart about knowing who you can support and how and really targeting your resources effectively. We work with individuals who are able to work their way out of their current situation — who want and need the hand up but don’t want a hand out. It works, and. It it can work for more people — we just need to shake ourselves up a little bit organizationally, get a little uncomfortable, to really explode growth.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

● ‘Trust your gut’. I’ve had to be reminded of this in the past by mentors when I was wavering on a key decision. Whenever I’ve gone against my gut I’ve regretted it; whether it’s in hiring people, making a shift to how we operate organizationally or figure out a new market to grow into.

● ‘Be true to yourself’. If you’re doing what you love this is easier but be honest with yourself about what it is you really want — being that honest with yourself can be tough but you’ll only do your best work and feel fulfilled if you are passionate about what you are doing.

● ‘More action, less talk’. I’ve always been a doer, had the idea and then just wanted to run with it. If you over think it, over discuss it, nothing ever gets done. Learn as you go. Embrace change.

What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things From Taking Over Your Life by Richard Carlson

This book is a necessity for anybody trying to lead a somewhat balanced life. It helped me see stress in a new light — understanding how it was creeping into my life and how it was having an impact, both at work and at home. I’m lucky to have my passion and my work in one place — being the CEO of Back on My Feet is an amazing opportunity to enact real change — impact real lives — and I’m fortunate enough to get to do that every day. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… reminded me though that I need to be conscious, present and intentional in my work and in my home life, tuning out the noise, and focusing on what’s really important.

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 see this. :-)

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO. He understands what it means to build a company at so many levels — we all know that it took multiple years for Amazon to be profitable — but when it was profitable, and the foundation was set, the company took off. I’d love to talk to him about building that kind of brand, but also, I’d be interested in starting a dialogue with him around the power that Amazon holds in the employment space. He has the opportunity to make an impact, not just in his headquarter city of Seattle, but around the country in all of the Amazon warehouses and other facilities where he employs people. For a company like Amazon to set living wage vs. minimum wage expectations, to work as an employment partner to different organizations — these are all opportunities he has to set a standard, to be a leader not just in how much and what he sells or in the technology behind it, but also in the operations and hiring models he puts in place that support at a societal level.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @KatySherratt1

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/katy-sherratt-66681145

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!