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Marisela Williams of Freedman Seating: Fostering Opportunity through Community Partnerships



Marisela Williams

HR Director

Freedman Seating


Marisela Williams, HR Director at Freedman Seating, is a believer in community partnerships and talent empowerment. In this interview, we explore Marisela’s journey in bridging the gap between entry-level talent and employment at Freedman Seating, and the invaluable impact it's making.



Tell us about your current role and company.


I've been the HR Director at Freedman Seating in Chicago for nearly 15 years, overseeing all HR functions and payroll. Freedman Seating has been around for over a century, specializing in the design and production of quality seating. Our mission emphasizes quality, innovation, and safety. 

A mentor once told me, "It's not how you got here, it’s what you do from here that matters."

Additionally, we take pride in our active role within the community, collaborating with organizations that champion fair employment opportunities. At present, our team includes nearly 700 individuals, most of whom are in Chicago, with a few in national sales positions.


What was your very first job, and what age were you when you started working?


My very first job was at Ace Hardware as a cashier. I started on my 16th birthday. I continued to return to Ace during my college summers, valuing the real-world education it offered. It was here that I honed my work ethic and mastered the art of customer service, setting a foundation for my future endeavors.



Did your education journey align with that of your family’s, or did you venture into new directions?


I was born in the U.S. as the youngest of four to Mexican immigrants. I ventured beyond my mother's hopes of my becoming an administrative assistant and pursued higher education. However, because of family circumstances, I'm a few credits shy of completing my undergraduate degree. This experience has made me deeply appreciate Freedman's mission, recognizing that not everyone takes or completes the college path, and highlighting the importance of diverse career options.


What has your career progression looked like? What do you think have been the major keys to your success?


I began my career as a skip tracer. From there, I explored other functions and moved up quickly, holding roles from administration at Montgomery Ward to HR manager at Home Depot, where I used my bilingual skills to handle challenges at a demanding Chicago store. Despite not having a formal degree, my journey—marked by hands-on learning and influential mentors—gave rise to my commitment to and love for human resources. My success is built on hard work, a solid network, and continuous learning. I'm motivated by personal goals and being a role model for my daughter. A mentor once told me, "It's not how you got here, it’s what you do from here that matters."


What obstacles have you had to overcome as you've progressed in your career?


Lacking a degree was a barrier, but my determination and hands-on experience consistently overcame doubts. Starting my career young, I often met skepticism, but my dedication and eagerness to learn silenced skeptics. The support of a strong network taught me the power of mentorship. To recruiters, I’d confidently say, "Give me an interview, and my skills will speak for themselves." Everyone deserves a chance to demonstrate their skills and value.

Our aim is to offer a fresh start, help folks learn new skills, and give them the chance to grow

Tell me what it's like to work at Freedman Seating. What makes it special or unique?


Despite having nearly 700 employees, and over 900 pre-pandemic, our family-oriented, caring spirit persists. The company’s support, shown during my own personal journey and the COVID-19 crisis, resonates with all of our employees. Freedman Seating is committed to cultivating an environment where everyone is respected, valued, appreciated, and takes ownership of their work. We build strong partnerships with community-based organizations that share in our commitment to education, training, and career opportunities in manufacturing. Over two decades, we've fortified our bond with Chicago’s west side community, embodying a culture where the well-being of employees and neighbors is paramount.


Tell me about what Freedman Seating is hoping to accomplish over the next few years.


Despite COVID-19 setbacks, we're bouncing back quickly, aiming for growth and not just for company gains but to better our employees' lives through enhanced job security, benefits, and training. Still, hiring remains a challenge. With today’s push towards college, many overlook the value of hands-on roles in manufacturing, which now offers tech-driven, cleaner workspaces. We're on a mission to change this perspective, emphasizing opportunities, especially for women, in these roles that promise solid careers and good pay.


What are some examples of entry-level jobs at Freedman that do not require a college degree? What qualifications or traits are you seeking in candidates? 


At Freedman, many of our jobs do not require a college degree. Apart from a few roles like engineering, we have positions open for packers, welders, assemblers and machine operators. If you've got some experience, that’s a bonus, but we're really on the lookout for folks who are ready and willing to learn.



We're all about giving people a fair shot at a job. Except for a few positions where finance is involved, we usually don’t do background checks. We've teamed up with groups that help people get back into work, a project that Craig Freedman (CEO) is really passionate about. Our aim is to offer a fresh start, help folks learn new skills, and give them the chance to grow.


What has been your experience with working with various agencies, from how you chose who to work with to the services they provide or the services you wish they would provide?


At Freedman, the cornerstone of our partner collaborations is relationship-building. This often begins with Craig recommending partnerships based on his interactions and industry meetings, guiding us to promising organizations that align with our values and objectives.

We often offer second chances, and except for severe issues, we keep the door open for former employees to return.

Through partnerships with entities like Manufacturing Connect and JARC, we've offered students immersive experiences, giving them a glimpse into manufacturing careers. Additionally, agencies like Cara Collective have furthered our DEI initiatives, and programs like Heartland Alliance's READI Chicago have supported employee integration, particularly for those overcoming trauma.


The initial alignment of values and understanding of our culture is crucial, or there could be communication breakdowns. Some agencies perfectly sync with our vision, while others might miss the mark. Yet, as our collaboration with WorkLife Partnership shows, the evolving focus on comprehensive employee support paints a promising future.


Can you give me an example of an employee whom you hired through one of these partnerships who worked out well? And are there any reasons someone may not work out?


We've had many success stories through our partnerships. One standout employee came to us as a welder. With our support, he progressed, obtaining an engineering degree and AWS certification. Today, he plays a pivotal role in our manufacturing process, from interviewing new welders to streamlining operations. 


We've also seen individuals rise in our material handling division or simply find stability in their current roles, cherishing the second chance they've been given. 


On the flip side, challenges do arise. Attendance issues have been prominent recently. Sometimes, personal circumstances make consistent employment difficult for employees. While we aim to support, there's a balance to maintain between community aid and business needs. We often offer second chances, and except for severe issues, we keep the door open for former employees to return.


How do you believe Chicagoland employers should contribute to addressing poverty and inequality in Chicago neighborhoods?


Training resources are key. College isn't the sole route to success; job shadowing and hands-on experiences are vital, especially for those aged 17 to 23. Partnering with community groups and city colleges to create tailored training for this age bracket can be fruitful. While managing these programs demands effort, the payoff benefits both individuals and the community. Employers should prioritize this responsibility.


How could these organizations improve their support for employers like you? What changes might make their efforts more effective?

 

Community organizations' requirements can be limiting, and they sometimes lack insight into business realities. For example, a past suggestion to collect employee mobile phones daily wasn't practical. It would be helpful if these organizations worked more closely with businesses to create realistic programs, considering employer challenges. Such collaboration can lead to stronger partnerships.



What would you like to achieve as an employer of entry-level talent? What obstacles hinder those goals?


New city and state regulations complicate employee management and can affect the benefits we want to offer our employees. While we comply with these rules, they divert our focus and make managing new talent more challenging than necessary. While some businesses might be unaffected, for many, these regulations present tough operational challenges.

I'm committed to understanding backgrounds, breaking barriers, and giving opportunities, backed by the support of company leadership and community organizations.

What advice would you offer an employer who is reading this and would like to get engaged with some of these organizations?


The key advice I would offer is “don't judge a book by its cover.” Instead, engage with individuals. Don't judge based on superficial aspects like tattoos. It's common for employers to fear potential risks, but connecting with those who have successfully implemented similar programs can provide valuable insights. Honest conversations and strong relationships with community partners are important. Start by setting clear expectations and openly discussing concerns to foster a successful collaboration.


Why is working in this area and reaching into the community and helping people important to you personally?


My parents, as immigrant non-native English speakers, faced significant challenges. Seeing their struggles taught me the importance of looking deeper and offering second chances. In HR, I champion those without a voice, especially those without a college degree, while upholding company policies. Balancing these roles is key. I'm committed to understanding backgrounds, breaking barriers, and giving opportunities, backed by the support of company leadership and community organizations.






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