|Sam Mizrahi, President and CEO of SwissJust America, founded the Fondation Forge in 2005.|
Founder Sam Mizrahi fulfills lifelong dream with Fondation Forge.
Children have always held a special place in Sam Mizrahi’s heart. As a young boy growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was filled with a desire to help his friends in any way he could, always ready with a helping hand and a willing heart.
If you spend even a few minutes with him today, you’ll quickly come to realize the desire born in his youth has never left him. Today, the President and CEO of SwissJust America, a party-plan company based in South America, devotes his time to the Fondation Forge, a nonprofit organization he founded that operates across the American continent.
Through the success of SwissJust, the foundation has been able to help more than 1,500 disadvantaged children learn job skills and value training that will allow them to create better lives and brighter futures.
“Here, thank God for this direct selling company we set up 20 years ago, we have been able to expand, to prosper and to find the funds for this foundation,” Mizrahi says. “It’s a dream come true. This is really the most wonderful gift I have ever received.”
Setting the Foundation
In 1992, Mizrahi was leading a consumer goods conglomerate in Argentina when he met Ernst Justrich during a business trip to Germany. Justrich was the son of Just (pronounced yoost) Founder Ulrich Justrich, who created a direct selling company that sold a broad range of natural products based on essential oils designed to stimulate physical and psychological well-being.
Mizrahi and Justrich struck up a friendship that resulted in the formation of a marketing, selling and distribution arm of Just in Argentina, SwissJust America. Mizrahi, who was formally educated in Philadelphia, became the President and CEO of SwissJust. From his headquarters in Buenos Aires, he quickly grew the company, expanding into Uruguay, Chile, Central America and Mexico. In 2001, retail sales for SwissJust America reached $50 million.
In 2003, Mizrahi opened an office in the United States targeting the Hispanic population and was met with tremendous results. SwissJust USA, based in Miami and headed by Mizrahi’s son, Jacques, realized $3 million in retail sales in 18 months.
With the continued success of SwissJust America and the now-growing success of SwissJust USA, Sam Mizrahi embarked on a project that, in his mind, had been long overdue: helping youths from poor economic and social means achieve better lives. Fondation Forge, which he founded in 2005, is entirely funded through the resources generated by the company.
“Institutions like the World Bank, International Bank and UNESCO have taken an interest in us,” Mizrahi says. “We are not actively seeking funding from the outside; however, the more youngsters we help, the better we achieve our goal. So far, we have been able to fund it on our own.”
The support and encouragement of the SwissJust consultants have been huge factors in the progress the foundation has made in the past three years, Mizrahi says. “They are very proud of this, very happy about it. The mission of our company involves sentiments, feelings and heart. Our people feel they are doing something for the well-being of their fellow human beings. While we try to keep it separate from their work, they are very proud because they feel they are helping these youngsters.”
Putting the Dream in Motion
For years, Mizrahi had been counseling young professionals in their career decisions, volunteering to be the sounding board for their dreams and hopes. In 2005, with the desire to personally contribute to building a fairer world, he turned his attention to the plight of the poor young men and women in South America whose chances of success in the business world are woefully slim.
Mizrahi was well-aware of the serious and growing social problem facing Argentina and other countries in Latin America. Statistics show that youths from poorer households have an extremely hard time finding quality jobs, increasing the risk of high unemployment and, ultimately, decreasing their chances of securing better futures for themselves.
Mizrahi’s goal was to help these youths find quality employment through the creation of a foundation that would provide free job skill and values training. He knew of no job placement program that provided such hope for these young people, and so he founded Fondation Forge, offering equal opportunities for all—and Mizrahi the opportunity to formalize his role as a mentor and share the most important lesson he had learned in his life: the unique value of work.
“Giving is absolutely the best way of receiving in life,” Mizrahi says. “I had a chance to make a dream finally come true, and here we are enjoying it, and it is a wonderful thing.”
Three years later, Fondation Forge is a catalyst for change in Latin America, forging young men and women into individuals fully prepared for a modern labor market. With the support of numerous people committed to social welfare, Mizrahi has set in motion an innovative training and employment system that now allows access to job opportunities for youths from low-income families, increasing their chances for a better quality of life.
SwissJust America President Sam Mizrahi speaks to 2008 graduates of Fondation Forge in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Providing Training to Students
Fondation Forge’s Training and Employment program complements the public high-school educational system, offering 16- to 20-year-olds technical skill sets specifically geared to the requirements of today’s work environment. The innovative system focuses on four core actions: designing courses that develop good employees as well as decent human beings; providing free training courses while encouraging students to finish school; building the bridge between graduates and select companies in the network; and offering first-year tutoring to those graduates employed.
In order to qualify for the program, students must be in the process of completing high school, and, most important, they must graduate. Once they qualify, they are then enrolled in one of five specialty programs: Commercial (salesclerk, cashier, customer-service representative, shelf stacker, call-center operator, sales promoter, junior pollster); Gastronomy and Hotel Management (waiter/waitress, maitre d’, assistant waiter); Administrative (administrative assistant, receptionist, telephone operator, office clerk); Operations and Production (logistics assistant, quality-control operator, industrial technician); and IT (junior programmer, testing, data entry, poll tabulator).
Upon completion of the program, students gain privileged access to the foundation’s network of businesses. What touches Mizrahi most is the change he sees in these students. “I remember seeing them when they came to us and seeing them [upon completing the program]—the way they stand up, they way they look at the future,” Mizrahi says. “There is a gleam, a shine, in their eyes. They are looking at the future with bright eyes.”
To date, more than 1,500 students have taken advantage of the program and are reaping the benefits of the training offered.
Instilling Much-Needed Values
While Fondation Forge focuses on teaching youths the essential skills needed to work in the business world, an equal amount of importance is placed on teaching morals and ethics, the portion of the program future employers value most.
That attitude is based on the three H’s: honesty, humility and humanity. Moral content, such as responsibility, solidarity, service attitude, quest for excellence, respect for people and love of work, are covered in the program, providing students the opportunity for personal development in addition to the technical training received.
“The program’s greatest achievement is the transformation we see, not so much in the fact that they learn skills for the job, but in their attitudes, their values,” Mizrahi says. “We try to forge into them an attitude toward life. Character, values—things that have nothing to do with making money or getting a job. We have to help them see a new perspective in life, that honesty is better than dishonesty.”
Mizrahi notes that this value training is critical to the success of the program, as children from poorer families tend to feel excluded from society and form bleak outlooks for what the future holds for them in breaking the cycle of poverty. Teaching these values increases their self-esteem.
“They learn how to develop their life plan, they learn that work is the ultimate tool to enhance their well-being, they begin to feel self-confident, their sense of responsibility increases, and, in general, they foster the hope of a better life,” Mizrahi says.
In short, they are empowered with the belief that they are wanted and valued people.
Building a Business Network
While the skills training and values instilled in youths by Fondation Forge provide them with the tools necessary to achieve better lives—and, consequently, improve society—it is the company’s association with other businesses that ultimately affords youths the opportunities to put their knowledge into practical application.
In the past three years, Forge has connected with more than 250 high-quality employers, including major American corporations, who have joined forces with SwissJust to help develop good employees and, more important, individuals with strong values.
“We spent a lot of time in the beginning and as we went along coaching and explaining to these companies,” Mizrahi says. “In order for us to really develop this project in a good way, we had to have proper partners. In Latin America, there are many companies that do not treat their people the way they should—they don’t pay them enough or pay them under the table or the benefits are not good. We have picked the best companies because we feel in a very humble way, not a presumptuous way, that this project deserves the very best.”
Companies such as McDonald’s, Blockbuster, TNT, Coca-Cola and IBM have joined the list of businesses based in Argentina (Blaisten, Café Martínez, C&A, Cheeky, Como Quieres Que Te Quiera, Falabella, Hotel Alvear, NH Hoteles, Rodizio, The Coffee Store) and Uruguay (Tiempost, Los 4 Ases, Medierías Sísi, Mosca, Creditel, InGenia, Danone, Palacio de la Música) who have committed to hiring graduates of the Fondation Forge program, ensuring that the students have stable jobs and the chance for upward mobility. In addition, many of these companies have offered their time and insight in developing technical training content for the foundation’s program.
“For us, it’s very important that these kids, first of all, have a good experience in their first job and not end up hating work,” Mizrahi says. “For many of them, work is a bad word because they hear bad things at home from their parents. I remember my first day of work, and it was a good experience. It made all the difference to me. So I give a lot of importance to the experience they will have after they graduate. A substantial part of our effort is the tutoring program, where we keep in constant touch. We have to be sure that the first year is going right. This is very much appreciated by the kids and the employers.”
It is Mizrahi’s hope that many more companies throughout the Americas will engage in the foundation’s mission and offer youths the chance to be contributing members of society.
Expanding the Dream
Currently, Fondation Forge has three established centers of learning in South America: the Argentina Headquarters & South Buenos Aires Center and the Pilar Center in Buenos Aires and the Montevideo Center in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Mizrahi’s goal to expand throughout the Americas by adding one new center each year was temporarily put on hold in 2009 when the worldwide recession caused a currency devaluation. However, he expects to open another new center in 2010 and one thereafter every year until centers are available throughout South and Central America. Expansion into the United States is planned for the future as well.
In preparation for the expansion, the foundation is fine-tuning its processes to ensure that the educational, work placement and tutoring services offered meet the needs of youths across all geographic areas. Ideally, Fondation Forge would like to create a model that can be easily duplicated in all countries. Therefore, it continues to research all youth segments as well as the workforce market where new centers will be developed.
“We will continue to put forth our best efforts so that thousands and thousands of young boys and girls graduating from Forge who have come to terms with their lives will keep spreading hope and the joy of living across America,” Mizrahi says.
Looking to the Future
In 2008, 350 young men and women graduated from the Fondation Forge program, and to this day, all of them continue to be gainfully employed. Upon seeing the first graduates, Mizrahi admits to being overwhelmed with emotion.
“It was wonderful to see the dream come true, to know we were helping these young men and women,” he says. “It caused a commotion in my heart.”
Another 650 students will graduate from Fondation Forge in 2009, and 1,500 are expected to complete the program in 2010.
The future growth and expansion of the foundation will be directly affected by the growth of SwissJust. While the company’s consultants are not involved in funding the foundation, Mizrahi notes that it will be through their hard work that the Fondation Forge mission to provide hope for the future for thousands of youths is realized.
As for Mizrahi, while the SwissJust business will continue to occupy much of his time, he will continue to oversee the strategic aspects of Fondation Forge, secure in the knowledge that the team managing the day-to-day operations of the foundation does so with the same level of passion, innovation, excellence and heart on which he built it.