Jim Gardner knows just how far a bike can take you.
For four years he's been running Good Karma Bikes, an innovative San Jose-based social enterprise (to use the buzz phrase) that is empowering the homeless through bicycles. Think of it as using two wheels to get people back on two feet.
"He wants to change the world through bicycles," says Brian Greenberg, who oversees programs for the helping-the-homeless InnVision Shelter Network and who has seen his agency's clients helped by Good Karma.
Like any Silicon Valley entrepreneur worth watching, Gardner, a fluid dynamics engineer with a Ph.D., has tweaked and tuned his business model, looking for bigger and better opportunities. He started by driving a truck around to homeless shelters, where he and other volunteers would fix bikes that provided vital transportation for the shelter residents. Just over a year ago, he moved his nonprofit into an old cannery warehouse in Midtown, where he set up a retail operation selling accessories and refurbished bikes donated by the public. He added work space for those who wanted to work on their own bikes or learn how to work on their own bikes.
But he never lost sight of his primary customers. The free bike repairs for the homeless continued, and Gardner encouraged the homeless to volunteer to do repairs. He even started hiring some of those volunteers and training them to work on bikes. The practice grew into an idea: Why not create bike mechanic internships for the homeless? Why not a program that provides a temporary paying gig with training wheels, so to speak?
"The goal here is not to cover the world with bike mechanics," Gardner says. "The goal here is to demonstrate employability."
It's tough to find a job when your address is a homeless shelter or under a bridge. It's especially hard if your homelessness came with the baggage of having been in trouble with the law or having been a substance abuser. But when you can point to six months of solid work at Gardner's shop and produce a recommendation from the boss, it all gets a little bit easier.
"For myself, being a Silicon Valley engineer, there were a lot of layoffs," says Gardner, 49, who started Good Karma in the midst of being laid off from his last startup. "There is a barrier to getting back in. And I could just imagine what that barrier was like for guys who'd made some pretty serious mistakes."
Gardner knows the idea works -- not every time, nothing does, and this is a tough population. But he's sponsored a handful of interns with revenue from the retail end of his operation. And most have moved on to other jobs.
Tim Culross, 57, once lived at InnVision's Montgomery Street Inn. He started at Good Karma as a volunteer in March and became a paid intern soon after. In September, he became a full-time employee. He says he's now living in "a tiny little place," but it's a place.
"I'm paying my rent because of Jim Gardner," says Culross, who doesn't dwell on the past, but acknowledges that he made some mistakes that precipitated his slide into homelessness.
"The world can be a very rough place -- literally fighting to survive, living under a bridge, living alongside a creek or whatever," he says.
And it's not often, he adds, that someone gives a homeless guy a chance.
"As small a chance as it is, you can expand on it," Culross says. "It's organizations like this that offer that chance."
Culross plans to expand on his opportunity by taking the certification test to become an aircraft mechanic and landing a job in the field. He's done the course work and recently used crowdsourcing to raise enough money to pay the test fees.
Now, with the help of Wish Book readers, Gardner would like to expand Good Karma's internship program, which he calls "Transportation for Transformation." He envisions a program with up to six interns at once. Each would work their way up. After 90 days of training, interns would begin working 20 hours a week at Good Karma. In 60-day increments, they would go from doing repairs, to doing repairs and dealing with customers, to doing repairs, dealing with customers, managing repair clinics, mentoring other interns, ordering parts and more.
The program's stipend -- $500 a month -- is modest, but the payoff is meant to come once an intern leaves the program.
"It's more than just the actual servicing skills, it's training you how to work with a team, how to show up for work," says Jenny Niklaus, CEO of EHC LifeBuilders, a homeless social service agency that plans to work on the program with Good Karma. "It gets them back on the grid."
Wish Book readers can help with that. Each donation of $50 can fund part of the stipend for a Good Karma intern.
Readers can help Good Karma Bikes expand its bike mechanic internship program for the homeless. Each Wish Book donation of $50 can fund part of the $500 monthly stipend for a Good Karma intern. Donate to Wish Book at www.mercurynews.info/wishbook or clip the coupon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about the Good Karma Bikes, go to www.goodkarmabikes.org.