Adam Motiwala met his business partner Ibn Hipps at the McPherson Square metro stop.
That’s where Hipps was selling copies of Street Sense, a D.C. newspaper that publishes writers experiencing homelessness, for $2 a piece.
“I used to see him every day,” said Motiwala. At first, he thought Hipps’s business was bogus. But over time, he got to know him and “started reading his stories.”
"When you're constantly facing challenges, you become very creative and very resourceful."
Then in early 2014 Motiwala, 30, a VP account manager at local marketing firm Fifth Tribe, was commissioned to produce a blog post for a real estate firm.
He decided to outsource to a good writer he knew personally. Hipps took the assignment as an outside contractor, made $50 and gained some marketing experience in the process.
Soon, Motiwala realized that with the proper training, more people left at the margins of this economy might be able to enter the job market of the 21st century.
“They were already excluded from the existing economy,” said Motiwala. The idea is to give them the tools “to be able to participate in the next wave of jobs.”
So he founded Digital Hope, a marketing training workshop in partnership with Street Sense.
After raising $10,000 in grants from the D.C. Social Innovation Project and George Washington University’s Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning, Motiwala started holding regular classes.
Every Thursday of the 16-week semester, which will close this month, a handful of students congregate in the newsroom to broaden their job prospects — and start a portfolio.
They’re working and learning at the same time. Digital Hope students are paid $25 for each class, plus a bonus for regular attendance.
This creates an environment where students are accountable for their work, that also acknowledges the opportunity cost of attendance.
It’s about “treating them with dignity,” said Motiwala. As Hipps had told him, he said, “we don’t want a hand-out, we want a hand up.”
"It's a win-win if I learn how to market myself. It's going to help overall with my financial goals."
Some of Motiwala’s students are practically disqualified from the traditional job market. If they’re homeless, they have no address to put down on their resume. If they went to prison, they are red flagged as soon as a company runs a background check.
“The employers don’t want to take the risks,” said Motiwala.
But things are a little different on the internet, where the final product trumps all, Motiwala said. “They don’t discriminate based on your felony record or if you have or don’t have an address.”
During a recent class, three students were searching for pictures to illustrate a blog post for a healthcare clinic in California.
After some prodding from Motiwala, they knew exactly where to look: the organization’s Facebook page.
His students display an uncommon amount of creativity and grit, said Motiwala.
“If your back is against the wall … you’re constantly overcoming different hurdles,” he said. “When you’re constantly facing challenges, you become very creative and very resourceful.”
Reggie Black, 30, a student in the class and a formerly homeless activist, explained: “It’s a win-win if I learn how to market myself,” he said. “It’s going to help overall with my financial goals.” Adding, “This is just another way I can help other groups in the city.”