USC Marshall: Building A Do-Gooder Brigade To Tackle Society’s Ills

Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

Adlai Wertman in class. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

‘FOR ME, GOING TO WALL STREET WAS A MISTAKE’

Wertman, 56, certainly knows the pesky voice in the back of the head, the voice that says despite enjoying a comfortable and successful life, there’s something more you’re meant to be. Wertman, whose parents were both teachers from Queens, New York, spent nearly two decades on Wall Street. He topped out as a managing director for Prudential Securities where he managed nearly $25 billion in debt financing and oversaw offices in Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And, concedes Wertman, he was miserable nearly every day.

“For me, going to Wall Street was a mistake. I never should have done it,” he says. “You can ask my wife, I barely had a happy day in 18 years on Wall Street. I just happened to be good at it. But I was pretty miserable.”

Wertman spent the 18 years simultaneously addicted to the Wall Street game while feeling a call to social service. “Nobody leaves Wall Street voluntarily,” Wertman insists. “Some can’t hack it, get fired, or quit. But it’s Wall Street, man. You’re the investment bankers. You’re the kings of the universe. Nobody leaves. But I always assumed I was going to leave and do community work. It was just a matter of when.”

FROM WALL STREET TO SKID ROW…THE GOOD WAY

The when started by distancing himself. He uprooted his family and moved coasts to run Prudential’s Los Angeles office. And in 2000, soon after the move, Wertman took a stroll from his downtown office. What he found would finally liberate him from Wall Street’s grasp and alter his life forever.

“I remember standing on Main Street, which is now cute restaurants, but at the time, literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of homeless people in tents were smoking crack, shooting up heroin on this block. And I remember standing on the block—because even in New York we didn’t have anything like that—and looking up and seeing my office on the 46th floor, not even eight blocks away. And I was saying, how is this possible? That there’s all this wealth, here’s L.A., and yet this horrible thing exists. And I literally couldn’t sleep at night. This is not America. This is not human. There is no reason for this.”

Wertman discovered Skid Row. The 54-block swath of ghetto bordered by 3rd Street to the north, 7th Street to the south, Alameda Street to the east and Main Street to the west has been inhabited by society’s marginalized since the end of the 19th century, when mainly transients and seasonal workers staked claim to the area. A population comprised of mainly single adult men fled their lives back east to work in petroleum, automotive and sometimes entertainment. Single room hotels and social service agencies began to pop up. When the Great Depression hit in the 30’s, the low income housing and services were already in place to handle those hit the hardest. Now, nearly 20,000 people are smashed into the area that holds about 2,500 households.

SOLVING A NEW ECONOMIC PROBLEM

To be sure, Wertman has his opinions on what exactly went wrong with Skid Row and what’s behind the poverty afflicting its inhabitants. Just the mention of Skid Row changes his normal California-cool demeanor to passion and frustration. But, bottom line, what he sees is a major economic problem and opportunity.

“It took no research for me to figure out homelessness is an economic problem,” explains Wertman. “It’s not a disease to be cured. It’s about jobs and housing prices. And that fit with something where I thought I could have impact because my background was economics and business.”

Wertman quit Prudential Securities and began researching organizations serving Skid Row. He ultimately found Chrysalis. Founded in 1984 by then 22-year-old John Dillon with his own money, Chrysalis has been focused on Skid Row for more than three decades. Originally, it was a clothing distribution center but quickly expanded into Skid Row’s first exclusive employment program. Now, some 31 years later, Chrysalis has had multiple million-dollar expansions and relocations and boasts three centers.