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By Laura Gossman
Authors Note: I recently interviewed Tara Russell, Founder and CEO of Create Common Good (CCG), a nonprofit organization that offers job training to a wide variety of populations with barriers to employment, many of whom are refugees, and provides locally produced, healthy food options through its farm-to-table production food operations and training courses.
Tara Russell spent the first part of her career in the corporate world working with consumer products at GM, Intel, and Nike, and spent extensive time in Asia, thoroughly enjoying the cross-cultural work experiences and building relationships with great people from around the world.
In 1999, while working for GM China in Shanghai, she had her “aha discovery moment” when she realized her interest in people development was far greater than her interest in product development. She wanted to figure out a way to use business as a vehicle for social transformation in marginalized populations. She was fortunate to then to work with and build a few different social enterprises in Bangkok (please visit www.nightlightinternational.com for more details) before starting Create Common Good (CCG) in the late fall of 2008.
Because Tara and her husband both led social ventures impacting communities all over the country and world, they believed having a US headquarters location was important. Craving some stability for their two small children and growing vocations, they decided to move to Boise, Idaho in the summer of 2008. Boise quickly became home because of the great quality of life combined with the affordability. Coincidentally, the city is also one of the key resettlement communities in America and home to thousands of refugees that fled their native lands in search of safety and stability.
Tara then recalls, “during the fall of 2008, I was trying to discern if and what future our non-profit social enterprise might have when the economy tanked and refugee unemployment skyrocketed. I had fallen in love with the Burmese community in Boise, and began meeting a variety of other refugee families from varying cultures. All were seriously at risk of homelessness with no chance for work.”
The birth of Create Common Good was in response to this economic crisis, and having just built other job-training social enterprises in Bangkok for marginalized populations, CCG was essentially creating a different version of a very similar model.
Tara began with nothing but a dream of saving these families on the verge of losing a place to live and a way to care for their families. The Great Recession took a dramatically deeper toll on the Gem State’s refugee community, with unemployment leaping from 5 percent to nearly 50 percent overnight among the fragile demographic. Tara shared, “I couldn’t believe that refugee nurses, teachers, computer technicians and community organizers weren’t able to get jobs cleaning toilets. It just wasn’t right. There was clearly a gap that needed bridging, and that’s where CCG began.”
CCG now has a staff of more than 12 and provides food related job-training to a wide variety of populations with barriers to employment. “We believe everyone has tremendous gifts and talents, but not everyone has a community to walk alongside them, help them recognize their unique strengths, build their skills and confidence, and then work to advocate and place them info a job. We’re fortunate to play a small part in the success of many families’ journeys,” shared Tara. To date, CCG has successfully placed more than 95% of the individuals trained into jobs, and engaged thousands of volunteers.
CCG not only improves the lives of those in training. Hospitals, schools, corporate cafeterias, restaurants and even gas stations benefit from the healthy, daily-volume foodservice they provide. These customers help build the social enterprise engine, ensuring long-term organizational sustainability.
Since CCG began, there have been a plethora of obstacles in the journey. “It’s been a bit like climbing a mountain with new cliffs around each corner, and never seeming to have enough food to keep you going. Building a social enterprise is a journey – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There is always more need than resource, and while we experience great success daily, we also discover new challenges,” admits Tara.
They have had to creatively bootstrap and do a lot with a little to come where they are today, and because of the rapid growth, the constant struggle is to ensure sufficient resources long-term. “Growth costs money and it’s tough in the non-profit world to have an extended runway for strategic business development in the way a for-profit might after raising a round of investment capital. We’ve built our future on the basis of our production food model because we believe we need to drive the majority of our revenues from our daily volume food sales in order to ensure organizational sustainability,” shared Tara.
There is a sense that the people at CCG are her extended family and that what she’s received far exceeds what she’s given. “The joy we experience seeing someone move from dependence and fear to peace and self-sufficiency is like none other,” shared Tara. Many of the individuals they have served are now sending kids to college, buying cars and homes, and becoming an important part of the fabric of the community in which they live.
Tara also reflected, “Investing in the success of everyone in our community is an important long-term investment for every community, and we, as communities, have to figure out how to tackle unemployment head on and ensure those at-risk individuals are given every opportunity to thrive and contribute.”
This journey has had its fair share of highs and lows and at times the road has been daunting. She daily reminds herself it’s a marathon and not a sprint and in full disclosure admitted, “uncertainty, carried over time, takes a toll on your heart and soul. I care so deeply for those we serve and our CCG staff team that I have had nasty bouts of anxiety and fear, as I want to ensure a solid future for our work but recognize I can’t control all the variables and outcomes.”
There have been several significant ways in which she’s weathered the “marathon” mentality. First, she’s always focused on finding incredible talent to join the CCG team. She rejoices that they are where they are today because of the tremendous investment that everyone on the team, along with community partners, volunteers, board members, the advisory board, donors and customers, have contributed.
Without her faith and a community of peers who are also journeying in similarly challenging terrain, the daily challenges could not be weathered. As a 2012 fellow with Praxis, a gospel motivated business accelerator program, she loved developing deep friendships with so many of the Praxis family members – its leadership, mentors, and also the other social enterprise leaders across the world.
As she reflected about her Praxis experience she shared, “leading a social venture can be tremendously isolating, despite all the people that surround you. Very few understand the gift and weight of the burden of the vision, the determination and anxiety, the fulfillment, the uncertainty and the fear. It’s been really beautiful to develop a deep friendship with my Praxis peers – I love being able to call them out of the blue and talk through a hairy organizational challenge or just hear some encouragement during a particularly daunting time. I love the cross-organizational learning as I hear how they’re approaching various issues. I love the chance to pour out my heart to others who can truly relate.”
Spending time away from the day-to-day CCG operations with the Praxis community allowed her the headspace to think strategically and recognize both the market opportunity and the need for the production food services that CCG offers. Developing a sustainable social enterprise base has been her highest priority as the level of need for job-training services has only grown in their community and in communities around the world.
“It’s been tremendously helpful to get the sound counsel of others who’ve lived, worked and walked in a variety of other fields and arenas and that have an unemotional, unbiased outside perspective. It’s also been a great opportunity to personally assess and understand my own personal sustainability, my gifting and where and how I need to align my energies moving forward to ensure maximum ROI for the organization,” said Tara.
To date, she and her colleagues have trained more than 350 adults and improved the lives of more than thousands of refugee and community family members. CCG is the recipient of the 2014 Fundsy Award, plus the organization’s noteworthy work to promote healthy eating habits recently earned grants from Newman’s Own Foundation and the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health.
Create Common good is living proof that sometimes the “perfect storm” of tough circumstances like vulnerable populations and a recession, can actually be an opportunity to respond with something that benefits everyone around the table. I can’t help but wonder, as we break bread around our holiday tables, if this is what communion with one another was intended to be.
Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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