Marie Lynch – President & CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future

Episode 72

I'm so excited to have my guest Marie Lynch, president & CEO of Skills for Chicagoland's Future, on this episode. Marie is well-versed in the non-profit sector as a non-profit executive. Previously, she served as Founding President of Chicago Career Tech, and she also spent eight years working as a Chicago executive for the YMCA. Marie was named a "2019 Woman of Influence" by *The Chicago Business Journal*. She has even met with President Obama to talk about economic mobility and unemployment. On today's show, she talks about what it was like speaking at The White House, her passion behind improving the workforce in America and social entrepreneurship, and more.

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Kara Goldin: Hi everybody, it’s Kara from Unstoppable, and I’m super excited to have my next guest here. I cannot even wait to introduce you to my friend, Marie Lynch. So, so, excited. Marie, just a little bit about her and about her company, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, which is super, super exciting. But Marie Lynch grew up without a bridge to opportunity. Wow, that’s a big statement there, So she built one so she’s working to build bridges for the unemployed, which is super, super exciting. These bridges are Marie’s metaphor for social capital, the connections that lead to professional possibilities, and she’s the CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, such a cool company.
And yeah, I’m just super, super excited. She’s doing so much, not only in Chicago, but she’s also branched out to Providence and, she’ll talk more about some plans about what she sees and where she’s going in the future, but over 1400 unemployed annually, she’s helped, which is amazing. And 70 premier companies have gotten involved, so we can all kind of hear more about how we can all get involved in this too. So I cannot wait for you guys all hear her story. So welcome, welcome Marie, super excited to [crosstalk 00:01:52].
Marie Lynch: Thank you, so good to be with you again.
Kara Goldin: I should also mention that Marie and I met, we were both involved in this group called NACY, which was part of the Obama administration. I look at that group of people that I was only in it for a short amount of time. Marie was in there for longer, but just incredible people who were ultimately builders and connectors, and trying to build entrepreneurs and jobs across America, and super, super inspiring. And Marie, I remember meeting her really on and just saying, I got to get to know her more, this seemed so cool. And so, I went out to Chicago a few times and got to hear more, and actually went to one of her luncheons and met a lot of her people. And so, I just became that much more inspired by it. So anyway, so welcome, and thank you for again for coming on here to chat with everybody about this. So, talk to me about, how did this all get started?
Marie Lynch: Well, first off, Kara though, I have to say thank you for having me. And it’s fun to think back to when we met at NACY, and to think about both of us, two moms, four kids, both heading up organizations, and this passion for making a difference in our respective lives. So it’s fun to follow your story too. No, honestly, I’m so glad that Penny put us, we both were on that committee and got brought together, and with all those amazing other people.
So, how did it all come together? The bridge opportunity thing is real. And what that means is on a human level, a zip code actually really impacts somebody’s destiny. What zip code you’re born into impacts who you know, it impacts what kind of schools you’re around, it impacts who your neighbors are, it impacts what kind of food you have access to. And I always like to say, I grew up in a very blue collar part of town in a middle class neighborhood, and 70% of my graduating class actually did not go on to four year college. And so, it’s certainly not the same thing as growing up in a low income neighborhood, but it was a blue collar community. And I had these aspirations and dreams to go into the nonprofit government sector.
And when I was in my teens, I could not get that internship. And I thought at the time it was because I had bad luck. I didn’t understand that it was more about where I lived and who I had connections, or at that point didn’t have connections with. And great, I love where I grew up. I’m so proud of it, Villa Park, Illinois. It’s just salt of the earth, and I grew up with all different types of folks, and it’s part of, I think the grit of who I am, having grown up there. But my neighbors, full disclosure, air conditioning guys, and in my best friends down the street, you know her dad worked for the local grocery store, right? And so I kept being like, I couldn’t figure out how I could be this involved, and getting good grades, and couldn’t get the internship.
And then I went on to college and I thought this is my big break, I’m going to get it. And it was when it started to come together for me, because the kids who got the internship at the state government, were not the kids who actually wanted it. They were the ones who happened to live next to the neighbors, who worked for the State. And so it was my first aha, of this isn’t bad luck, there’s more going on.
And then when I went to graduate school, at U of Chicago, I happened to live on the North side of the time. And it all came full circle for me because I knocked on the door of my neighbor, this is a true story. Knock on the door of my neighbor, who happens to be at grad school at another college in Illinois, and her friend had just turned down an internship for the mayor’s office of policy. And so this was just as the Internet’s coming online, so she literally hands me the piece of paper with the phone number. And because of my zip code, because of where I was living, I got my big break. And I’m the same person, I’m the same person during all that, and I finally get my big break into government.
And you fast forward to 10 years ago when we founded the organization, I always knew in my work, I was passionate about economic mobility, and passionate about community, working with companies to bring change. But when the last recession hit 10 years ago, the concept really was, all these people were unemployed, and yet they were next to neighbors who suddenly didn’t have the ability to get the job. But if you happen to live next to a neighbor who could get your resume to the top, you have a competitive advantage. And when companies are overwhelmed at that time, when unemployment is high, companies are overwhelmed with resumes, who you know, 85% of the time leads to how you get a job.
And so for me, it kind of came full circle, of how can we, how can Skills be that neighbor? Because there’s an access gap here, and there’s a zip code issue that has to be equalized. And so, the other piece that was interesting for me too, is I had worked in the private sector as well. And I worked at Deloitte, and I really understand that work with companies. And the entire workforce system, many, many people, many of the folks you work with, are used to working with workforce organizations, and want to do the right thing getting people back to work. But the entire workforce system has historically been set up around, the way the funding works is organizations train a person, and then they try to influence an employer to hire them. And that is much different than what we do, which is we start with the employer and the job, we get to know that employer as intimately as we would be unemployed, and know everything about what they’re looking for, and then we go find the talent.
Custom design, and custom laid out plan for that employer. So instead of starting with the employee first, you’re actually starting with the employer first, which by the way in the private sector, that’s how you do everything. You start with where do you want to go, and then you build the process. So that’s what we did, and it was something I was incredibly passionate about for personal reasons, and recognizing that equalizing this for everybody. Everybody should have the ability to have that neighbor from the park who you talk to and say, “Oh yeah, I’m looking for this job. Can you put my resume to the top?” And that’s on a macro level, what Skills is doing in Chicago and Rhode Island, and we’re looking to do nationally.
Kara Goldin: And so, what year was this?
Marie Lynch: So, it was 2009, in the last recession. I had a previous organization that I founded called Chicago Career Tech. And that was when we had some funding from the city to do something interesting. And we accidentally to be honest, kind of created what I today call the Skills model, amongst several other models. And we found that we were testing a number of things, and it was really successful. And it was three years later in 2000 roughly 12, that I would say I really became a social entrepreneur. Because we had this model that we tested, we wanted to go full throttle with the Skills model, dumped all these other elements. And I was able to pitch it to the City of Chicago, who connected me then with Penny [Pritzker 00:00:09:11], who I did not know at the time. And she was working on some national skills initiatives.
And just like you would in the private sector world, went in almost like venture capital it, and went in and pitched the concept and pitched the idea. And over a series of months, she worked with us, and we refined it and grew a broader team. And then launched, and voted out our old board, she helped me bring in 30 new board members, top C-suite executives in Chicago. And the dream was, and we’re about halfway through I’d say. But the dream was if you turn the workforce system on its face, and you start with the employer and you do this, if you can do this in Chicago and do it in another city, and then do it in multiple cities, that longterm, you can change the face of at the federal level, how we fund workforce organizations. And that employers could know someday in every city, they have an organization like Skills, that they can turn to if they care about getting people from the neighborhoods that they care about into jobs.
Kara Goldin: It’s so amazing. I remember when I came, I guess a few years ago, when I came to listen to your luncheon, and listen to the mayor, the then mayor of Chicago, talk about how you have come into his office asking for money. And you actually repaid that money that much sooner. I can’t remember the story exactly, but tell me a little bit about that. I mean, that’s such a huge thing, right? The idea of going into the city and actually borrowing money, and then it not only got people off of any type of subsidy, you got people like not only jobs.
But I think you’re so modest about this, because the more that I’ve dug into this too, that it’s not just about getting the job. You provide a mentorship program that actually helps these people stay in the job. And figure out what your… I mean, it was just so inspiring hearing people who have been through that program, and having somebody to talk to, when their boss for example, says, “You just don’t get it.” When a boss says to somebody, “You just don’t get it,” then they’ve probably got one foot out the door at that point, whether they want to be or not. And I feel like your group actually tries to come in there, and really mediate what ultimately… Which is so needed.
Marie Lynch: So from a story level, sometimes it’s best to think about it through the eyes of the work and the people. And so, recently, last year we actually… There’s an individual, his name’s [Marquis Pitts 00:00:12:10], and he’s from the West side of Chicago, and two hardworking parents, and really wanted to be in the medical field. And he’s involved with this church and they’re trying to place him, but he didn’t have the network to get him in that job. Super great guy. If you or I met him, if we were at a train station, we would hire him in a second. But so he’s done all the right things, can’t get a job in the West side.
Meantime, the other side of it is, the employer, Rush University Medical Center, which you’ve seen some of the [inaudible 00:12:38] folks if you’ve been there. Giant healthcare facility in the West side, super committed to hiring residents from the West side. But the companies don’t necessarily, they had the same problem. They wanted to hire from the neighborhood, but they didn’t know how. And so they put up the job postings, but they’re getting people from all over the city, and they’re really committed to the West side. And so enter Skills, of bringing those two together. And you have to have a mutual trust and relationship on both sides. And I think that’s the real unique aspect here, is we know the employers inside and out. We live and breathe the employers, because we know that if we know the employers well, then we can identify and find the right folks, and help them get through the process, get them through the career pathway. If they need mentors, provide that support around them.
But you got to start with the employer. But the magic of it is a incredibly agile, robust, flexible, customized relationship with the employer, that then you go and find those [inaudible 00:13:33], but you have to ask to be trusted in the community by the unemployed, or community based organizations that trust you. So there’s a lot of trust, and where does that come from? That also, going back to what you said about some of the data you heard, we had an independent evaluation done a few years ago, and what did it show? It showed that people who came through Skills, who we placed, made anywhere from $6,100 to $9,000 more a year, than an unemployed person you found a job on their own. It also found that the retention rate two years in, was actually 76%, versus somebody on their own, who was unemployed and found a job, 60%. And that’s part of that matching.
The other thing it found to your point about the return on the investment, because there is an ROI for the funder. There was a 251% ROI for the funder. So for every dollar you invested, 251% ROI. And what that’s from and you’re alluding to is, when you actually get somebody a job, you’re actually then getting the ability to… They’re paying taxes, they’re buying things, they’re no longer using public health systems, they have health coverage, they’re no longer utilizing any type of medical reimbursements, they’re getting all this. So the ROI in it is incredibly high. And the code we cracked, truly that I think has been broken forever, was we cracked how to work with the employers, to create that pathway, to de-risk the hire for them, but also again, to be that neighbor resource to the employer to get the unemployed into jobs.
So it’s been, one thing I always like to share is years ago when I was pitching this… So, one of the other elements is we have a lot of private funding. It’s super important to have private funding, because we have to be able to be agile. And government funding, love it, but also really hard because it’s incredibly restrictive, and it doesn’t allow you to be innovative. And make no doubt about it, in the not-for-profit community, you have to be creative and innovative and you have to be constantly evolving with the economy. And so in any case, I remember being at JP Morgan Chase, they’ve been one of our biggest donors. And I’ll never forget the national head of philanthropy, I’m pitching this Skills concept. And he’s like, “Marie, I love it,” he’s like, “But no disrespect, putting the job first and starting with employer first, it doesn’t sound like rocket science. Why has nobody done this?”
And I looked at him, and I’m like, “It’s not rocket science. It’s actually using business principles, and using exactly what you do in the business world for the not-for-profit. But why it hasn’t been done, is because the entire workforce system is federal funded with federal money. And I’m looking for corporate money so that we can undo that system.” So anyway, but the last thing I’d say on that too, is the other thing I think that’s been interesting in all these years, and I know your book Undaunted, and all this. I think part of it too is, having this focus on ensuring that what we tell the employers we’re going to do, we actually deliver on.
Marie Lynch: So, the last piece of this is, it’s not only securing private funding that allows you be innovative, but it’s really constantly delivering to the employers on what they’re asking for, and the request to the employers is not about charity. The request to the employers is about they have a business need, and getting them people that are going to be talented, and we know are going to stay longer. And so, I think you also have to flip that. You can be a not-for-profit without asking employers to be charitable, in the sense of asking them… We don’t want anybody to reduce their expectations. In fact, I think part of why Skills is now in Rhode Island and looking national, is because the product of what we’re delivering is so high quality.
And so, I think keeping our eye on that has been important, but the beauty of it for an employer is especially today, right now with COVID and with racial equity issues, if you want to serve those, and if you actually really want to make a difference, you got to hire from neighborhoods which are significantly impacted by COVID, and neighborhoods that are significantly impacted by unemployment and racial issues. But you often, just like you outsource… An employer outsources for a lot of things, and so you outsource to an organization like Skills, to be able to help you get that avenue into the neighborhoods. But there’s an expertise involved in that.
Kara Goldin: I feel like you’re also, to the introductory point, you’re bridging these things. So I actually think what you’ve done, is not brain surgery, but it’s actually harder for people. I mean, the world lives in these silos, and when you actually start building these bridges together, it’s like, gosh, why haven’t we done this before? I mean, it’s a story of startup. It’s like, wow, why wasn’t that around before? But I think it takes you, and people who are thinkers, and community builders, bridge builders, to really do this. So I think it’s pretty incredible.
So, I want to tell a story. And I was not at this event because I did not know Marie very well, but I remember when Obama left the administration, didn’t he show up at one of your events shortly after?
Marie Lynch: Well, he didn’t necessarily show up for one of our events, but I will say this is my kind of fun story. It was 2014, and I’d been asked to come to the White House Unemployment Summit, and was there with Obama and they featured one of our people, and they put me on a panel. And it was amazing, it was an extraordinary moment. But shortly after that, I got a call or an email, and I think it was actually funny enough, an email. I was like, oh, the White House doesn’t email, no, the White House emails. And said can you come meet with the President, and I thought, oh, this can’t be for real. Who emails, you expect the Bat Phone. But no, no, no, in three days they wanted me to come meet with the President.
And it was a two hour meeting with about 15 of us around the country, and I was there to speak about economic mobility. And so I’m sitting next to Magic Johnson, and I joked with him that I was sitting next to him because obviously all the men in the room were of course taken with his basketball, and he wasn’t there for that, he was there for his work in low income communities. But I sat next to him and I sat across from the President. And this is one of those moments I think some people dream of as a kid.
I have to tell you, honestly, it really struck me that that was kind of emotional for me walking into the gates of the White House that day. Because I’d been there, but I hadn’t been with him personally. Because I was this kid from Villa Park, and it was actually really emotional for me, because I never let myself dream that I would have that moment to be sitting with the President. And so you’re in grad school, and you’re in college, and you hear these things of like, oh, you get a few minutes with the President, what do you say? And that was just always an exercise to me. I could never visualize that, because I was a kid from Villa Park.
And so when I had this moment, and this two hour meeting with the President, it was incredibly impactful. And I got to share with him, why… My pitch to him, was, “Mr. President, you don’t need more money in the workforce system, there’s plenty of money. What we do need, is we need to change the way that money is used, and to be innovative and creative about how you use that money. And that’s what’s going to make the difference in this world. And that’s the difference of what you can do.” And the Secretary of Labor was there that day, and he was the brand new secretary, and he was introduced to me after that meeting, and we then got to be quite close. And he helped us out with the Skills model, and made some introductions for us to Rhode Island.
So, it was a really neat moment, and one of the things I took from it was the importance of dreaming. And I certainly know I shared with my kids, and my staff and others, don’t ever limit yourself on what you dream. Because you might be standing there one day in front of the President, and anything’s possible.
Kara Goldin: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because two things come to mind. My book, Undaunted, and there’s many stories about that, and people always will hear, “Oh gosh, you worked for NACY, you’ve done all of these things, do you just not have any fear?” And I think that that’s so often the story of, I’m sure there’s things that you fear. But yet you continue on your journey, and you do good. And then those dreams sometimes present themself in front of you.
So I think that it’s one thing to ultimately say, “I dream of one day meeting the President,” but I think that so often, if you do good, and you’re a kind person, but you’re also a smart person, and you’re trying to do better in the world, I think that your dreams will come true. And maybe that sounds silly to some people, but I’m a huge believer in that. And especially hearing that story from you, that I think it’s just… Especially when you’re helping people.
Marie Lynch: The thing that was interesting to me too, and you know this, is the power of the presidential office is incredible. When they picked us, Skills is like, at that time it was the only demand driven organization. And I’m sitting up there in front of 300 people, and there’s a hundred CEO’s in there. And we’re handpicked to talk about how you work with companies. And that forever changed, frankly it changed the trajectory of Skills, because suddenly we had hundreds of organizations who were asking us to bring a Skills site to their location. And we suddenly had to go out and get funding, and pull learning communities together, and then pick who our next site was, and now we have this national plan.
But it’s amazing how, to your point, that good work, the rocket science may not have been the idea, but I think you’re exactly right too. There’s a perseverance to it, and there’s an ability to connect the people, and the players, and their relationship. And also, I think the other thing is that I always find really interesting in this, is I knew that we were onto something special when there was friction. You know you’re making it, and you know this in your work too, you know if you’re just doing status quo work, people are all happy. And that can’t be what you’re doing, but there was friction in the system because there are those who benefit from the way the funding is set up, and want it to all be set up the same way.
And when Skills entered the market, there certainly was friction from some organizations who saw us as competition, or didn’t want us in there. Kind of lost sight of their own mission, because they were worried we were going to take away dollars. But that to me was also telling of, yeah, this is why we’re in here, because we’re a disruptor, we’re a disruptor in the workforce system. And I think that friction, and that perseverance, and the ability to not acquiesce when others try to push you away, just to continue pushing through is what makes the difference between a good idea that happens only locally, versus something that can happen nationally, because you just can’t stop. You got to just keep pushing.
Kara Goldin: No, I love it.
Marie Lynch: You know that, you know this.
Kara Goldin: But it’s amazing. And I think whether you’re doing social entrepreneurs, more private sector, I feel like that’s consistent. I think just being able to figure out how you’re helping people, is just super, super important. But I just admire everything that you’re doing at Skills for Chicagoland, and also as you mentioned, Rhode Island as well, and really building that up as well. So, plans to go national?
Marie Lynch: Yeah. So, thanks for asking. We’re so excited because yeah, there’s a $10 million award that we’re a finalist for. It’s called the Economic Opportunity Challenge. Yeah, we’re in the top five, 160 applied from around the country. It’s for an organization, a not-for-profit, that has at least one replication site and is making an impact in economic mobility. So we submitted a plan to go into 17 cities over the next five years, and we are very excited to be in this top five, and we find out in October. Yeah, so we’re looking for our next sites. We have our shortlist of where we want to go, but we’re looking for businesses and communities that want to either work with an existing organization, and have Skills kind of bolt on, or want to set up an organization to really work with employers, to get the unemployed into jobs.
Kara Goldin: I should mention some of the companies that you work with, Ulta, Walgreens, Hyatt, what are some of the others?
Marie Lynch: JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America and B of A, all the major medical centers in Chicago and Rhode Island. We work with also all the retail chains, Walmart and CVS. We also, I would say on the manufacturing side, there’s companies at both locations. So we work with, in Chicago, many, many, many, we work with 50 clients of the biggest companies in Chicago, and Rhode Island they’re working with about 60. And so, I would say if there’s a national employer, we’re probably working with you, and if we’re not, we should be.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, absolutely. How did people find out more?
Marie Lynch: Yeah. So, unemployed go to, and companies go to And at you can see all about how to partner with us. You can see our national expansion plans. Certainly, somebody wants to donate, they can certainly do that as well. If they want to be a part of our breakfast event, they can be part of that. But everything there, and I would also share, it’s also a resource we have, it’s called Our Insights. We have all the national unemployment data available. As you know, there’s over 50 million unemployed right now, we are in a much greater unemployment crisis than we were 10 years ago. So you can also see what’s happening nationally there as a resource. But also connect with us if you want to hire, or for us to expand into your city.
Kara Goldin: I love it. I love it so much. So how do people get ahold of Marie too? Are you on social and…
Marie Lynch: Yeah, so you can certainly, you can see my Twitter and my LinkedIn feed is all publicly available, and you can just go to to find all that. And I’m happy to be in touch, and please reach out to me individually. Happy to connect.
Kara Goldin: I love it, so inspiring. You guys have to see what she’s doing, it’s really the roadmap, I think for so many cities, and particularly coming out of COVID, I think with people starting to look at jobs again, and it’s really, really inspiring. So thank you so much, Marie, not just for coming on, but for doing all that you’re doing. And I talk about you at least weekly, your name comes up, and I just talk about what a badass you are, and how awesome you are. And you’re just making a huge difference, and lots of people are noticing, and I’m very, very thrilled that this is all happening, so it’s really, really great.
Marie Lynch: Thank you, Kara. We’ll be forever grateful that NACY brought us together. Thank you for what you’re doing. And thank you also for your mission, and your advocacy around clean water too, you know Skills signed onto that as well, and that makes a world of difference in our community. So, thank you for that.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, more to come for sure. Well, thank you again, everybody.
Marie Lynch: Okay, thank you.
Kara Goldin: Definitely if you liked this episode, go on and give us a great review, and subscribe and all that stuff. So anyway, you guys have a great rest of the week.