3 Things Business Leaders Can (and Should) Do to Help Marginalized People

This year, I have the opportunity to take part in Leadership Greater Hunstville. This program focuses on educating and equipping business leaders to also be community leaders through intense exposure to all facets of the community.

 “Human Services Day” took place this week.  It focuses on understanding the needs of the community and the not-for-profits that help meet these needs, many of which focus on helping marginalized people. The day began with a poverty simulation (CAPS), and we spent most of the afternoon hearing from a variety of not-for-profit entities in the community.  One of the not-for-profit leaders participating said that there are estimated to be between 1600-2000 not-for-profit organizations serving the community in just Madison County which currently has a population of around 375,000 people. 

I was shocked by this number. I was also shocked at how little was said about business leaders/employers doing what employers should do best- employing people- to combat the systematic issues in the community that many of the not-for-profits we heard from sought to address.  It seemed like that focus was on the business community giving the nonprofits money and possibly volunteer hours.  What about providing meaningful employment and living wages? 

I think business leaders can make one of the biggest impacts on marginalized individuals by focusing on employment and employability.  This should create a sustainable and far-reaching impact.  

Here are three things to consider in doing so as seen through quotes of leaders that have spoken to us throughout the Leadership Huntsville experience: 

  1. “Get in the arena.” First, hire people on the margins. Whether it be someone with a physical or mental disability, someone with a criminal record, the single mom that has been living in generational poverty, or the veteran, etc. make an active effort to connect with these individuals and meet them where they are to offer employment. 
  2. “Breaking down barriers is the role of a leader”.  There are multiple barriers that prohibit marginalized people from getting employment and sustaining it.  The poverty simulation we participated in placed a large emphasis on the barriers of transportation and childcare.  My role in the poverty simulation was that of a 20-year-old mother of a one-year-old trying to go to college and work part-time.  Due to the fact that childcare for a week cost more than I could make part-time in a week, I was “forced” to leave my one-year-old with my nine-year-old brother in order to go to work and not have to pay for childcare.  In a world where I actually have a one-year-old son and nine-year-old son, I would never leave my nine-year-old to have to keep my one-year-old while I worked, but I don’t have to worry about earning enough money to feed them both.  What would you do? As business leaders, we need to think long and hard about how we can address these barriers and examine what role providing living wages plays in this. 
  3. “Think to ask. You need to know the story to lead.” Breaking down these barriers requires a knowledge of the barriers and understanding that, yes, sometimes poor choices have created those barriers, but also many barriers go well beyond issues of choice and behavior.  Provide compassion and empathy to those you employ and seek to employ by asking what challenges they face and why. Then help connect and provide resources to address the issues.   Sometimes the help to address the issues is simply an understanding of the issue.  I’d encourage all business leaders to find a way to connect with someone who is a part of the marginalized population and spend regular (weekly) time with them one-on-one.  You’ll learn a lot and grow a lot as a leader. 

As the founder of Manna House told us to kick off the day, “God didn’t ask me to quit this to do that,” speaking of her experience to continue to work full-time as a government contractor and open Manna House to help address food vulnerability in the community.   Her story was impactful.  My hope is business leaders realize they don’t have to quit their day job to impact the most pressing issues in our community.  In fact, their day job is probably the best way to address them through an effort to hire and retain people on the margins, providing meaningful work and living wages.   I would dare to say we’d need a lot fewer non-profits and a lot less government programs if we all did this. 


How are you making an impact through your business leadership? 

Mary Ila Ward

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