Sherri Jensen knew instability from a young age. Born in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, the now-33-year-old CEO experienced homelessness and witnessed family members struggling with addiction throughout her childhood.
“I was able to make it out, which is pretty fortunate,” Jensen said of the cycle of poverty and trauma she was born into. The path wasn’t easy, though. Falling into her own patterns of addiction between the ages of 16 and 20, Jensen said she “lived a life of chaos,” and wasn’t able to begin healing until she asked for help.
“When you’re in a certain place and you want to change your life, it’s hard to know how to get there,” Jensen said, referring to the time in her life when she knew she needed to stop using drugs and change her lifestyle, but needed the support of others in order to successfully do so. “It’s really just accessing resources, breaking it down, and doing it step by step; that makes it possible.”
Personal experience is what brought Jensen to begin the nonprofit staffing agency Valeo Vocation with the help of her former business partner, Greg Walker. Now a 2-year-old organization, Valeo Vocation connects local people experiencing homelessness with steady employment and other resources that provide access to stability in their lives.
Jensen started the nonprofit after a career working as a case manager at for-profit staffing agencies and in human services.
“It’s not about money for me. It’s about doing something that helps people,” said Jensen, who took a significant pay cut when she started working in human services five years ago. Jensen worked with clients in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ RISE program, which offers assistance in employment, job training, and career guidance.
That’s when Jensen saw an opportunity for a business model that combined aspects of her two jobs that did not exist locally.
“I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a nonprofit staffing agency?’” Jensen said. Researching the idea, she found one in Seattle and discovered there were only about 70 nationwide, none of which was in the South Sound.
“And then I realized that I should be the one to start one,” she said. “I could combine what I was doing with the RISE program with my experience in the for-profit world as well as with my life experience growing up.”
She did, creating Valeo Vocation to connect people experiencing homelessness with temporary work for immediate income, as well as with case managers who partner to develop a career pathway — while also connecting them to essential resources like housing.
We sat down with Jensen to learn more about Valeo Vocation’s business model, as well as its mission and unique positioning to help those experiencing homelessness in Pierce County.
How does your personal experience make you well-equipped to lead a nonprofit staffing agency that helps people experiencing homelessness?
I think that lived experience is far more impactful than an education in some ways. I am largely uneducated — I got my GED at 22, then finished an associate degree and am halfway through a bachelor’s — but because I have experience with homelessness and addiction, and because I was able to utilize resources and navigate myself out, I feel qualified to help other people.
I’m really proud of my journey; it allows me to connect with anybody who comes to Valeo Vocation for help. I can have a conversation with that person, and I can talk about what I’ve experienced because it’s probably somewhat similar to what they’ve experienced. And I’m proof that circumstance can be changed for those who are able to work really hard and use the resources that are provided.
What does Valeo Vocation’s business model look like?
We go into the community and find businesses that need employees. Those are our customers. We send our workers, or clients — people who are low-income or experiencing homelessness who have come into Valeo Vocation for help and completed the intake process — to those businesses to do temporary work, and we charge the businesses, our customers, a fee.
The income that we offer is typically minimum wage, but clients also get a case manager who can help them with housing, getting a driver’s license, really anything we can justify as a barrier to employment. So, we offer them really quick access to income, but our goal is also that our folks are hired (full-time) within 30 days of working for us. And we’re continually focused on wage progression. After that first 30 days, they hopefully move up to a more livable wage. That’s the goal.
To date, we’ve paid out $601,870 in wages, invoiced $768,506, and cut checks to 297 individuals.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in starting Valeo Vocation? How have you surpassed these?
Nonprofits cannot walk into a bank and get a line of credit until they’re fully established, which means two years (in operation) and $5 million (in revenue). So, figuring out the financial component of it has been difficult. The hardest part initially was that I came in with zero capital investment. I’m a single mom with two kids, and I used my tax refund to set up our GoDaddy website account in January 2018 and to file for our business license.
We work with this wonderful agency called Qwill that does all of our payroll funding. They’ve been a phenomenal help to starting a new nonprofit. We established a relationship in May 2019, and it’s been the only financial assistance that we’ve been able to get. That’s really made our business.
What are some of the barriers that people experiencing homelessness face when they’re trying to get help?
At the end of the day, the solution to homelessness is more low-income housing — more housing in general. Employment is definitely a tool to combat homelessness. Everything offered at Valeo Vocation is a tool to combat homelessness. And a lot of the homeless population can change circumstance through work, through having an income, and having financial support.
But, you know, even if they’re employed — if we’re working on their financial health, their credit score, their sobriety — Valeo Vocation can’t create more housing units. If there’s not the housing unit that they can move into, they’ve done all of this work and yet they are still experiencing homelessness. And if you’ve gone through all this effort and you’ve done everything you can to change and you’re accessing all of the services, and you still can’t move into housing — why stay sober? Why keep trying?
From your perspective, what has made Valeo Vocation successful thus far?
We have the business mentality — the for-profit experience — but we all have the heart of the servant. People usually come to us with a lot of mistrust in the system, because the systems that are in place are set up to fail, and there’s not a lot of funding for programs that really help people. There aren’t a lot of places that folks can really rely on. But when they come here, because of the people who are on our team, they know we’re different and that trust is restored.
Family: Rowan, 7; Emerson, 1; and two cats, Gouda and Mozzarella
Residence: Hilltop. Not “The Hill” or “New Hilltop.” It’s just Hilltop. And I love my community!
First job: Birthday host at Chuck E. Cheese! Yes, I was often the mouse.
Favorite spare-time activities: Spare time? Sleep. Definitely sleep.
Book currently reading: Dr. Seuss’ Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? Over and over and over again.
Favorite app: Trello. Trello boards save my life.
Favorite movie: Period pieces and new Westerns. Cold Mountain, Atonement, 3:10 to Yuma
Favorite South Sound restaurant: Half-Pint Pizza on Sixth Ave. in Tacoma. My little gal and I have been going there since she was 3.
Best piece of advice you’ve received: From my former Valeo business partner and Valeo cofounder, Greg Walker: “How you get to where you want to go is going to look nothing like what you expect. But you’re going to get there.”