By Joan Leotta
Shoes. Some love them, obsess about them, spend small fortunes collecting and wearing them. Others just find them a practical necessity. But some, like the executives at Clarks Companies, N.A., use their passion for shoes not just to share quality footwear with the world but also to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the communities where they operate.
Jim Salzano, Interim President of Clarks, says, “We have found that capabilities, passion and commitment to work are not defined by what some call ‘disabilities.’” For Clarks, this mission of “standing tall” involves recognizing “a responsibility to help in the communities in which we live and work… [as] an important part of the way we do business.”
The Power of Triangle
Clarks’ efforts to employ people with disabilities stem from the company’s relationship with the Massachusetts-based employment advocacy group Triangle, Inc. Serving more than 3,000 people with disabilities from 170 communities throughout Southern New England, Triangle offers an award-winning School-to-Career program, career placement services and an array of life development services for youth and adults with disabilities.
“Most of the people served come to Triangle for training to establish a career or live a more independent and meaningful life in their own community,” says Triangle CEO Michael A. Rodrigues. Providing this type of opportunity is where Clarks comes in.
In 1997 Bob Infantino, then Clarks President, joined Triangle’s Board of Directors. Rodrigues notes that Infantino “toured our Malden headquarters and was amazed by the opportunities for career and personal development that Triangle offered.” Since that time many Clarks executives, including the currently serving, Interim President Jim Salzano and Senior Vice President for Retail Bob Miller, have served on Triangle’s Board and worked with the organization to develop creative strategies for helping Triangle’s target populations enter the workforce.
Miller relates, “Philosophically we felt that people with disabilities were an underrepresented constituent [in the workplace]. Triangle is an amazing organization that gives dignity, pride and confidence to workers with disabilities.” Says Rodrigues, “I think that Clarks realizes that they are making a substantial difference in the lives of people with disabilities by supporting Triangle.”
Clarks’ involvement with Triangle extends beyond career opportunities and into fundraising as well. One of the more successful fundraisers Clarks operates is a December coupon program that is also a competition among the company’s retail stores around the US. In 2010, Clarks retail employees raised over $680K during the holiday season. Miller notes that often, stores from far-flung parts of the nation who know Triangle only through the Clarks connection raise the most money. Managers from the winning stores receive a trip to Massachusetts where, among other things, they are given a tour of Triangle to see firsthand how their monies support an important mission.
Going Further with First Step
“Once we started working to raise funds for Triangle,” says Salzano, “we wanted to create a more comprehensive partnership and looked for creative ways to develop that relationship.” While Clarks provides what Rodrigues describes as “substantial and vital” financial support, the shoe retailer also gives tours of its facilities to students in Triangle’s Schools to Career program and, more significantly, offers the First Step internship program. “We would like to do more,” Salzano relates, “but we realize we cannot do it all, so we look for other ways to multiply efforts for people with disabilities in the community at large.”
The First Step internship program, however, has proven invaluable to its participants, the agency that supports them and Clarks as well. As the Clarks website defines it, a First Step internship “offers people with disabilities who are unemployed an opportunity to work, learn and grow in Clarks’ supportive, professional office environment, and take a first step closer to gainful employment.”
Salzano notes two truisms of the workplace: it is easier for people who are already employed to find jobs, and people find jobs more easily if they have current references. The First Step program takes these factors into consideration while offering people with disabilities a general introduction to the daily demands of employment.
From the program’s informal beginnings in 2002, its goal was always to provide six-month internships to all participants, but not necessarily to provide jobs at Clarks in the end. Interns could then use Clarks as not only a work-experience listing but also a reference when applying for other positions.
In that way, the program’s reach into the community would be multiplied, expanding the number of companies who would have positive experiences working with people with disabilities. Miller explains, “People with disabilities do not want a handout; they want a hand up: something to help them get started on their own achievements.”
Henry Winkelman is one of the first who served as an intern from Triangle. He was offered full time work with Clarks and then helped start the First Step Program formally in 2004. Winkelman says that the program takes “people who are like diamonds in the rough and helps those diamonds polish themselves to show their unseen beauty and facilitates their transformation into the gems they are.”
Since the program’s formal inception, fifteen have successfully completed the program and about one third have stayed with Clarks. Currently, two First Step interns are serving with Clarks.
Now a key member of the Clarks real estate and construction teams,
Winkelman is a typical First Step success story. A brain injury in 1996 had ended Winkelman’s career in architecture and he was searching for a new foothold in the work world. “When I came to Clarks, I had been out of work for six years,” says Winkelman. “I started out by sorting mail and providing general support services to the company.”
Those tasks led to more challenging duties as Winkelman built workplace relationships. “I noticed that one woman got a lot of mail,” Winkelman explains. “I began to take her mail directly to her desk. We chatted. After learning about the idea of offering internships to people who needed help stepping back into the workplace, she said that she wanted an intern in her department and I began to work for her.”
At first Winkelman’s physician limited his hours working at Clarks. His doctor was concerned that any limits of his stamina but Winkelman was finally able to return to work full time. His duties increased as well, from that first mail room job to his current position where uses his former design and organizational skills to bridge the gap between Clarks’ real estate and construction departments and he helps to run the First Step Program.
“One of the key things that a First Step intern learns while working at Clarks is how to build workplace relationships, and how to see clearly their own abilities and value in action—this helps them to build confidence and strengthens their sense of self worth,” Winkelman says.
“People at Clarks give praise when praise is deserved but they do not give praise when none is deserved,” he continues. “That sort of ‘true positive’ is what helps build real confidence and self worth in the interns.”
The First Step Program has an established process to ensure that its interns real the full value of the opportunity that they are being offered. All interns meet with their manager, job counselors, and a First Step representative at scheduled times throughout their six months to monitor progress. These meetings “confirm that job performance and tasks and scheduling issues are all being resolved satisfactorily for the intern and the manager,” says Winkelman. “After the third or fourth month the manager usually knows an intern well enough to provide a reference, and that is when an intern starts to look for the next job. And a work reference is very helpful – almost crucial – when interns start looking for their next job.”
What drives the disability-employment initiatives
The Clarks commitment to responsible involvement within the community, expressed in the company’s mission statement, remains strong, in part, because of the example of its leadership. Senior Vice President Bob Miller notes that Interim President Salzano “has played a major role in orchestrating a joint program with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to get people with disabilities employed.” This initiative, called “Work without Limits,” is a Massachusetts–based program that urges business owners to hire workers with disabilities. Miller notes that he likes being involved in the company’s efforts to involve people with disabilities in the workplace: “It makes me feel a part of something great.” He adds that the projects create a caring culture at Clarks. “Our passion is to listen to our customers and deliver products with pride and trust. We understand that as a successful company we have a responsibility to our shareholders and to the communities in which we operate.”
Clarks has received many awards for its efforts to promote the hiring of people with disabilities. Among them are the Exemplary Employer Award from the Massachusetts Governor in 2006 and the Distinguished Employer Award in 2007 from the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. Salzano recently received the AA Bloom award for outstanding volunteerism from the Ten Two Footwear Foundation. In 2008, Clarks received a Boston Globe newspaper’s nomination as one of the Top 100 Places to Work.
But don’t go looking for self-congratulation from the shoe chain; you won’t find it. Nor will you find do-gooder glory among the reasons that Clarks reaches out to the disability community.
Salzano says, “Our mangers are our biggest benefactors; they connect with their own sense of humanity and [in hiring people from the First Step program] have found new employees who have great capabilities. Our support of Triangle is an amazing team exercise. It is uplifting for Clarks, especially in this economic environment.”
Looking ahead, Salzano says, “We will continue the internships and continue to look for new ways to resolve the gap between people who are employable and lack of opportunities for them. We want to put more hope out there for people with disabilities.”
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.
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