Tech company founders like to talk a lot about saving the world and improving the human condition: Think Mark Zuckerberg's promise to "cure all disease," or Elon Musk's recently-expressed disdain for public transit.
This year, Therese Tucker is joining the fray, with an attempt to clothe the homeless people of Los Angeles.
Tucker, founder and CEO of accounting-software specialist BlackLine, in November launched a long-planned charitable endeavor: Attempting to donate a set of new clothing to more than 50,000 L.A.-area homeless people. BlackLine is working with the nonprofit organization Shelter Partnership to distribute 180,000 sweatshirts, pants, underwear, and other items of clothing, which are being supplied to hospitals, shelters, veterans' agencies, and other locations.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority in June counted almost 58,000 homeless people in L.A. County, of whom almost 43,000 were "unsheltered." The overall number was up 23 percent from a year earlier.
"It is a massive problem," says Tucker, a longtime L.A. resident, who runs her company from the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Woodland Hills.
"There are tens of thousands of people just camped in a few-block radius in downtown L.A," she says. "And the missions and whatnot down there do a good job of feeding people." But there's a larger, more widespread problem, she added, of adequate shelter, medical care, clothing, and other support services for people trying to get off the streets.
BlackLine's clothing project is a large-scale undertaking, one that Tucker has been thinking about for a while; she was trying to nail down distribution logistics in June, when I visited her company for my story in Inc.'s October issue. It's also a personal endeavor for Tucker: Her husband is a chaplain at a local hospital, where he sees many homeless people brought in for treatment -- and witnesses the personal items they lose in the process.
"The first thing that happens is [the hospital] basically cuts off their clothing and throws it away," Tucker says. As a result, "homeless people will typically not go into the hospital until they're really, really sick." It's not unusual for someone to be forced to check out in a hospital gown or in clothing scrounged from the lost-and-found bins, Tucker says: "It's very demoralizing."
Tucker, a detail-oriented and focused engineer who spent 17 years building her startup into a now-public company with a $1.8 billion market cap, is upfront about the size of the problem she's trying to tackle -- and about some of the bugs she has yet to fix. Specifically, she said this month, BlackLine and its nonprofit partners still haven't fully figured out how to donate the clothing so that it reaches the people who most need it at that moment, rather than people who are just taking it because it's there.
"I'm not sure that we've figured out the distribution piece yet, so I'm not sure that it's getting to right people--and frankly I'm not sure that it's the right stuff yet," she says.
For example, at one of the soup kitchens where BlackLine and its partners set up clothing distribution tables, "people came through and got lunch, and then they came through and took free clothing, and in some cases we didn't have the right sizes but they took it anyway, because they could trade it or barter with it. It wasn't necessarily need-based," Tucker says. "It's an ongoing experiment."