A few months ago, while making a late-night repair in North Philadelphia, a PECO worker encountered what is too often unavoidable in so many parts of this city: gunfire. The 34-year-old repairman was fixing a cross arm on North 6th Street when he was shot twice by stray bullets. He thankfully survived — but it was a stark reminder to PECO CEO Mike Innocenzo about why he can’t just sit back and let others try to fix what ails Philadelphia.
“We have employees in the course of their jobs who face this everyday,” Innocenzo says. “But it’s more than that. They live in these neighborhoods, it’s in their personal lives and their jobs. We have to be part of the solution.”
To Innocenzo, being part of the solution has meant leading efforts to stand up and support the Civic Coalition to Save Lives, a unique-for-Philadelphia coordination among government, philanthropy, business and civic efforts to fight gun violence in the city. For over a year, Innocenzo dove in to learn about the issue; understand how it can be solved; plan and coordinate the launch of the Civic Coalition in December 2022.
Under his leadership, PECO and its parent company, Exelon, have provided $1 million to the Coalition so far. And one year in, Innocenzo continues to provide his business expertise — and that of his team’s — to what proved to be one of the factors in reducing gun violence in 2023. This is not work Innocenzo is required to do as CEO of our region’s electric company; it is work he has decided PECO must do as a corporate citizen of this city.
“Government working hand in hand with the corporate world, the civic world and the philanthropic world is how you tackle the problem of gun violence.” Mike Innocenzo, CEO of PECO
For his contribution to the Civic Coalition, The Citizen has named Innocenzo the 2023 Lewis Katz Corporate Citizen of the Year. He will be honored, along with the other Citizen of the Year winners, on January 30 at the Fitler Club Ballroom at a dinner and reception featuring MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi and actor/activist George Takei on the power of local citizenship. (Buy tickets or a table here.)
“There aren’t a lot of folks who fit in to what Mike does,” says Bret Perkins, Senior Vice President of External and Governmental Affairs for Comcast, and a Citizen board member. “He’s in the private sector, and has to think about growth and investment and all that goes with running a big company. But he is also a real guy. He’s a humble leader. He shows up. He really cares.”
Essential work, in all its forms
Innocenzo has worked at PECO his entire 35-year career, including as a co-op when he was an engineering student at Widener University. (Full disclosure: PECO is a supporter of The Citizen.) He started as a field engineer, overseeing maintenance and installation. He loves the company — a $3.9 billion arm of Chicago-based Exelon — because of its mission and the people who execute it. “When you work for PECO, you’re working for a place you know you can make a difference,” he says. He rose to become CEO in 2018 and now manages 9,000 full- and part-time workers whose jobs boil down to one fundamental purpose: Keeping our power on.
The full import of that work was never clearer than during the height of the pandemic, when alongside healthcare workers, garbage collectors and bus drivers, PECO employees were essential workers the rest of us relied on to keep us going.
“The men and women that work for PECO had to come in day in and day out,” he says. “They get the commitment to the community, and how important the services we provide are. We had to keep the lights on, the gas flowing. Part of my role as CEO is never losing sight of that.”
The pandemic was also when two separate phenomena took hold in Philly: An already rising gun violence spiked to all-new highs throughout neighborhoods where Innocenzo’s employees worked, lived, played and lost loved ones. And, really for the first time, disparate groups of civic leaders — from business, philanthropy, labor and community — began meeting, via Zoom, to figure out how they might prop up the struggling city.
Led by Philadelphia Foundation’s Pedro Ramos and William Penn Foundation’s Shawn McCaney, the coalition of civic leaders grew to some 70 members, including those from the Chamber of Commerce Board under then chair Sue Jacobson; the Philadelphia Equity Alliance, co-chaired by Citizen Disruptors of the Year Michael Forman, a businessman, and Ryan Boyer, a labor leader; and Sharmain Matlock-Turner’s Urban Affairs Coalition. A working group of those members and Perkins dove in and devoted the time to becoming mini-experts in the field of gun violence intervention, with a focus on immediate results.
As part of their work, Ramos hired David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, to do a comprehensive study of the current state of gun violence in Philly. (Ramos reached out to Muhammad after seeing him speak at The Citizen’s 2019 Ideas We Should Steal Festival.) Ramos and Jacobson brought Muhammad to speak to the Chamber’s executive board, of which Innocenzo was a member. That’s when he realized there was not just a role for PECO and other local businesses to play in reducing gun violence — but a mandate.
“PECO is in every single neighborhood; all the people who are impacted by gun violence are his customers. It matters when you have CEOs who aren’t so distanced from real-world problems.” — Bret Perkins, Senior Vice President of External and Governmental Affairs for Comcast
“PECO has always had a long-term commitment to the community, but we’ve really focused on those areas that we know we’re good at: workforce development, environmental issues, energy efficiency, STEM and career education,” Innocenzo says. “David made clear, based on the work he’s done nationally, that government working hand in hand with the corporate world, the civic world and the philanthropic world is how you tackle the problem of gun violence. I realized this was an opportunity for us.”
Innocenzo became a key member of the Coalition, showing up for 7:30am calls week after week, bringing along PECO’s project management team as needed, his Rolodex of contacts — including police, through his long-standing work with the Police Athletic League — and a commitment rare for a corporate leader in this city. His fellow Coalition members describe him as a humble leader, who rolls up his sleeves and digs into the work. As chair of the Chamber board, he has continued Jacobson’s efforts to rally his fellow corporate leaders behind the fight to end gun violence.
“There are few CEOs in the city who have spent more time trying to understand the issue of gun violence than Mike,” says Perkins. “PECO is in every single neighborhood; all the people who are impacted by gun violence are his customers. It matters when you have CEOs who aren’t so distanced from real-world problems. But it’s also a personal thing. It never feels like Mike has a self-serving angle in this. He genuinely believes it’s his responsibility to be involved and care about these things.”
From learning to implementing
Like most people not directly affected by gun violence, Innocenzo’s understanding of the issue was mainly limited to what he saw on the news, or talked about with his peers. Gun violence is unmanageable. It’s kids killing other kids. We need education and jobs to stop the surge in killings.
In fact, as Muhammad illustrated through his work leading Ceasefire Oakland, which cut shootings in that city in half over eight years, none of that is true. The first surprising thing Innocenzo learned about gun violence: “That it is solvable, that there is a reason for hope.”
As Muhammad explained to the Coalition, there are three types of work that affect gun violence:
- Prevention, which works over about five years.
- Transformation, which is a 10- to 20-year play.
- Intervention, which is what happens today, to reduce violence immediately.
“What we found is we focus a lot on the prevention and transformation piece of this,” says Innocenzo, including the education and job training work that PECO engages in throughout the city, “but less on the intervention.”
Muhammad also laid out what he learned by digging into the numbers: It is not primarily teenagers who are shooting or being shot. The average age of a gun violence-involved person in Philadelphia is 30 years old. And it is a relatively small number of people, identifiable, who are involved in gun violence — and who therefore need intervention.
“If I look out the windows here, most of the people want to live peacefully,” Innocenzo says. “It’s a very small subset who are at risk of shooting or getting shot. A learning for me is that intervention really works. If we can get to them in real time, it could be transformative.”
As Innocenzo repeatedly points out: This is not necessarily news to the grassroots organizations, individuals and families who have been working on the ground, sometimes for decades, to stop the violence before it happens. And the PECO CEO has not started walking the streets himself to stop a beef. His role — and that of the Civic Coalition — has been to convene disparate groups of Philadelphians to support the work of violence interrupters.
In December 2022, the Coalition hired as executive director Estelle Richman, who previously served as the City’s managing director, public health commissioner and director of social services, and as director of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Under Richman — who also served as a Special Advisor to the Managing Director on Gun Violence Intervention under Mayor Kenney — the Coalition has three main pillars:
- Education about the issue of gun violence, to the public, but also to other business leaders. (“If you talk to every business leader around town, we all want the same thing,” Innocenzo says. “They want to live and work in a place that feels safe and feels clean and where they can raise a family.”)
- The Gun Violence Intervention Coordination Center, which has three full-time staff members, including Richman, who help to coordinate the City’s intervention efforts, bringing together public safety officials; business and civic leaders; and grassroots groups.
- A Community Safety Civic Resource Board, which provides funding from business and philanthropy, including through a $700,000 Re-grant Fund for hospital and community-based gun violence intervention programs.
After years of rising gun violence, Philadelphia saw a significant drop in 2023, with 19 percent fewer homicides than 2022 — something the City credited, in part, to the Coalition’s work.
“If you talk to every business leader around town, we all want the same thing … to live and work in a place that feels safe and feels clean and where they can raise a family.” — Innocenzo
Opportunity to create opportunity
If Innocenzo feels it’s his responsibility to help solve the gun violence problem in Philly, he lights up when he starts talking about his other civic passion: providing opportunity for Philadelphians. As a company with tentacles everywhere, PECO is uniquely poised to reach people where they live and to see the life-changing power of good jobs.
“What’s exciting is when you give someone an opportunity for a career, what they can do,” says Innocenzo.
The company’s workforce development efforts center around hiring from underserved communities in the city, training people in the skills needed for work at PECO and other similar businesses, and in promoting diverse workers from within the company. In the last few years, PECO has hired nearly 200 people through its workforce development efforts and Infrastructure Academy; has partnered with local community groups to teach reading and other skills, including construction and tech; and helped connect residents with other businesses, including SEPTA, Amtrak and PGW.
Innocenzo says he took on the role of Chamber of Commerce Board Chair in 2022, in part to share what PECO has learned from its hiring efforts, and to coordinate workforce development initiatives among Chamber members. Innocenzo notes that it is not about filling jobs for PECO — he can always find people to fill the jobs. It’s about lifting all boats: Bolstering local businesses, yes — that is the main role of the Chamber, and its focus for most of its history. But also bolstering local families, who make up the city where his corporate colleagues do their work.
“Mike is a selfless leader and someone who we can always count on to stand up for what’s right,” says Jacobson, who passed the Chamber Board Chair torch to Innocenzo in 2022. “What has always impressed me is that at his core is a strong moral compass guiding his every decision.”
Innocenzo acknowledges that for-profit businesses these days are often considered a hindrance, not a help, to bettering the world. He argues that that is as much perception as reality. But it is also true that in Philadelphia, until recently, there have not been many corporate leaders willing to look beyond their bottom lines — and their tax bills — to what the city writ large needs most.
“If we are going to move the needle in a city with 24 percent poverty, we need to coordinate and collaborate,” he says. “We need to make it easier for folks to be aware of all the jobs that exist — whether for PECO or the health industry, or infrastructure, or down at the Navy Yard. We need to remove the barriers to getting those family-sustaining, life-changing jobs.
I’ve seen the impact that can have on people’s lives. It can be truly transformative.”
MORE GREAT PHILADELPHIA CITIZENSCourtesy of PECO.