Building Bridges: The Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities

| Kelly Pavich, Marriott Foundation

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The Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, established in 1989 by the family of J. Willard Marriott, founder of Marriott International, seeks to help people with disabilities transition into the workforce by pairing them with companies who need entry–level employees, bringing these two groups together in mutually beneficial employment relationships, which fosters the employment of young people with disabilities.

To achieve this objective, the Foundation developed and operates Bridges from School to Work, a program that places young adults exiting special education in jobs with local employers. With a long-term focus on job retention and vocational development, the program continues to work with these youth after placement to help them grow and advance on the job.  

Through our Bridges Program, located in 11 cities across the country, we help more than 1,000 young adults every year with hiring opportunities in these cities. It’s all about transformation in the lives of people with disabilities through the power of a job. This involves employer-driven training, hirings, and mentorships, provided by local companies that are driving changes in their local communities.

We really believe in the employer-driven model. We believe that employers needs are as important as the candidates’ needs. If we don’t have employers, we do not have jobs. They are a critical part of our success. We look at employers needs as much as candidates’ needs.

We also make sure that we are working with diverse industries to provide our candidates with an array of entry-level positions that meet their interests and abilities.

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This spring, we were excited to name Microsoft as Leader of the Quarter to celebrate the company’s commitment to diversity in hiring practices. There are so many different ways we can connect — and Microsoft makes that a priority because it is a company that works as hard as we do to get creative on how we can partner with one another.

Thanks to Microsoft, the level of exposure our students have had to the tech world has brought meaningful changes to at least 25 lives. Microsoft is dedicated to building relationships and understanding that it takes time to develop that pathway for young people. Through this partnership, we’ve had 25 students explore the tech sector, gaining exposure through Microsoft office tours, and making connections with local technology companies and interest groups, like ITKAN, the IT Knowledge and Abilities Network.

One student success story is Orlando, who was one of the first students to attend ITKAN through the Bridges program. His ultimate dream was to get a job in technology, but he was only a high school graduate. Through Microsoft, he was able to meet so many people, make solid connections, and learn about a career in the technology field. Orlando did a job shadow with Adam Hecktman and ended up getting a tour of the Microsoft Technology Center and Blue1647. Orlando also got connections through us and because of his new skill set from Microsoft and ITKAN, he just got hired at Accenture in their technology department. He ended up being the employee of the year last year! Congratulations, Orlando! Credit for this goes to Adam, too. He is so willing to do tours, job shadows, speaking engagements about what it means for tech — we’re thankful for his support.

Most recently, Adam invited us to attend a local hackathon hosted by DePaul University. We took the opportunity to bring our challenge and come with an open mind on how to solve it. After three days of hard work between two different sectors, the collaborative mindset inspired a solution!  We used our 30+ years of data to create a user-friendly technology-based solution that allows staff to easily locate our employers throughout the city for our candidates.

In another delightful moment, we had a DePaul University student, Michael, come into the Bridges office to mentor our students. Michael was really interested in Microsoft, so we connected him with Adam for an informational interview. He ended up getting a job with Microsoft! Michael was so thrilled with his connection to Bridges that when he moved to Houston, he initiated a first-time-ever Skype mock interview for our students (10 in Chicago, 10 in Dallas), all thanks to Microsoft.

With all of this fantastic work, it’s still important to recognize that unemployment is really low right now across the country yet it remains staggeringly high for people with disabilities — that number isn’t going down. We need to understand why this is happening. And we’re here to solve that problem.

Moving forward, we’re working hard to continue this work — we’re seeing that a lot more companies are recruiting people from the disability community, recognizing their different “abilities” and fueling the talent pipeline. We need to continue this to move the needle by first fueling the conversation pipeline. We see that employers have conversations about disabilities with other employers, educators with educators, and nonprofits with other nonprofits. We all need to be having the same conversation with each other so that we can move see meaningful change. We need to get out of our comfort zone. We all need to figure out the solutions together, and we can’t be siloed. We need to have a more collaborative mindset. When we believe in other people, see their potential and help them reach their goals — that’s when we all benefit and the ripple effects are profound.