For twenty-five years, i.c.stars has been jump-starting technology careers for Chicago-area low-income adults. While industry-guided tech training is a big part of the success, it’s not the whole story. The results we see– 80-90% full employment in high-quality jobs– are built on continued support even after the tech curriculum is completed. Our secret sauce in this work has been our employment social enterprise, i.c.stars Staffing, LLC. 

An employment social enterprise can assist individuals in transitioning to higher-paying careers while generating earned revenue to cover a portion of program costs. i.c.stars Staffing is doing just that—and dramatically enhancing the impact of our core tech training. From career path guidance, and professional networks and ongoing coaching, it is the mechanism we use to support grads as they navigate to higher-paying careers. Thanks to our in-house staffing office, we’ve moved the needle for the goal we want to achieve—securing jobs in technology. However, like any start-up, the employment social enterprise model comes with its own set of questions and challenges.

That’s why participating in the Chicagoland Workforce Funders Alliance- Employment Social Enterprise cohort was so helpful. The peer learning from other employment social enterprises has been extremely helpful and would not be easy to duplicate outside the cohort. “I learned industry best practices and how others faced and solved problems,” said Arely Dorsey, i.c.stars’ Director of Workforce Development. “It was also a chance to grow our visibility, deepen partnerships with organizations like New Moms and North Lawndale Employment Network, and create new partnerships.”

One partnership that came about through this cohort was with REDF. i.c.stars benefitted from their baseline analysis, and the business case for targeted investment which was circulated among Workforce Funders Alliance and REDF funders. “REDF has equipped our employment social enterprise with the connections and capacity to further our goals and community impact sustainably” said Elizabeth Ferruelo, i.c.stars’ Chief Revenue Officer. “They are right on point with the answers and resources that we need. I cannot overstate the value–lives are changed and communities strengthened on the foundation of quality, future-ready jobs.”

A second connection was meeting the Illinois Policy Institute and its Center for Poverty Solutions. A shared passion for civic engagement, which is part of i.c.stars’ curriculum, led to multiple conversations, bridging direct service and policy. i.c.stars was invite to participate in the Center’s first lunch and learn and has been highlighted through the Center’s communications.

Further, as an outcome of conversations among ESEs in the cohort sessions, the Workforce Funders Alliance created a working policy group, in which i.c.stars is a participant. This policy group’s discussions have already yielded an exciting outcome: proposed policy changes to lower the barriers for justice-involved individuals in workforce training.

This cohort was about collective impact. It strengthened the direct employment social enterprise outcomes—sales (i.c.stars bought services from peers in the room), it opened doors to new collaborations, and it created a voice for ESE practitioners to participate in policy formation.