“Confessions of CEOs” is a series on how business owners are changing the service landscape. Today, we’re chatting with Krishnan Iyer, CEO of Humanize Homelessness, a non-profit that tackles homelessness alongside business owners. He’s even got Alex Rodriguez and Russell Wilson backing him via their company, TruFusion.
So, why Humanize Homelessness (HH)?
I spent 15 years at Microsoft; while I learned a lot and helped enterprises, I didn’t want to wait until retirement to have an impact on my community. I wanted to do something more meaningful, and that’s when I turned to this non-profit.
How did you break into the non-profit space?
The universe was giving me multiple signs that played into this decision. Mostly, however, I saw a steady rise in the number of people panhandling on the East Side. Unlike other places in the world, we have good water, good roads and good opportunities. Later, I realized that many of us in the community were taking these virtues for granted. As an Asian person, I observe other Asians being generous and compassionate with their own blood-related families and friends. The only difference is how big is that circle and whether the community at large is included. I really would love for the rest of the Asian community to do the right thing and more importantly, be seen as doing the right thing. Many are looking to help the homeless; I just wanted to make it easy. That’s HH’s mission.
Who inspired you to keep going in this charitable direction?
My mom. Her ability to adapt to a new environment, be open to learning a new way of life, and to selflessly contribute to our family and community is amazing. For example, it’s a hugely disruptive thing to move to the US from India in your 60s; most parents won’t do that. Through her actions, she taught me that the durability of happiness in one’s life comes from helping others, not oneself.
Tell us about how you give back and why that’s so important?
Our organization has several programs.
The “Back On Your Feet” program uses yoga, meditation and breathing techniques learned directly from the Krishnamacharya Yoga school to help people approach stressful situations with a calm, mindful approach. Rather than suppress or ignore feelings, we teach others to observe and note them resulting in better mental focus and physical well-being. HH will be partnering with TruFusion (a high-end fitness club) and WeWork at Lincoln Square to fundraise in early 2020. TruFusion is graciously donating their space to HH and the donors, while WeWork provides marketing. TruFusion’s owners, Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Alex Rodriguez (Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees), are funnelling 100% of proceeds through HH for King County homeless shelters programs.
The “Meet a Recruiter” program helps both the homeless as well as employers establish a mutual understanding on what it takes to help transition homeless folks into more permanent and regular employment. Our partner Pro Sports Club (a state-of-the-art wellness center) has engaged their recruiting team with HH to implement our “Trauma-Informed Employment” playbooks on facilitating a transition into employment. For example, say an unhoused victim who was accustomed to being violated regularly (like through physical assault) physically bumps into a fellow co-worker accidentally at the office; she may respond more strongly than expected at a workplace and be subsequently fired for a seeming overreaction. A trauma-informed employer will understand and offer more constructive support. We’re thrilled that their CEO, Dick Knight, has taken a real interest in being a great neighbor in the community and becoming an HH champion.
The “Know Your Neighbor” program addresses changing people’s perception about those without homes. Often, when people see unhoused folks, they presume them to be a problem or a project that needs work; they portray them as an alcoholic, having a communicable disease and being a general burden on society, rather than a living, breathing person with feelings and intelligence. When people give, there typically is an inherent power imbalance between givers and receivers that we are not aware of.
Would you accept underwear from a stranger if they offered to you for free? Probably not, but if you had no choice, you’d likely feel pretty bad accepting it. A giver is in a position of control since they have the resources; the recipient sometimes may not be in a position to say no and so will begrudgingly accept that gift. The recipient avoids displeasing the donor for fear of not having any gift at all in the future. We help break barriers by treating the homeless like valued members of the community and accepting them as they are. We celebrate community festivals like Christmas, Diwali and Chinese New Year with them instead of around or away from them but also in a secular way.
Once, during Purim (a Jewish holiday), a rabbi and his volunteers came to a family day center Bethlehem shelter to explain the origins of this festival. There was a homeless man, pacing back and forth nervously much to the chagrin of petrified shelter attendants. It turns out he was a veteran who defended our country and just wanted to ask a clarifying question. People were so scared and defensive about him being dangerous that it never occurred to them that he just wanted to ask an innocuous yet relevant question. It’s clear that we need to have more understanding with this share of people who have lived through some pretty horrifying circumstances.
What words of wisdom can you share?
Understanding the difference between urgent versus important. In the for-profit space, it’s easier to decide what’s important and have the support to focus on it. In a non-profit, urgent things like addressing health or injury will popup and will derail important initiatives, which is the RIGHT call.
Develop patience when working with the non-profits: It’s important to exercise patience and flexibility in helping organizations that are under-resourced and overstretched.
Be open to all kinds of opinions around homelessness: It’s equally, if not more important, to realize that social issues like homelessness can be polarizing. Some folks have preconceived notions about victims of homelessness that they are in this state because they did drugs or didn’t work hard. Often, life circumstances aren’t so black and white.
Having realistic expectations about what non-profits can do. Asking people to solve hard problems with little to no money is a real challenge. We ask that the world be more understanding about non-profits who aren’t moving the needle as fast or as significantly as for-profit initiatives and encourage rather than chastise those who are willing to offer their superpowers at a deep discount.
How many champions do you have in the community?
Too many to count but not enough to accomplish everything we want. 🙂
Seriously though, we’re honored and privileged to have the support of folks like:
– Waggener Edstrom (the same PR firm as Microsoft)
– King County Council establishing a social responsibility recognition program;
– Bellevue City Council who is helping us deduplicate and coordinate efforts across other homeless initiatives;
Shelters around the area (incl. Congregation for the Homeless, Sophia Way, Friends of Youth, Acres of Diamond) who are helping us to identify gaps in our programs so we can address pressing issues.
What are some indispensable tools you can’t live without?
Tech-wise, we live on the full Microsoft Office 365 stack as well as Azure. Process-wise, we’ve brought enterprise best practices like standups, prioritization, objectives and key results (OKRs) to track progress. Non-profits need even more structure and direction than for-profit businesses since our resources are even more constrained.
What’s it like being a working parent?
As parents, we can’t do everything. Thankfully, our kids see and appreciate the challenges we undertake. They also understand the cost of living and that things like education and comfort don’t come easily. They see what hard work looks like, and it incentivizes them to work outside and help out at home, whether it is bussing tables, doing laundry or simply cleaning their own rooms.
I’m so grateful to have such a supportive spouse. We both work and we tag-team the home duties together, whether it’s for the kids or for our ageing parents. Just this month, my wife’s dad turned 80; she went back to India while I watched the kids at home and took video conferences remotely. I love how we’re both able to take care of our businesses and still be a family. We live in times where both spouses need to work together and support each other in finding meaning, contribution and value while dealing with the challenge of raising children and supporting our elders.
When all is said and done, what do you hope for HH to achieve?
For everyone to treat each other with the respect they deserve.
Humanize Homelessness is a preferred partner on Beaze Beta.