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Finding purpose after service

University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholar and Marine Corps Vet Tom Voutsos is helping close the wealth gap by providing an alternative pathway to homeownership in the Midwest. This Veterans Day, we spoke with Tom about his inspiring journey.
A man in a gray long sleeve shirt and jeans stands in front of a home in Toledo, Ohio. He has one hand in his pocket and is smirking directly at us.

Tom Voutsos outside one of his recently renovated homes in Toledo, OH on November 5, 2021. Voutsos is a Marine veteran and CEO of LadderUp — an organization that provides a pathway to homeownership for the working class. Photos by Erin Kirkland 

When American service members make the transition from active military duty to everyday civilian life, many struggle to find the same sense of purpose. For United States Marine Corps veteran Tom Voutsos, finding a passionate devotion to community service has created a whole new journey—from providing economic opportunities for gang members, to solving community housing issues, to becoming one of our most recent  Obama Foundation Scholars.

Four men in Marine blue dress uniform smile and pose for a photo in front of an American and Marine flag.

That eagerness first led Tom to  TRU Colors (Opens in a new tab), a startup brewery in Wilmington, North Carolina that hires active gang members as employees to create pathways for economic opportunity and leadership development. Through his relationships at the brewery, Tom’s eyes were opened to the barriers people living with criminal records face, particularly in securing safe and reliable housing of their own.

“There are obviously housing barriers for folks who have a record, but the thing that really surprised me was there weren’t quality, affordable options for their girlfriends, moms, grandmas, sisters, who are working living wage jobs and have great benefits,” Tom said. 

So when Tom left Wilmington to pursue his MBA degree at the University of Chicago, he decided to explore the heart of the housing problem. His exploration led him to launch his own organization,  LadderUp Housing (Opens in a new tab).

A man and woman inside of a house. The man stands under a white door frame leading to the room the woman is in. Both rooms have grey paint. The womans room on the left has a window and on the right close to the door the man is standing under is a white stove. The woman is wearing layers of clothing. A red ski cap, grey and blue jacket and jeans. She has blonde hair, light skin, and black glasses. The man in the door has short hair, a windows peak hairline, medium-light skin with warm undertones, a thin sweater, and jeans on. He is explaining something to the woman.

How do we make sure that things we’re doing within communities are inclusive? So that way we’re all driving towards a shared goal and nobody’s left behind.”

Tom Voutsos, UChicago Obama Scholar

At LadderUp, Tom and his team purchase and renovate homes, then rent them to tenants while they are able to build their credit scores. Through partnerships, Tom’s team is able to provide financial coaching and once the renters are able to get traditional mortgage financing, LadderUp sells the same home to the tenant. 

“The vision of LadderUp is to bridge the wealth gap,” Tom explained. “When we were doing research into home ownership in the United States, for most folks, their home is going to be the largest asset that they ever own. So it’s really a vehicle for wealth creation.”

And according to Tom, that vehicle is not available to all working class people right now. By piloting the LadderUp program in Toledo—his wife’s hometown—Tom is able to take advantage of the high volume and low housing cost in this part of the Midwest.

“Because of the year that these homes were built, structurally they are excellent,” Tom explained. “There’s just a major need for cosmetic repairs. So we have the ability to go in, in an affordable way, acquire these homes and renovate them, but still maintain affordability for the customer on the back end, which is the most important piece.”

A singular, small, white, house on the side a road. In the middle slightly to the left of the picture is a farily kept square bush. On the right is a small iron gate. The house has a door on the far right and two windows on the left. There are houses on the right and left in the background.

A home recently acquired by LadderUp for renovation in Toledo, OH.

While there are a number of home ownership educational programs, many miss the mark on addressing the deeper inequalities and barriers people face on the road to homeownership, Tom explained. By utilizing the logistics skills he developed while serving in the United States Marine Corps, Tom was able to diagnose where people were having significant barriers and come up with solutions on how to make the homeownership education process more successful. 

“Sometimes I think we forget when we’re working in communities and providing these services that there’s still a customer journey,” Tom said. “And if we just expect behavior to change or a lesson to be learned from one interaction, human nature, regardless of circumstance, it’s unlikely to change.”

As a member of the 2021-22 cohort of the University of Chicago  Obama Foundation Scholars Program, Tom is one of 12 emerging leaders who are participating in the program during the final year of their master’s programs. There are 12 additional leaders who are part of the Obama Scholars cohort studying at Columbia University in New York City. Both cohorts build community with each other through programming led by the Obama Foundation. 

The refreshed version of the University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars Program allows applications from students who are in their final year of their master’s program at the Harris School of Public Policy, the Booth School of Business, or the Crown School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. 

“One of the main things that stuck out to me about the UChicago Obama Scholars program this year was the fact that they were pulling from different graduate programs and taking this interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum,” Tom explained. “Each program has different ways of thinking about these problems and getting an opportunity to interact with them was a really exciting and appealing thing to me.”

President and Mrs. Obama sit in a circle with the 2021 Scholars class outside the Obama Foundation office

President and Mrs. Obama join a roundtable discussion with the 2021-2022 University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars at the Obama Foundation offices in Chicago, IL on September 27, 2021.

During a recent visit to Chicago,  President and Mrs. Obama met with the newest cohort of University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars (Opens in a new tab), offering advice on how to make a greater impact in the respective communities.

“Mrs. Obama touched on this when she spoke with us—she shared the importance of building trust in the community you’re serving. That’s one thing that I’m definitely focused on getting better at myself.  How do we build trust? How do we make sure that things we’re doing within communities are inclusive? So that way we’re all driving towards a shared goal and nobody’s left behind.”

Berlin town hall participants smile and walk together.

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