Merry Korn’s fortitude to push through the fear of being an entrepreneur has now given many populations typically challenged to find work the opportunity for gainful employment. Her staffing firm venture Pearl Interactive Network gives employment priority to disabled veterans, veterans, military spouses, people with disabilities and people living in geographically challenged areas.
A clinical social worker by background, Korn cut her teeth in the business world as one of the four founders of national medical management company American Health. She says that the experience gave her the opportunity to work along side some great business minds, while also learning about scalability.
However it would be necessity and ingenuity that would lead to Pearl’s founding. She left American Health and took another position that didn’t go as expected to say the least.
“It lasted two months and I was a single mother with two getting-ready-for-college kids,” Korn says.
Worried she couldn’t find another job, she started Pearl in 2004. It was a time before social enterprise was a buzzword, but Korn still knew she needed to combine business and purpose.
Her time spent in the corporate world left her asking where her footprint would be. She engaged with a career consultant and vocational testing revealed her heart lie in the very core of what social enterprises are all about – she was to own a business with a social mission.
“I wasn’t making the world better but then, with the career testing, it was invaluable,” Korn says. “If I could find a way to make this business that really touches people, then I’m living my mission.”
Korn’s first round of staffing through Pearl was hiring individuals with physical disabilities to do phone work for organizations and associations that needed help raising money. She found her employees to be grateful for the opportunity, showing dedication through hard work and results.
Korn worked through the fear of being an entrepreneur her first few years in business, often fighting off the feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing,” but a pivotal moment came in 2007. She was up for a grant that would basically allow her to keep doing what she was doing, but she had to put a business plan together. That made her realize how much more opportunity was out there.
Friend and fellow business owner Pat Gibson introduced Korn to certifications.
“Pat was the one who said, ‘You know what you really need to do is become certified as a women business owner,'” Korn says.
Becoming a certified women-owned business meant Pearl would be eligible for government contracts. The contacts the firm had acquired so far had largely been short-term contracts. Federal contracts would mean large, stable longer-term opportunities.
“If we were really going to do something significant, we needed federal contracts,” Korn says.
Pearl hired a business development manager in Washington, D.C., right in the heart of the action. It would prove to be the right decision as they landed a $32 million four-year contract.
“That was a game-changer,” Korn says.
Today Pearl boasts $12.5 million in sales with 450 employees in 26 states across the country. Those 450 employees staff administrative positions, back office support, call centers and tier one help desk support.
“The common denominator is contact center,” Korn says.
Some employees are home-based and others go to a brick-and-mortar facility, but hiring the niche workforce is always the top priority. The percentage of niche workforce tends to depend on the geographic area, but, “We have about 50 to 60 home-based employees and of those home-based about 65 percent are niche,” Korn says.
Pearl plans to expand their social enterprise into new industries, specifically insurance.
“The next step in our journey is we’ve hired four people in Washington to help us get more government contracts,” Korn says, including one specialist in the insurance industry.
The Pearl model is looking to be a good fit for the property/casualty insurance. Korn says a massive wave of retirement leaves the need for a new workforce. To do so, Pearl has created a one-of-a-kind apprenticeship program with Ohio Dominican University to help carriers that are interested in hiring the niche Pearl workforce.
Korn hopes Pearl will be at 1,000 – 1,500 employees over the next three to five years. A succession plan is also in the works of either moving towards an employee-owned business model or individuals that will value and continue the social mission.
“Social enterprise is an incredible vehicle for touching people who need to be touched,” Korn says. And she wants that mission to continue and grow.
Korn hopes other business owners will also think social enterprise.
“It’s such a win-win,” she says.
As the industry continues to grow, “I just love what I’m seeing,” Korn says.
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