Ex-Investment Banker Builds Army of Social Entrepreneurs

Adlai Wertman

Adlai Wertman spent 18 years on Wall Street, but he calls his time there “an aberration.”

“I was born with a high IQ,” says Wertman, a professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “I was born with the ability to bullshit. I was born with a set of looks that didn’t make people throw up when they had lunch with me. But none of those had anything to do with me. It was just some weird coincidence of birth.”

The former Bear Stearns investment banker and Wharton alum felt that he’d been using assets he hadn’t earned—whiteness, parents who valued education, et cetera—simply to maximize his income. That’s fine for plenty of people, but Wertman couldn’t shake the feeling that he should be using those assets for something more. “I always wondered when the day would come when I would quit that and get back to the community service that I always thought I would be doing as a grownup,” he says.

That day has long passed. For the past six and one-half years, Wertman has been teaching entrepreneurship and directing Marshall’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, which provides members of the USC community with opportunities to alleviate poverty through business. Earlier this year, the center received a $5 million naming gift from the Brittingham Family Foundation; on Feb. 18, the center announced a one-year Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship (MSSE). “As far as we can tell, it’s the first in the country,” Wertman says.

SKID ROW: ‘A REMARKABLE, FANTASTIC CHANGE’

Wertman didn’t just stroll from Wall Street to academia, though. He made a long stop on Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, where he was the CEO of Chrysalis, a nonprofit that helps the homeless find and keep jobs. “It’s really hard to walk away, but ultimately, my life got 1000% better—10,000% better—when I started working on Skid Row,” he says. “It was a remarkable, fantastic change.”

That’s not to say it was easy. Chrysalis serves a tough population. “These were folks who were typically in their 40s, had spent most—if not all—of their adult lives in a cycle of homelessness, jail, streets, and rehab, and they had mostly never worked,” Wertman explains. Chrysalis gave them help in the form of classes, computers, bus tokens, and so forth, and that help alone enabled about 55% of the group to get jobs. Unfortunately, Chrysalis’ case workers had deemed the rest unemployable. Nobody wanted to take them on—“and even if someone did, there’s a good chance they would’ve punched out their boss Monday morning,” Wertman says.

But Wertman and his team came up with an unorthodox solution: Give them their first jobs. “We needed to build a business that would be able to hire a thousand homeless people with no background, who were unemployable, with no skills—not an easy thing to do,” he says. By the time Wertman left Chrysalis, though, that business—a street cleaning operation—made an unprecedented $4.5 million a year.