Maria Kim, ’12, CEO & President of REDF and Chicago Booth 2022 Distinguished Alumni in Public Service Award recipient, spent the first 15 years of her career in the insurance industry, working her way up to become head of IT for a $400 million firm. Then 9/11 happened, and she began to rethink everything.

“I thought, if the world is this fragile—and everything can change in one day—am I really walking in my vocation?” Kim said.

So she pivoted to a purpose-driven path and joined Cara Collective, a Chicago-based social enterprise dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through employment. Under her leadership, Cara more than tripled annual job placements and grew a diverse revenue portfolio to nearly $13 million.

Today, Kim is CEO and president of REDF, a pioneering venture philanthropy investing in businesses that hire overlooked talent throughout the country. REDF works with more than 220 social enterprises nationwide, empowering more than 86000 people to overcome barriers to work and build better lives. In 2022, Booth honored her with the Distinguished Alumni Award for Public Service.

In November, Kim joined the Rustandy Center for a special event at Gleacher Center. Following a screening of REDF’s recently released mini-documentary, Igniting the Flame, Kim spoke with Robert H. Gertner, the Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance and John Edwardson Faculty Director Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, about why 10 million people are boxed out of the economy—and what we can do about it. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Robert Gertner: So 10 million people are boxed out of the economy. Who are those 10 million?

Maria Kim: People find themselves boxed out of today’s economy for three big reasons. First, inequity, because the zip code in which you’re born is often the greatest predictor of the opportunities you have and access to good food, safe streets, and quality education. Second, misfortune. If you get thrown off your game because of a health crisis in your family, for example, that can decimate an entire household. And third is missteps. When you come out of the justice system, you don’t have a shot at getting employed because employers have preconceived notions about what talent looks like based on background and reference checks.

Gertner: Why does this problem resonate so deeply with you?

Kim: The only reason I’m in the gig that I’m in is because other people blew a door wide open for me—and I know that for so many people, that is not the case. When we think about poverty alleviation in our country, for me a big linchpin is the power of employment. Not just because it puts you on a pathway to economic opportunity, but because it revs up an engine in you about what is possible for your future.

Gertner: How does the way in which we’ve structured our justice system contribute to the problem?

Kim: As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said, you’re six to eight times more likely to be convicted of a crime if you are Black or Brown than if you are white. That’s just one indicator of the inequity. She also used to say that jail sits at the intersection of race and poverty. If I were arrested, I’d figure out a way to pay the bail to get my butt out of jail. But that’s not always a choice that people can make, so they stay there for longer and longer. And you can imagine what happens to your brain when you get stuck in that cycle.

Gertner: What role do social enterprises play in post-incarceration employment?

Kim: Social enterprises are businesses whose reason for being is to create jobs for people who’ve been boxed out: folks coming out of incarceration, coming out of homelessness, coming out of generational poverty, fleeing domestic violence, refugees, and opportunity youth.

At Cara, where I used to work, our folks who were justice impacted were not getting hired. Employers were saying, “You’ve got a conviction on your record. I want to mitigate my risk, so I can’t hire you.” So Cara decided to start a social enterprise that hires those individuals intentionally and then wait for the market to catch up.

Gertner: Tell us a little bit about what REDF does.

Kim: We’re a venture philanthropy, which means we give grants and loan capital to early- to mid-stage employment social enterprises. And not just capital, like money, but also capacity building. So all the dollars get paired with consultant services to help with your business model, your program design, your people strategies, how you raise money, your operations—all the things. As your business gets stronger, you’re creating more jobs for the people that we care about.

Gertner: What’s wrong with the way things work in corporate America, and what should be changed?

Kim: I look at the problem as a two by two. On the one hand, the more we can share what we do, the more organizations can adopt our practices. But perhaps more accelerant to the 10 million who are boxed out is shifting the narrative around what talent looks like in our country. We’ve done academic studies that show our persistence ratios. People are staying employed, and they’re earning higher wages as the result of our intervention. Now private industry needs to wake up and say, “Oh dang, all these years I’ve been missing out on all of this talent.”

Gertner: What can people in this room do?

Kim: In these past two years, we’ve seen lots of black squares show up on Instagram to demonstrate solidarity with this movement. But have we really scratched behind those black squares to see how quickly and effectively practices have changed? We preach inclusion, but we don’t practice it.

If you are an employee, ask your employer: “What are we doing to be more intentional in how we source talent, how we onboard talent, how we support that talent, and how we express our intent publicly so that others follow suit?” It will only change when private industry shifts its interpretation of what talent looks like in our country.

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