TLM Admin 2024, Author at Sorenson Impact Foundation
Impact in Action: WPTI and First Step Staffing are Getting People Back to Work

Impact in Action: WPTI and First Step Staffing are Getting People Back to Work

Earlier this year, the Sorenson Impact Foundation announced the recipients of the 2020 Equitable & Resilient Recovery Grant program. In a time where access to employment and quality jobs is vital, we want to highlight the work of two of those grantees who are making strides in workforce development:  First Step Staffing and Workforce Professionals Training Institute.

First Step Staffing has a vision to become the jobs solution for America’s homeless. CEO Amelia Nickerson described their work as “embracing the importance and dignity of work and believing that income is a critical component on the path out of poverty and homelessness.”

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was already on the rise, and is now expected to grow more than 40% over the next three years as Americans face job loss, eviction and more,” commented Nickerson.

The research is clear – men and women of color and those living in poverty have been disproportionately affected by the current health and economic crisis. Jobs will be an essential piece of our nation’s recovery.

As the largest alternative staffing agency in the country, First Step is prioritizing job placement and training for those that have been most disenfranchised from the workforce. Support from the Sorenson Impact Foundation this year helped First Step to launch a five-year effort to expand its mission into new markets while also increasing the supportive services offered to its clients. Over the next five years, First Step will reconnect thousands of men and women to the workforce, pay millions in earned wages, and empower individuals to become active members in their communities.


After serving 24 consecutive years in prison, Mr. Hightower was released with a bus ticket to his last known address. In 24 years a lot had changed.  The entire outside world was different from when Mr. Hightower remembered in 1996.

Not only did he not have a phone to call someone for help, he had no one to call. He roamed the streets for seven days searching for a place to rest his head at night.   Someone he met along the way recommended he come to First Step. When staff arrived that morning, Mr. Hightower was waiting outside of our doors, soaking wet; he had walked six miles in the rain to get to First Step Offices “first thing in the morning.”

Both First Step’s job coaches and support services specialists met with Mr. Hightower, and they determined that he was not yet ready to work.  He did not have an up- to-date state issued ID, he had some medical issues arise while incarcerated that needed to be further addressed, and he was still mentally reeling from the shock of the world around him being so different than what he remembered and knew.

Immediately, First Step’s Support Services team secured temporary shelter for Mr. Hightower.  Next, they connected him with the First Step Disabilities Services team who helped him secure SSI benefits so he could support himself while getting back on his feet. First Step then gave him food and provided transportation to his temporary housing.

Over the next week, the First Step team worked with Mr. Hightower daily to assist him with getting a new ID, making medical appointments, helping him navigate public transportation and learning more about what he wanted to do once everything was sorted out.  He said he wanted to work.

Four months later, Mr. Hightower came back to First Step, on his own, via public transportation. He had been moved to transitional housing and had spent most of his time getting healthy so he could get to work. He is coordinating with First Step’s job coaches on part-time employment and he is already talking about moving up into full time.

Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI), a workforce development organization in New York City, has teamed up with and Arkus Inc. to bring digital transformation to the workforce development sector first in New York City, and eventually across the country.

“While online-training has long been the norm in many industries and for many job-seekers and employees, there have been tremendous lags in bringing these capabilities to lower income people often living in resource-deprived neighborhoods,” says Sharon Sewell-Fairman, CEO of WPTI. 

During the pandemic, WPTI pivoted to remote operations and quickly adapted its face-to-face, experiential style for its training, consulting and systems building programs to a virtual format. As a result, they were able to respond to the immediate and changing needs of community-based workforce organizations in the short term. Now, Sewell-Fairman says that “[they] are providing training and capacity building to help other community-based workforce organizations adapt their job training and education programs and infrastructure to better serve low-income jobseekers in this new environment.”

Sewell-Fairman explained that the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York very hard with resulting unemployment rates nearly twice the national average.  Several core workforce sectors, including hospitality, food service, transportation, and retail, were decimated.  And approximately 69% of layoffs hit workers of color, who were already disproportionately clustered in lower-income jobs.

WPTI’s Digital Transformation Initiative will provide capacity building and training to community-based workforce organizations so they can assist unemployed New Yorkers by digitizing and delivering online training to build the skills and capabilities needed by displaced workers as they struggle to find their way back into labor markets.

“Our approach focuses on bringing digital training capacity – both training content and training delivery systems – to job seekers by leveraging our network of over 600 organizations in NYC spread across all five NYC boroughs and with deep community commitments to economic equity,” shared Sewell-Fairman.

The partnership and support from the Sorenson Impact Foundation is aimed at helping workforce organizations and their staff to adapt practices to meet the changing needs of jobseekers and employers in this new age and a digital economy. This grant not only contributes to the development of WPTI’s own digital infrastructure, but the digital infrastructure, digital fluency, and virtual service delivery model of New York City’s workforce development providers, as they work to better prepare and connect an increased number of low income individuals to quality jobs and careers that pay family supporting wages post COVID-19.

Announcing the Recipients of The Equitable & Resilient Recovery Grant Program

Announcing the Recipients of The Equitable & Resilient Recovery Grant Program

The Sorenson Impact Foundation is proud to announce the recipients of the 2020 Equitable & Resilient Recovery Grant program. Last fall, in light of the health, economic and social crises facing the U.S., the Sorenson Impact Foundation launched a grant program to support innovative, systemic solutions for a more equitable and resilient future. We received over 400 proposals across the categories of workforce development, entrepreneurship, and access to capital and are excited to share the five organizations that we selected to partner with in 2021 and beyond as we look towards a brighter future together. Below are brief descriptions of each organization and their projects; and we’ll be providing more detailed overviews of their work in the coming weeks. Of course, please reach out if you would like to learn more about any of these organizations or projects.

First Step Staffing empowers individuals with barriers to employment with employment, income opportunities and support so that they can take the first step towards a path out of poverty and homelessness. Since 2007, First Step has employed over 15,000 individuals and paid more than $100M in earned wages. In 2020, First Step received the “Extra Mile” award from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness for its “income first” approach to ending homelessness. Now the largest nonprofit staffing agency in the U.S. with operations in six states (GA, TN, FL, PA, NJ and CA), First Step is poised to launch its next phase of growth. Support from the Sorenson Impact Foundation allows First Step to expand its impact – connecting thousands more men and women experiencing homelessness, veterans and returning citizens – with employment and supportive services. Over the next five years, First Step anticipates launching in new markets and bringing services like job coaching, transportation and housing placement assistance, to each city as well.

Common Future is building a future where people, no matter their race or class, have power, choice, and ownership over the economy.  With the Sorenson Impact Foundation, Common Future will invest in the capacity and impact of its growing Capital Strategies team. In 2021, Common Future plans to engage in a series of pilots — including character-based lending, revenue-based finance, and impact investing — that will chart a strategy forward to shift capital toward and build power with BIPOC communities.

Founded in 2004, Workforce Professionals Training Institute (WPTI) is the leading provider of capacity-building services for New York City’s workforce development organizations and practitioners. Using a three-tiered approach encompassing learning, consulting, and systems building, WPTI looks to strengthen all levels of the workforce development system to help job seekers generate pathways out of poverty and into quality jobs and careers. WPTI has trained over 10,000 workforce practitioners from over 900 organizations that collectively serve over 500,000 jobseekers. Annually, we serve over 1,000 individuals and 250 organizations. WPTI is seizing the opportunity presented with the COVID-19 Pandemic’s lasting impact and the new digital economy to develop and strategically advance the deployment of a digital strategy designed for scalability, ease of virtual access, reskilling and upskilling workforce practitioners and bringing partners and the workforce development community together to meet the needs of low-income jobseekers. In September 2020, WPTI, in partnership with Salesforce, Arkus, Per Scholas, and the New School Center for NYC Affairs, launched a digital transformation and capacity building initiative to enable workforce organizations to:

·  Adopt new digital strategies to prepare, train and support low-income job seekers;
·  Use technology to improve business operations; and
·  Build the digital literacy and fluency skills of managers and staff.

If successful in New York, Sorenson is excited to see the learnings from this technical assistance program deployed to workforce development organizations nationwide.


Village Capital unlocks the power of entrepreneurship to address systemic challenges facing our society. Since 2009, they have developed, tested, and scaled approaches proven to help founders overlooked by the traditional venture capital system. They’ve led more than 80 entrepreneur support programs globally, supporting over 1,100 entrepreneurs and creating an approach independently proven to help founders raise 3x more investment, earn 2x more revenue, and scale their companies 50% faster than a control group. In February of 2021, Village Capital and the Black Innovation Alliance launched the Building an Equitable Future Initiative, a national project designed to strengthen entrepreneur support infrastructure in communities of color across the United States. This eight-month program is a first-of-its-kind collaboration to build a community of support for local accelerators and incubators that are led by and focused on founders of color, focused specifically on providing capacity-building training, program management tools, and direct operational funding. Backed by UBS, the Sorenson Impact Foundation, Travelers Foundation, and Moody’s, this initiative will provide this support through an all-virtual series of workshops and events taking place over the course of 2020, with long-term support provided through facilitated, virtual community gatherings.

Social Finance is a mission-driven, nonprofit impact investment advisory organization. As part of its mission to mobilize capital for social progress, it is partnering with donor-advised fund (DAF) sponsors to curate place-based, impact-first investment opportunities that allow donors to invest their DAF assets to support a more equitable rebuilding from the COVID-19 economic recession in low-income communities. Social Finance’s goal is to support its DAF sponsor partners in educating and enabling DAF account-holders to allocate more DAF assets into charitable, impact-first investments so that small businesses, entrepreneurs of color, families, farmers and individuals in low-income communities have equitable access to capital to preserve and grow jobs, affordable housing, environmentally-friendly solutions and essential services.  Social Finance, through two pilots with community foundations, seeks to learn, package, and document how impact investments can be scaled with DAF sponsors across the country.


Liberty and Justice: An Entrepreneur Lifts Liberian Women and Children Out of Poverty

Liberty and Justice: An Entrepreneur Lifts Liberian Women and Children Out of Poverty

Inspired by the Women’s Peace Movement that ended Liberia’s ravaging civil war, social entrepreneur Chid Liberty — who was born in Liberia and raised in Germany and the U.S. — returned in 2010 to start the first fair trade apparel manufacturing company in Africa: Liberty & Justice. After a devastating outbreak of Ebola that virtually shut down the country and lost the company millions of dollars in contracts, see how Liberty and his workers pivoted their business model and kept the hundreds of precious jobs that Liberty had worked so hard to create.