It has never occurred to me to list “Recovering Addict” as a qualification on a job application. But for Tori Utley, that’s exactly what people like me shouldn’t be afraid to do. It’s as unusual of an opinion as it is boldly optimistic. After all, Corporate America isn’t exactly known for its kindness and empathy. As an operations manager myself, I know that weaknesses aren’t celebrated in meeting rooms and conference calls—they’re often discovered, used and leveraged. Utley, however, finds strengths where others see liabilities and risks.
Through her organization More Than An Addict, Utley is determined to “tackle addiction stigma in a unique way,” and change the perception that people in recovery don’t deserve a second chance. Utley believes that recovering addicts are uniquely qualified for jobs, and are people who routinely demonstrate the skills and values companies desperately seek in employees. In other words: the American workforce needs recovering alcoholics and addicts—it just doesn’t know it yet.
Starting the Conversation
Utley has the sort of crowded calendar that’s equal parts intimidating and endearing. While she seems to be moving in a million directions at once, it’s clearly all controlled chaos for her. When she’s not aiming to change perceptions and lives through More Than An Addict, she’s a project manager at the Mayo Clinic, the founder and CEO of the tech startup Tinua and a contributing writer for Forbes. If that’s not enough, she’s also a former addiction counselor and, last year, delivered an inspiring TEDx Talk. “They’re all things I’m passionate about, even though they might not have a direct link to one another,” she says of her various projects. “At the end of the day, I like helping people and I love innovation. I do what it takes to make it all work.”
Through microloans, venture capital, scholarships and grants, More Than An Addict’s mission is to pair recovering alcoholics and addicts with jobs and opportunities they otherwise couldn’t find. Still, Utley knows that her work is cut out for her. “I think it’s been incredible to see, especially over the last year, all the different groups that have stepped up and started to advocate for addiction recovery and anti-stigma on a national level,” she says. She’s also thrilled to see that it’s spurred conversations. The more that people talk about recovery and addiction, the less unusual it becomes. “Every day, I hear comments made about alcoholics or addicts. You know, ‘the deadbeat on the side of the road,’” Utley sighs. “I wonder how many people are sitting in my meetings, silently struggling or in recovery but not saying anything, because these are the conversations that we surround them with.” It’s a problem that Utley is doing her best to get ahead of. That said, her determination isn’t just professional—it’s a deeply personal one, too.
“They Would Change the World”
In her TEDx Talk, Utley discusses how More Than An Addict was co-founded with her father. “He’s not only my biggest advocate, but my biggest teacher. I’m a better leader because of him,” she admits, describing him as quick-thinking, tenacious and endlessly humble. “He’s dedicated to giving back and to helping others even if he doesn’t benefit.” That said, it wasn’t always this way. Her father wrestled with addiction for years, which ultimately tore her family apart. It’s only been in recent years that they’ve reconnected, forging a stronger bond than ever.
But she paid close attention as her father found sobriety. “Every day to foster a healthy recovery, you have to be exhibiting or practicing those principles to stay healthy and sober,” she notes. “With More Than An Addict, we’re trying to find ways to convey those principles as skills in the workplace.”
In her work as a drug counselor, she was steeped in a world where people demonstrated similar traits as her father: constantly working to improve themselves and the lives of those around them. Later, while sitting in a corporate job, she became frustrated by its glacial rate of change. She wondered what would happen if people in recovery were given the resources they needed to pursue their passions. “If we could make them feel empowered to do that, they would change the world,” Utley says. That sentiment is as much the backbone of More Than An Addict as it is a comment on how vital the recovery community is.
Fighting the Good Fight
“We live in a society where we have a belief that the person you once were is the person you’re always going to be. In recovery, this is absolutely not true,” Utley argues. While it may be an uphill battle convincing companies to reconsider strict policies against felonies and court records, Utley firmly believes it’s winnable. Ironically, companies may not be the only ones who need convincing. “It can be hard to convince someone who’s in recovery and doesn’t think they can do anything great in their life or career, and tell them otherwise.” To that end, she’s designed a regimented mentorship program with learning agendas, milestones and goals customized to the clients they work with. With the help of a mentor who’s both mature in their sobriety and their career, the client will “walk through a curriculum and learn what it means to be a better leader, what you’re good at and what you want to do.” After a year in the program, that’s when the opportunities kick in.
When it comes down to it, though, More Than An Addict’s greatest hurdle may simply be in how it tells their clients’ stories to companies. “No one wakes up and wants to be addicted to anything. When someone recovers, though, that recovery is transformational,” she says. “It’s going to be difficult communicating to an audience of people not in recovery that [our clients]are doing incredible things.”
More than anything, though, Utley wants people in early recovery to never give up—no matter how dire their circumstances may seem. “I want people to have infinite hope that every dream they’ve ever had is still just as possible as it was before.” To be honest, hearing her speak, it’s hard to disagree. In fact, while personal stories may be difficult for More Than An Addict to tell, Tori Utley can take comfort in the fact that she has a hand in rewriting them. She is helping to script brand-new endings for people’s lives as much as she’s proving that no one’s story is ever completely finished.