Jason Jakubowski | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Jason Jakubowski

Background:  

Foodshare is the Feeding America food bank serving Connecticut’s Hartford and Tolland Counties, where Foodshare reports that 127,000 people struggle with hunger. In partnership with the food industry, donors, community leaders and volunteers, Foodshare works to maximize access to nutritious food and other resources that support food security. In 2016, Foodshare distributed 11.5 million meals worth of food to a network of 300 local partner programs including food pantries, shelters and community kitchens.

The Mistake:

When I was first offered the job at Foodshare, I had a fairly decent grasp of both the politics of hunger and the statistical demographics of those who go hungry. Numbers are numbers and facts don’t lie, so I assumed that by absorbing as much data as I could, I would naturally get a feel for the clients we serve.

Well, I was wrong.

During my second week on the job at Foodshare, I had the opportunity to ride along on one of our mobile trucks. Every two weeks, our fleet of Foodshare trucks delivers bread, produce and other food items to 70 partner programs in Hartford and Tolland counties. At each stop, volunteers help coordinate long lines of people who are in need of food.

On the day I rode along with our driver Danny Welch, a 25-year Foodshare veteran, we started by delivering food to the Sacred Heart Church in East Berlin. When we pulled into the parking lot, I was amazed at both the size and eagerness of the crowd. Nearly 120 people clapped as the truck came to a stop and Danny was greeted as a celebrity by a group of loyal patrons, one of whom even gave him a belated birthday card. As the long line made its way around the truck and the patrons filled their bags with their ration of artichokes, crackers, bread and carrots, I realized that the scene playing out in front of me defied every preconceived notion I ever had about who goes hungry.

Our second stop was in Rocky Hill, where we were greeted by Pastor Jack Chamis of the Oasis Church at Elm Ridge Park. More than 150 people stood in the beating sun waiting their turn to go through the line. At this stop I helped one of Pastor Jack’s volunteers distribute ears of corn; and as I did so I was once again drawn in by the faces of the people we were serving. Old and young; black, white, Hispanic; impeccably dressed and not well dressed at all—clearly our clients had come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. The data didn’t matter; these people were real.   

As reliable as data and numbers are, they don’t replace actual people.

The Lesson:

My day on the Mobile Foodshare truck taught me two very important lessons: First, I learned not to ever assume anything about the people you serve. Berlin is an affluent suburb in Connecticut, which in and of itself is the richest state in the union. You wouldn’t think that there would be a lot of hungry people in a place like Berlin; but like me, you’d be wrong. Hunger affects all demographics in all areas—and it doesn’t matter what data set someone falls into. If you’re hungry, you’re hungry, and thankfully our volunteers and employees at Foodshare are there to help.

Second, I learned that as reliable as data and numbers are, they don’t replace actual people. When I was handing out corn at the Rocky Hill stop, numbers didn’t matter, statistics didn’t matter. All that mattered to me was the looks on peoples’ faces. So often in the nonprofit world we get trapped in our offices with spreadsheets and bottom lines. We focus more on outputs than we do on outcomes. At the end of the day, we are first and foremost about improving the lives of actual people. I will carry both of these lessons with me each and every day I have the privilege of leading our team here at Foodshare.

Follow Jason Jakubowski on Twitter @jayjakubowski

Photo courtesy of Jason Jakubowski