Program Builds Jobs From the Ground Up

WHILE many companies are considering worker-training programs just for their own employees, others, such as Levi Strauss, are working to improve the local economies in which they operate.

"We were focused on job training and a lot of people were getting jobs, but they needed more," says Deborah Wallace, manager of the national grants program at the San Francisco-based Levi Strauss Foundation.

The clothing manufacturer spends $2.5 million a year on job training, child care, literacy classes, and micro-loan support for fledgling entrepreneurs in towns and cities across the country where Levi plants are located.

"In many places, we may be the only game in town," she says.

"Healthier communities stimulate the business environment," says Ms. Wallace, who admits that while the work she oversees ultimately benefits her company, such corporate philanthropy is difficult because of the recession. "The apparent payback isn't in three months or even a year. It may be 12 years down the road, and that means companies must take a long-term perspective."

One of the programs Levis helps fund is the Women's Initiative for Self Employment (WISE). Self-employment now accounts for the greatest number of new jobs, and women represent the largest share of that growth.

While WISE targets out-of-work or job-insecure low- and moderate-income women, it has also helped the homeless. Only a small percentage of the women who go through the program actually embark on an enterprise, but those who do usually succeed.

"When we make a loan, we minimize our risk by requiring women to take a 12-week training class. We gauge their readiness to take on the added responsibility, their self-esteem, their time and family management skills," WISE executive director Etienne LeGrand says.

WISE makes loans of up to $10,000. Only 12 percent of the 1,500 women who have gone through WISE have started businesses, and only half that number have borrowed from WISE. But, Ms. LeGrand says, "We found that 75 percent of the businesses we helped to start are still out there. And our loan-default rate is 3 percent."

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