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Corneisha Fowler of Cara Collective: Charting Success Paths in Workforce Empowerment



Corneisha Fowler

Senior Corporate Account Specialist

Cara Collective



Meet Corneisha Fowler, a proud alumna and advocate of Cara Collective. In her role as a Senior Corporate Account Specialist, she exemplifies the transformative impact of the program. Drawing from her own experiences, Corneisha is instrumental in fostering meaningful opportunities and connections for participants. She stands as a testament to the resilience and potential of those who engage with Cara, reflecting her dedication and the organization's commitment to empowering individuals through supportive networks and professional development.


Please introduce yourself and tell me about your role at Cara Collective.


I am Corneisha Fowler, and I am the Senior Corporate Account Specialist at Cara Collective. I manage relationships with approximately 10 to 12 esteemed employment partners. My primary objective is to strategically leverage these partnerships, ensuring a seamless connection between our valued participants and high-quality job opportunities.  

Working at Cara is unique because it feels less like a job and more like helping friends in a community.

Tell me how you ended up in this role. 


My path to this role began at Sister House, a recovery home in Chicago, where I was referred to Cara Collective. As a Cara alum since 2018, I first worked at a major Chicago hospital, advancing from a Guest Relations Associate to a Clinic Coordinator in Hematology. When I was looking for my next career opportunity, my manager noticed my commitment and suggested I apply to Cara. My transferable skills landed me my current role where I’ve been for over a year now.  


Who have been your primary mentors in progressing in your career?


My primary mentors include my former manager, Ricardo, who emphasized holistic well-being and supported my professional development opportunities and education. Another key mentor has been my manager, who facilitated my entry into Rush and continued to guide and check on my progress over the years. Additionally, JaShawn Hill, the executive director of Chicago Survivors and an alumna of Sister House, has been instrumental. She's been a blueprint for my career, offering invaluable advice and support in navigating professional challenges and planning my career path. 


Tell me what it's like to work at Cara and what you feel makes it special or unique.


Working at Cara is unique because it feels less like a job and more like helping friends in a community. Every task is participant-focused, aimed at directly assisting them with things like job applications, interview preparation, and more. What truly sets Cara apart is our strong sense of community. There's no rigid hierarchy; instead, it feels like a collaborative, supportive environment. Our staff and participants know each other personally, blurring the lines between colleagues and participants. Additionally, our cohort system fosters teamwork and mutual support, helping participants navigate personal challenges together. This deep sense of community is what makes Cara exceptionally special to me. 

At Cara, we prioritize participant-focused approaches, meaning our participants and alumni have significant input in shaping the program.

Could you describe the types of talent pools you engage with at Cara, and what criteria determine eligibility for someone to become a participant in your programs?


At Cara, our talent pool is remarkably diverse, ranging from individuals without a high school diploma to those with master's degrees. Approximately half of our participants have experienced challenges such as poverty, homelessness, or addiction. The other half might have had a stable background but encountered setbacks, like disruptions caused by the pandemic. The main requirement to join Cara is needing a support system. Notably, the program is free for both participants and employers, ensuring accessibility for all. 


What kind of support does Cara provide for participants once they are placed at a job?


Once a participant secures a job through Cara, they receive one year of retention support. Each participant is paired with an Individual Development Specialist (IDS), essentially a retention coach, who accompanies them throughout their journey, from pre-employment through job placement. These coaches conduct regular check-ins, initially twice a month and then monthly, to offer support in both professional and personal matters, including assistance with transportation fares and rent. They have even begun to go into the field to see our participants in person. Additionally, we facilitate check-ins with employers to ensure a good job fit and smooth integration into the workplace. After three months of employment, participants are eligible for rental assistance, further supporting their transition.


What is Cara hoping to achieve in the next few years, focusing on either the organization as a whole or objectives within your own particular area? 


Cara's future is shaped by three key goals. First, we aim to deepen our presence in communities and expand how we can serve our job seekers – including by exploring new service delivery methods and building more employment pathways. Second, our focus is on making Cara a top workplace, with a target of 80% staff satisfaction by 2025, driven by a culture of health, wellness, and growth. Lastly, we're committed to championing racial equity, ensuring our staff diversity mirrors our community, and integrating this into all aspects of our work. These goals collectively reflect our commitment to empowering both our participants and our team. 



Could you elaborate on how participants and alumni contribute to shaping the training programs at Cara?


At Cara, we prioritize participant-focused approaches, meaning our participants and alumni have significant input in shaping the program. We frequently conduct surveys to understand their needs and preferences. Additionally, we're revitalizing the Cara Alumni Association to further engage alumni in our processes. This involvement allows those who have experienced our program firsthand to contribute valuable insights, ensuring that our offerings are truly beneficial and impactful for those we serve. 

Additionally, post-pandemic, there's a noticeable struggle with retaining employees. This isn't necessarily due to a lack of willingness to work, but rather challenges in maintaining job focus amidst the many distractions and changes in the world today.

With what agencies or partners do you work to source entry-level talent? 


Cara collaborates with a wide range of partners to source entry-level talent, including large industries, small businesses, and nonprofits. In my portfolio, I manage partnerships with diverse sectors such as casinos, hospitals, food industry companies, construction trade firms, and even transportation agencies like the CTA. This diversity allows us to cater to various interests and opportunities for our participants. 


What are the most frequent challenges that employers approach Cara with, specifically in terms of hiring and retention?  


Recently, employers are increasingly facing two main challenges: retention and hiring. The complexity of their pre-employment and application processes, including daunting job descriptions, often deters qualified candidates from applying. Additionally, post-pandemic, there's a noticeable struggle with retaining employees. This isn't necessarily due to a lack of willingness to work, but rather challenges in maintaining job focus amidst the many distractions and changes in the world today. 


What are some typical concerns employers express when establishing a partnership with Cara? 


When establishing partnerships, some employers initially view Cara as primarily a “second chance organization,” which might lead them to underestimate the quality of talent we provide. They often approach the partnership with a mindset of fulfilling a good deed rather than expecting to find top talent. Concerns include managing individuals from the criminal justice system or those battling addiction, and doubts about their reliability or long-term commitment. However, many are pleasantly surprised to discover that they indeed gain some of the best employees through our program, beyond just making a positive social impact. 



How long does it take between contacting a provider and having someone employed? 

 

The time frame for employment varies by industry. In food service, candidates can start as quickly as within two weeks, including application and onboarding. Contrastingly, industries like casinos and healthcare, with their extensive background checks and additional requirements like drug screenings and vaccinations, may take up to two months. While these timelines are standard, Cara Collective's active involvement often streamlines the process. Unlike applying independently, say through Indeed, where responses can lag, our team actively champions our participants, following up on applications and advocating for them. This proactive approach can expedite even the longer processes typical of certain industries. 


Has your organization calculated the cost or benefit of working with workforce development partners?  

 

In our 33 years since the founding of Cara Collective in 1991, we've meticulously tracked our impact. To date, we've facilitated more than 14,500 job placements, both permanent and temporary, and have successfully placed 8,500 people into employment. A key measure of our success is our one-year retention rate, which stands at 65% for our participants. This not only speaks to job stability but also to their growth and development. Furthermore, we also support participants in achieving permanent housing within their first year of starting their permanent job, highlighting the tangible benefits and effectiveness of our collaborative approach in fostering long-term stability and success. 

Every hire is a chance taken, and through these programs, you might just find your next standout employee or even a future leader.

Can you give me an example of an employee you hired or an agency partnership that worked out really well? 

 

One of our most significant success stories is the BMORE program, a collaboration between Cara and BMO, designed to create banking career pathways for individuals with transferable skills but lacking specific experience. Equally impactful is our partnership with Advocate Health Care. They’ve adopted our model of offering employment opportunities to individuals with criminal backgrounds and have integrated our retention services model, including providing retention coaches. This approach challenges the misconception that individuals with barriers are limited to labor-focused roles, as we’re seeing more participants aspiring for and achieving roles beyond traditional expectations. 

 

If an employer reading this interview walks away with just one thing, what do you hope it will be? 


If there's one takeaway for employers from this interview, it's the importance of giving individuals in Workforce Development programs a fair chance. This isn't just about fulfilling a corporate good deed, but about recognizing the untapped talent and potential in these individuals. My own experience, overcoming barriers of homelessness and addiction, illustrates this. Without Cara Collective’s support, opportunities like mine might have been inaccessible, despite my capabilities and dedication. Employers should realize they're not just offering a job, but potentially discovering invaluable assets for their organization. Every hire is a chance taken, and through these programs, you might just find your next standout employee or even a future leader.





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