UCD Employee Spotlight: Fontaine Gutierrez

An image of Fontaine Gutierrez
Sep 12, 2023 2 months ago

West Philadelphia Skills Initiative Manager of Outreach and Communications Fontaine Gutierrez’s journey to working in workforce development began before she was even born. It was the 1970s, and Fontaine’s grandparents decided to uproot their family of six to move to Philadelphia to find opportunity in America.

“They didn’t have much in El Salvador,” Fontaine explains. “They spoke zero English and had no family here to help them, but they had faith in Philadelphia.” They settled in Germantown and quickly found support from their neighbors, learned how to navigate systems like public transportation, and eventually connected to factory work. “Everyone really took care of one another, which is really indicative of Philly.”  

Fontaine grew up in the lower Northeast where her mom was a block captain. Watching her mother organize activities like block clean-ups and summer meal programs, Fontaine felt called to serve her community and spent Saturdays volunteering at a senior center. By high school, the family moved to South Jersey, but Fontaine found she missed Philadelphia and was determined to get back. She did well enough to earn a scholarship offer to attend Drexel University’s design school, bringing her back to the city. 

“There was absolutely no way I could afford college without a scholarship,” Fontaine explains. She said the program was “half business,” and included courses like accounting and marketing in addition to studying fine arts. Toward the end of her time at Drexel, Fontaine found herself drawn to nonprofit branding and marketing, and after graduation accepted a communications fellowship at a reproductive justice nonprofit in Boston.  

She enjoyed the work, but again felt herself being pulled back to Philadelphia. She had left the city twice, and twice decided to return. “That’s one of my favorite things about the city,” she says. “It’ll always be here for you. You can leave as many times as you want, but you can also come back as many times as you want.” 

After a year in Boston, Fontaine took a position at Philly AIDS Thrift, a local non-profit that runs a donation-based store that turns sales into funds for local organizations involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and stigma reduction. Fontaine worked as the clothing department manager and focused on improving daily operations through data collection while training and evaluating existing staff and volunteers to support with career development.  

The experience she gained at Philly AIDS Thrift led to a friend recommending she apply for a position with The Wardrobe (formerly Career Wardrobe), a nonprofit social enterprise that aims to eliminate clothing insecurity by providing clothing for over 5,000 people in need each year. Fontaine joined to manage the Wardrobe’s resale operation, a social enterprise that helps fund their programming.  

At the Wardrobe Fontaine met Cait Garozzo, who was serving as the program director and working to create professional development services funded by grants. Cait was also managing a relationship with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI) so that Skills Initiative participants could have access to professional clothing for job interviews. This relationship led to Cait being offered a role with WPSI, and when she left, she handed over the in-progress workforce development programming responsibilities to Fontaine with an encouraging “You got this!” 

Fontaine stepped up to the challenge. “One day I was researching and pricing vintage clothes, and the next I was learning about the workforce development ecosystem.” It turned out that much of her life and professional experiences had been preparing her for this role—working with systems and investing energy into targeted training for staff, excelling in mission-driven non-profits, and, through her lived experience, knowing firsthand that removing barriers to access is key.  

“I fell in love with the work,” she says. She also set herself up to succeed by welcoming new challenges and being open to opportunities, even if they required change. “Change is constant,” Fontaine continues. During a career journey, she feels you are constantly adjusting to change, regardless of whether you notice it. “You have to be ready to take that interview, or have coffee with someone, or whatever it is…you never know where you’ll end up.” 

And change was right around the corner for Fontaine. During a chance run-in with Cait Garozzo, Cait shared that WPSI was hiring and encouraged Fontaine to apply. After an initial coffee with Sarah Steltz, then Executive Director of the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, Fontaine knew where she had to be. Suddenly, Fontaine had an opportunity to join a highly respected workforce development program and dove head-on.  

She joined the team as the Operations Coordinator, focusing largely on administrative tasks. “I ordered coffee. A lot of coffee,” she remembers with a laugh. But soon she was learning how recruitment works at the Skills Initiative and becoming directly involved. “Because my experience was so customer-focused, I was very passionate about making sure that anyone who interacted with us knew what was happening, and what could or would happen next, even if we weren’t that next step. It’s a very person-centered thing to say, ‘No we can’t do that, but we CAN direct you to someone that can.’ I made it my mission to find out how to provide a connection even if we can’t provide a service.” 

Before long, Fontaine was managing recruitment and taking on more of WPSI’s communications needs. She feels indebted to those who helped her find her career path and works every day to help others in similar ways. “I’m so, so lucky…I feel very socially wealthy. Almost everything [I’ve achieved] has been the result of someone saying, ‘I know someone,’” Now Fontaine relishes the opportunity to tell WPSI applicants or program alumni, “I know someone.”  

As the WPSI team has grown in recent years, Fontaine’s focus has shifted to communications and storytelling. She runs the WPSI social media accounts, writes press releases, and has begun working with alumni to tell their stories through profiles and other avenues. “I feel like my story mirrors that of so many participants. Someone has the ability, all that is needed is a chance encounter or coffee meeting. Success is so often gained through access, and too often, not-for-profit storytelling fails to honor the power that someone has within them to begin with.” 

For Fontaine, the success of the Skills Initiative boils down to relationships. “We are able to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders because people trust us. Everything that we do, every engagement on social media, every boosted article, every interaction in the classroom holds true to the WPSI values.”  

Fontaine’s favorite part of the WPSI participant experience occurs when she sees relationships that started in the classroom extend well after the final day of a program. “Hustle culture has taught us to believe that being a lone wolf, alpha, hardworking person is the way to be successful, but realistically you need someone in your corner. Having someone to push you to not call out on a rainy day, that’s really helpful in making it to the next day. Years later, we see alumni having monthly get-togethers, hanging out, showing up to WPSI events. I think that’s the beauty, that there’s this space to build these individual connections.” 

Thanks to Fontaine and the other WPSI staff members, there’s a whole lot that’s already been done, and a lot more to come.