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Toronto-based company Social Capital Partners is changing Canadian recruitment practices.

In Toronto's west end, Social Capital Partners have one of those offices that you read and salivate over in architecture magazines -- spacious, lots of natural light and high ceilings, and it's extremely quiet. No it's not one of those flexi-time offices -- the whole team is only five, which is why there's hardly anyone here.

The quiet can be deceptive, for Social Capital Partners don't just have grand plans, they are quietly devising radical solutions that will completely overhaul how the world's biggest companies recruit and do business. Headed by Bill Young, a humorous and self-effacing Torontonian, the non-profit has an ambitious plan to bring disadvantaged, at risk populations into the general workforce. Moreover, he wants every Fortune 500 to change their policies so that they hire people from these disadvantaged populations. Former drug addicts or young men with criminal records, Young believes that with the right job, these people can be not just good at their jobs, but better than average and serve as role model workers.
Young might sound like a big dreamer (or a Soviet planner with a heart) but his employment history and work to date is difficult to deny as he has a history of turning fanciful ideas into reputed successes. After finishing his MBA from Harvard Business School, he worked as the chief executive officer of Hamilton Computers where, under his watch, sales swelled from $20 to $250 million. Then he took over as CEO and chairman of Optel Communications, in the ballooning telecom market of the dot-come era.

Ten years ago, he quit, and became a full-time volunteer, starting the non-profit Social Capital Partners. He spoke to Yonge Street Media about his reasons, what he's accomplished since then, and how he plans to change the world of work. 

Alexandra Shimo: You had enormous success in the business world before you set up Social Capital Partners. Why did you decide to make the shift to the non-profit sector?

Bill Young: The wheel of fortune had spun really well for me. Many don't have the same luck, so I wondered how to take my business experience and leverage it to do good in the non-profit sector. That was the genesis of the thinking that started Social Capital Partners.

You started with the idea that the best way to help disadvantaged people find work was to employ them in "purpose built" social enterprises. Tell me about those.

We would help start companies that would employ "social hires," i.e. people who face employment barriers. These might be people from Vancouver's downtown eastside, or victims of domestic abuse. We started with Inner City Renovations in Winnipeg, who offer jobs to urban aboriginals. Then we expanded to Montreal with Fripe-Prix, Toronto with TurnAround Couriers and Vancouver with Atira Property Management.

How do you find these disadvantaged groups?

Generally, we partner with the local community service agencies. We try to find the best community service agencies working with the targeted disadvantaged population.

How has your business changed?

At first we worked with start-ups. But when you help start a company, there's a lot of aspects in making the business side of it work. Each new social enterprise meant learning an entire new industry so every new start-up would take us a whole year. So after five years of doing it, we said we've got to find a way to make this more cookie cutter.

And what was this cookie cutter approach?

We decided to work with existing companies rather than help start new ones. We'd get them involved in hiring disadvantaged groups by offering them financial incentives, i.e. attractive loans. The interest rate was dependent on the number of disadvantaged people employed. The more social hires they made, the more their interest rate would fall.

Can you give me an example?

For instance, we finance several Active Green + Ross locations, a Toronto-based car service company. We found them a pool of young males who like cars, but who had fallen off the rails for whatever reason. They started out with one store, and now 24 stores use our labour. And they were really happy because the social hires turned out to be really good employees.

Why do you think your disadvantaged employees might do better in these jobs?

Because they feel grateful for the opportunity as opposed to entitled to it. When people are keen to turn their lives around, they don't want to blow that chance.  We thought we'd need to provide people with carrots -- attractive loans to get them to commit to social hires. But Active Green + Ross were so pleased with how the social hires performed that they said they wanted to use them even without the financial incentives. That started us thinking that we could bring social hires into every Fortune 500.

How would that work?

We'd talk to the company to find out their needs and what sort of people they were looking to work for. Then we'd fill those labour needs by working with the appropriate community service agency to find that group of people. We'd be the interface between the agency and the company.

It sounds simple. Why doesn't it happen already?

Many businesses don't go to the community service agencies because the agencies are very fragmented. And [the agencies] don't have any money to spend time finding out exactly what each business needs, to sit down with these companies and build those relationships and find out their long-term goals and needs. They're aim is to find people jobs, rather than find the businesses the right workers.

So where now?

At the moment we have lots of anecdotal evidence that with good placement at the right company, social hires make just as good, if not better hires in terms of productivity. We monitor every social hire that we've placed with Active Green + Ross and we've had a lot of success. But we don't have a control group that would give us the hard evidence. We already have a few other companies who are starting on this program, but with the hard data, we can really start expanding.

You say you want every Fortune 500 to have a social hiring practice in the next 10 years. Is that realistic?

The important thing about being an entrepreneur is not to be too rational. (Laughs). Humour aside, when we explain our mission and method, we've never had someone say, "Oh that's stupid." Most people say, "You're right, this system needs to be rethought." I'm optimistic that it can be done.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Alexandra Shimo is an author and journalist based on the Ossington strip. She has lived in several cities, including London, New York and Washington D.C. and is now proud to call the T-dot her home.

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