At the inaugural Bloomberg American Health Summit in 2018, Joni Holifield – founder and president of Baltimore-based nonprofit HeartSmiles – facilitated a panel discussion with teens who had experienced gun violence, including the loss of a parent.
Nanette Smith, who leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work in Baltimore, watched the conversation in awe. “I knew right then that we needed to support this incredible woman and her important work.”
Joni grew up in west Baltimore, and three years earlier she’d turned on the news after the death of Freddie Gray, when unrest consumed the city. “I remembered that feeling of hopelessness and that feeling that nobody loves me, nobody cares,” Joni said. She left her career rising through the ranks as an executive at Comcast, returned to the neighborhood where she’d grown up, and launched HeartSmiles.
HeartSmiles provides young people with a safe place to learn “leadership and entrepreneurship, in the sense of owning your life, owning your situation.” The program connects them with opportunities to put those skills into action, and it’s grown quickly since 2015.
Support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Joni said, “has helped us to create an experience for young people and to build them up, build their capacity as leaders and entrepreneurs, and then put them at the intersection of access and opportunity, so they can now use these skills and see more of the world.” That support also connected Joni with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, an effort to grow small businesses that spans all 50 U.S. states, the U.K., and France, which Bloomberg Philanthropies helped bring to Baltimore in 2016.
Now, graduates of HeartSmiles have access to new job opportunities. Contractor Brendan McCluskey of Trident Builders, who’s a graduate of the 10,000 Small Businesses program in Baltimore, said, “One thing that the construction industry has been suffering from is a chronic shortage of workers. And people like Joni and Nanette made it easy for us to take these kids on.”