After Jacori Garrett stood up in front of 800 people last year, to share his story and introduce Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an awards event, the mayor jokingly said, “Why do I have to follow this guy?”
What Emanuel and many who meet Garrett realize is there’s something special about the 20-year-old Chicagoan, who works as a customer service associate at Walgreens. Garrett, who has suffered tragedy after tragedy – including his father’s murder – was at the podium that day to represent Walgreens and Skills for Chicagoland’s Future (SCF), a program that matches businesses with qualified unemployed and underemployed job seekers to give them a leg up in promising careers.
Since 2014, Walgreens has partnered with SCF to build those bridges between job seekers and employers in a city where the average unemployment rate in some neighborhoods is as high as 22.6 percent – well above the national average.
“SCF functions like an extension arm of our recruiting team, helping us find qualified candidates that fit our job postings,” says Christine Kallis Rivera, principal for career development in human resources at Walgreens. “They help equip people with the skills they need to find a job. SCF also works with candidates on interview prep to help ensure they’re prepared and are set up for success.”
In the last four years, Walgreens – which is headquartered in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago – hired 80 team members through SCF and donated $225,000 as a way to give back to their hometown community. Last year, the company also deepened their charitable partnership by helping to co-develop the Pivot to Success program within SCF. Pivot to Success provides 10 college-age individuals, including Garrett, with educational funding, supportive services, mentoring and a career path designed for long-term employment, so they can thrive in the job they land through SCF. The Walgreens team members hired through SCF and Pivot to Success have to perform well in their jobs to move up in the company, just like traditional candidates, but these programs help provide extra support.
“As the pilot employer for Pivot to Success, we’re leading the way for other major Chicago area employers to follow the same framework to hire young people who have been trained and vetted by SCF,” says Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance, who’s also on the board of directors for SCF.
“There’s great talent in all demographics,” says Wilson-Thompson. “Partnering with SCF allows us the opportunity to have access to a diverse range of the best talent. It’s about being purpose driven and inspiring our own workforce. In this case, the team members are also inspiring us, and we hope to continue to learn from our work in Chicago and potentially grow the program to other metro areas in the future.”
Garrett, who also goes by “Cori,” was selected to speak at the SCF event because his story –overcoming the unthinkable to land a stable job with good career prospects – makes him an ideal representation of what the organization is trying to accomplish.
In 2017, he was a freshman away at college in Wisconsin, struggling to balance two part-time jobs with his studies, pay bills and help his family after a combination of tragedies: his brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and his grandparents’ house had burned to the ground. Garrett was already feeling the pull to return home to Chicago when a friend sent him a link to the SCF program.
That convinced him to return.
“I applied for a job with Walgreens through Pivot to Success because it seemed to offer a lot of help with school/work balance, which is always a challenge,” says Garrett.
Out of 2,500 vetted candidates for Pivot to Success, Garrett became one of 55 finalists for open Walgreens positions. “As an area recruiter for Walgreens, I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates,” says Jason Thomas, Garrett's manager. “I could tell right away that Cori was one in million. He’s a great communicator, has an exceptional work ethic and had a twinkle in his eyes when I met him.” Thomas hired him for a customer service associate position through Pivot to Success, and Garrett was on the sales floor a week later.
Garrett, along with the nine other young Chicagoans hired by Walgreens through Pivot to Success last year, is now on a guided path toward a career in retail management. In addition to working their jobs at Walgreens, Garrett and the other participants attend weekly professional development workshops at Harold Washington College in Chicago, with Walgreens paying for expenses that grants don’t cover. The sessions address a broad array of topics focusing on the whole person, from work/life balance to success at school or college to Walgreens-specific job training.
Pivot team members are also matched with a career mentor within Walgreens management, and a mentor for life issues through the Chicago non-profit One Million Degrees. Garrett was paired with Tiah Harris, a Chicago-area store manager, as his Walgreens mentor.
“I like the one-on-one approach to the mentorship,” says Harris. “I get to sit down with Jacori and talk about whatever's on his mind –sports, his family, his aspirations beyond where he is now. He understands it’s a process, and he’s willing to do the work to get where he wants to be. He has what it takes.”
Garrett had only been with Walgreens two months when his family suffered two more unspeakable tragedies. Within a month of each other, his cousin and his father were both shot and killed. Garrett is hard pressed to explain how he stayed strong. “I just started taking it day by day,” he says. “With people like my manager and Tiah checking in on me, it's almost impossible to really fail. They’re always offering support.”
Garrett has set his sights on management – a path that first appealed to him after high school aptitude tests confirmed he’s good with people. His plan is to earn not just his bachelor’s degree but a master’s.
“For me, SCF has been a bridge to a company like Walgreens,” he explains. “They help fill in any gaps that could complicate pursuing this career and finishing my education. I’m the second in my family with a high school diploma and the first to pursue college. In the end, I just can’t afford to let my family down.”