Margo Walsh ’82 creates opportunities for hundreds of Mainers looking for a fresh start
In Malcolm Gladwell-speak, Margo Walsh is a “connector.” She became a successful recruiter after graduating from Wheaton College, working with organizations like Goldman Sachs and HR consulting firm Hewitt to “help put people with the right other people,” as she puts it. But in 2011, born out of her own experience recovering from substance abuse disorder a decade earlier, Margo left the corporate world to create MaineWorks, an employment agency whose mission is to create dignified working lives for people who face barriers to workforce re-entry, including individuals recovering from addiction, people with felony convictions, and veterans facing re-entry obstacles.
Most temporary staffing agencies bring in workers one day at a time, paying them at the end of each workday. In Margo’s view, this purely transactional relationship is a poor model for individuals in need of structure and stability. “You can exploit these people easily because, frankly, they expect to be exploited,” she says. “The difference with us is that we ask, ‘Are you secure with where you’re staying? What are you eating? How are your teeth?’” MaineWorks employs its workers, which among other things makes them eligible for unemployment benefits.
The agency offers a range of services to Maine’s largest construction general contractors, including Wright-Ryan and Cianbro. Margo first connected with Wright-Ryan by way of her boots-on-the-ground marketing approach, bringing in coffee and donuts during the company’s work on the Press Hotel in Portland. “John Ryan and Tom Wright quickly came to value the MaineWorks mission of dignified employment through transitional staffing,” says Margo.
Wright-Ryan recently completed construction of Waynflete’s new Lower School. MaineWorks employees were on the job, providing services ranging from cleanup to skilled carpentry (like all MaineWorks clients, Wright-Ryan pays skilled laborers at a rate commensurate with their experience). “Wright-Ryan’s site supervisor, Millard Nadeau, really exemplified the type of stewardship that these young men need modeled,” Margo recalls. “Showing up, acting right, and being accountable.”
Employee skills development is key to the success of the MaineWorks model. “It is absolutely critical that individuals who have barriers to employment have the opportunity to develop trade skills,” she says. Frustrated by job training programs that are ill-funded and lack teeth, Margo wasn’t willing to wait. She launched an in-house constructions skills program and a property services division—both aimed at helping MaineWorks to train and retain employees.
Margo believes that these programs can be expanded through collaborative workforce development projects with organizations like Goodwill of Northern New England, local community colleges, and CEI, a longtime financial partner that provided the organization with an initial seed loan. These initiatives can begin at the high school level through work with PATHS (greater Portland’s career and technical education high school that prepares students for a range of “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand careers.”) “This is where the critical diversion can happen,” Margo says. “These ‘lost boys’ who are showing a tendency to addiction can be redirected toward meaningful work through these construction trade programs.”
As MaineWorks grew, Margo came to realize that more services were needed. “People with no money are dead in the water,” she says. “Even before they can find and hold down a job—they need housing, they need clothing, they need help with health-related issues, they need bus passes or a driver’s license. There had to be a catalyst to help bridge the gap between hopelessness and resiliency.”
Margo turned her attention to these needs as MaineWorks became more self-sustaining. In 2017, she co-founded the nonprofit Maine Recovery Fund with her sister Elaine Walsh Carney ’87, a philanthropy advisor in Wyoming who also serves as president of the Fund. Maine Recovery Fund provides a social needs evaluation and other “wraparound” services to connect people to local resources and, as Margo puts it, “help them get from absolutely stuck to moving forward in life.”
In 2013, MaineWorks became the first organization in Maine to be certified by global nonprofit B Lab as a “B Corporation.” B Lab vets its members to ensure that “they meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” Member organizations go through a stringent recertification process every two years.
For the past three years, MaineWorks has been recognized on B Lab’s “Best for Customers” honoree list, putting it in the top 10 percent of B Corporations around the world based on a third-party assessment of impact on economic empowerment for the underserved and service to in-need populations.
In 2014, MaineWorks was recognized as the most successful innovative business in Maine by SCORE. Margo was also honored as one of five Women to Watch by Mainebiz Magazine. She is in demand for speaking engagements ranging from local service clubs to the Hussey Leadership Conference.
Margo believes that Waynflete had a strong influence on her decision to help marginalized people. “Waynflete’s principles correlate precisely with what I’m doing today,” she says. “All the social enterprise seeds were there. It was also an outside-of-the-box learning experience that gave me the confidence to go off and do big things. I believe that MaineWorks helps save lives—and it’s very Waynflete of me to make that kind of bold statement!”