On his daily commute to his job with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation in downtown Denver, USU Geology alum and advisory board member Andy Taylor MS’02 sees them. On street corners, teens in the throes of homelessness panhandle for spare change and seek shelter in alleyways from summer’s blazing sun or winter’s blistering chill.
“I see these kids and worry about their safety,” says Taylor, general manager of Anadarko’s Wyoming and Utah Assets and the company’s lead geoscience recruiter. “I wonder what will become of them.”
While earning an executive MBA at the University of Denver (DU), the Midwest native worked with a team of business students to launch a social enterprise with Urban Peak, a non-profit devoted to providing outreach services to the city’s homeless youth.
“The organization’s leadership team was very passionate and motivated to work with us, so we decided to team up with them for our social capital project – a requirement of DU’s executive MBA program,” he says. “The requirement of the social capital project is fairly simple. It involves translating business principles taught in the 18-month program into something that does good in the community.”
Established in Denver in 1988, Urban Peak provides an overnight shelter, a daytime drop-in center, street outreach, meals, showers, basic medical care and other services to young people between the ages 15 to 24, who are experiencing homelessness. The program serves more than 2,000 teens and young adults each year.
“Among the challenges facing this population is developing self-sufficiency,” Taylor says. “For most of Urban Peak’s clients, returning to a parent’s home is not an option.”
The program’s staff helps clients write resumes, search for employment and study for GED exams. Urban Peak has typically paired youth with local businesses for their first jobs.
“But many of these teens have no job experience nor have they developed the social and job-hunting skills needed to successfully compete in the workplace,” Taylor says. “To ALUMNI FEATURE address this, Urban Peak’s leadership was in search of an opportunity to provide a safe environment for youth to experience real-world job skill training.
Like most teens, Urban Peak’s clients need to learn such basic skills as being on time for work and handling job duties responsibly. But the youth served by Urban Peak face distinct challenges.
“Many of these young people have experienced significant trauma, abuse and neglect, so they need supervisors who understand their situations and are prepared to handle their special needs,” Taylor says.
But what kind of social enterprise could a non-profit afford? And what kind of business could be successfully operated by young, unskilled and inexperienced workers?
“A previous DU executive MBA team batted around a number of ideas with Urban Peak leadership,” he says. “They conceptually tested a coffee shop, a food truck and a screen printing service, but ultimately concluded the overhead would be cost-prohibitive and these business models were not the right fit for Urban Peak youth.”
Brainstorming sessions yielded the solution: a thrift store – and plans for “Peak Thrift” began to materialize.
“My team immediately got to work on a feasibility study, and we tested the thrift store business model in many of our MBA classes over the course of our year-and-a-half program,” Taylor says.
Stock for the store? No problem. The team would solicit donations, tapping into the Denver community’s enthusiastic commitment to service and recycling. Employee training? The store would offer plenty of unskilled sorting positions, while also providing young employees with opportunities to advance and develop customer service, marketing, sales and management skills. As an added bonus, the store would provide a steady stream of donated provisions for Urban Peak clients in need of clothing and shoes.
The next hurdle, Taylor says, was finding an appropriate and affordable location.
“The store needed to be in a location accessible to both Urban Peak clients and customers,” he says. “It was important to find a site near public transportation and in an area that would appeal to a mix of socioeconomic levels. We also wanted to attract more affluent shoppers, who could expand our donor base.”
In time, the ideal location was identified and Peak Thrift opened with fanfare and a celebratory proclamation from Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, in January, 2016. Situated in Denver’s Chaffee Park neighborhood, Peak Thrift offers simple, inviting displays of clothing, books and household items in a trendy atmosphere.
To date, about a dozen youth have completed the store’s training-based Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act program, which includes 160 hours of paid training. Some of the trainees have secured jobs beyond Peak Thrift and others have accepted jobs in the store.
Taylor, who subsequently joined Urban Peak’s board of directors, says his experience with the organization has been life-changing.
“It’s very gratifying to see these young people build confidence and optimism and gain the means to live on their own,” he says. “It’s up to all of us to reach out and provide the necessary support to help these teens change their lives and get on a path to self-sufficiency.”
Taylor says his employer is also supportive of Urban Peak’s efforts.
“In addition to financial support, Anadarko coordinates monthly food pantry donations and organizes monthly opportunities for its employee teams to purchase and serve breakfast at the organization’s drop-in center,” he says. “It’s a great way to get our employees involved in the local community.
Joshua Zmroczek, director of development and public affairs for Urban Peak, applauds Taylor and Anadarko’s efforts.
“Support from people like Andy is imperative to the continued success of our organization – especially when venturing into new territory; namely, Peak Thrift,” he says. “The energy, enthusiasm and professionalism that Andy and Anadarko bring to special events, board meetings and into the kitchen at our Drop-In Center, when they volunteer to serve breakfast or Tuesday Bar-B-Q, raises the spirits of other community members and board members, our staff and, especially, our youth.”