Researching the Offender to Entrepreneur Journey – Pt. 2

Greetings from the United States. The story so far…

I am at the half way point of my travels across the USA exploring Entrepreneurship and how it can support formerly incarcerated men and women to have productive and brighter futures. I have travelled from New York to San Francisco and Omaha in Nebraska and already met some amazing and inspiring peoaple and organisations.

In New York I had the pleasure of meeting up with Coss Marte. He is the Founder and CEO of Conbody. Whilst in prison he developed a personal workout that he was able to do in his 9ft x 6ft cell. Over a 6 month period he lost 70lbs and realised that he could use this insight to set up a business upon release. He has gone on to set up Conbody which employs high quality trainers utilising their skills and his business model. All of his staff were formerly incarcerated and since release none have re-offended and are a valuable asset to his business. Coss is a humble yet driven individual and has plans to expand his business and has recently launched an on-line subscription service to reach a wider audience. It was an honour and a pleasure to meet him to learn of his amazing progress.

After my short stay in New York, I headed off to San Francisco. I had the pleasure to meet up with Rebecca Charles, the new CEO of L’Chaim Foods, it produces artisan Kosher food for corporate clients such as Google, as well as private events such as weddings. It was started by Alex Shandrovsky as a company with a social mission. The company supports returning citizens by developing their culinary skills and providing employment opportunities. Rebecca was generous enough to enable me to spend a few hours with her (over a nice beer and lunch) to learn of the challenges faced and the exciting plans to open the L’chaim Academy to enable support for even more returning citizens.

Next stop was a day at the Soleadad Correctional Facility for Men. I was fortunate enough to have the day alongside 20+ volunteers supporting Entrepreneurs in Training (EIT’s) half way through their CEO of your New Life program run by the amazing Defy Ventures Northern California. We spent the day listening to business ideas, EIT’s personal pitches and how they intend to have a new life on release. It was really humbling and inspiring. This was all set within a back drop of being greeted by a “high five tunnel”, whoops and cheers and having to introduce myself after busting some “dad dancing” moves to get to the stage. The most powerful part of the day was the Step to the Line activity, where volunteers and EIT’s faced each other and demonstrated that sometimes there is just a fine line between two people, and it made all involved realise our vulnerability and showed our humanity. A humbling experience. The day finished with some statements of gratitude and hope for each other known as “Love Bombs”. A long day but an amazing and uplifting experience.

Next on the agenda was attending the Reinventing Re-entry Conference held at Google Community Space. It bought together a significant number of organisation involved in Criminal Justice from Not for Profits, Lawyers, Advocacy Groups and CEO’s of many organisations that had used entrepreneurship as a way to change their former lives. Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop gave a rousing speech on his journey where he now runs a business that uses technology for families to send in postcards to their loved ones in custody, keeping up the family link which is so important.

Staying on this theme, I also met with Hayley – the Business Development Co-ordinator from The Last Mile. We talked about the coding workshop and development centre they have based INSIDE San Quentin jail (and others). The men are able to learn valuable skills that can be used to gain employment in the technology sector or consider becoming freelance. The great thing is that graduates can access paid work in the development centre to further their skills and showcase their work. I was told that ALL graduates that have been released are now in further training or have secured employment with NO recidivism – That’s AMAZING. So my final stop was to meet with Delancey Street Foundation. They have been in existence since the 1970’s and enrol participants on a two year supported living program. They are situated on land donated by the Port Authority and the participants played a significant role in building their own accommodation from the ground up to what we see today.

They gain vocational, administrative and retail skills whilst being supported to overcome their re-entry barriers. These include tailoring, car maintenance, art, removals, gardening services as well as culinary skills in a cafe and restaurant. They are proud of their work and I had the opportunity to see some of the products. It would have been rude not to sample their culinary skills, so I had a delicious Blackened Swordfish followed by Summer Fruits Meringue. Yum! After a varied and interesting week I headed off to be welcomed by Defy Ventures Nebraksa, based in Omaha. They currently operate in 4 correctional facilities and are expanding to a fifth facility later this year. They also have a re-entry program that works with graduates of their CEO of Your New Life program to find employment or become fully fledged CEO’s of their incorporated companies.

Through the dedication and generosity of their time the team enabled me to engage with many elements of the program. I attended a pitch practice event at York Correctional Facility for Women and was able to meet with their class that were making final preparations for their pitching competition and graduation the following day. There was an opportunity for me to talk to the EIT’s and learn of their plans for the future and how Defy had enabled them to transform and change their hustle.

They clearly had a passion for their futures being able to give some business coaching was very rewarding. The next day was the big one. It was the culmination of 7 months of hard work and dedication. The EIT’s were to pitch their business ideas to panels of volunteers trying to secure up to $500 of start-up capital upon release. They had 3 minutes to pitch and be grilled by the volunteers. At the end of the first round of pitches 8 were selected to go through to the semi-finals. A further 3 pitches to different panels resulted in a final 5 being selected. At this point a well-earned lunch was provided and it gave a chance for a little light relief. After lunch, family and friends were welcomed with the traditional high five welcome. After some emotional welcomes we settled down and the final 5 made one last pitch to everyone. All were welcome to vote for their favourite.

The event was also the graduation day, so the EIT’s put on their caps and gowns and proudly walked around the chapel waving to their loved one and stepped on stage to receive their certificates, including 2 from national and local colleges. It was an emotional time.  After all that, it was time to reveal who had won. The winning pitch was to set up a therapeutic dance studio which was greeted with jubilation and generosity from the others. In all, $1500 was pledged by Defy to support the ideas upon release. It truly was a great day for all. The week concluded with a visit to Omaha Correction Facility where I had the pleasure of volunteering with 15 others to support EIT’s who were nearing the completion of their program. They were put through their paces in delivering personal statements, taking part in mock interviews and having their business ideas evaluated. It all of course was done with honesty, humility and the unique Defy culture. The level of appreciation of the EIT’s was clear to see.  During my time in Omaha, I also had the pleasure of meeting with EIT’s that are studying the program in the community, either as learners on work release from Community Corrections or signed up after release. The ability have that support is invaluable.

Defy also lead by example. Their newly appointed Re-entry specialist is a Defy Graduate and was part of the first cohort at Omaha Correctional Facility. Jason has been employed to support released graduates to find their path to employment or start up their business. Re-entry can be daunting with housing, finance, family and probation all impacting on the person. For Jason to go back to the place he graduated at and for the peer mentors to see him standing alongside his Defy team members was as powerful message to say Defy works. So as I look to move onto Washington DC what are the key messages? You can be entrepreneurial both as an employee and the CEO. The line between volunteers and EIT’s is closer than I thought.  You have to know yourself, forgive yourself and believe in yourself to transform as a person into someone that can be loved and valued.