In Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Grammy-winning musician John Legend announced the second cohort of participants in Unlocked Futures, a 14-month accelerator program for social entrepreneurs who have been incarcerated and urged business leaders to be more inclusive of job applicants with criminal backgrounds.
Unlocked Futures launched in 2017 as a partnership between the philanthropic venture fund New Profit and Legend’s criminal justice reform initiative FreeAmerica, with financial support from Bank of America.
“We started this as a collaboration, saying, ‘Let’s not just tell folks to hire formerly incarcerated individuals, but to invest in their ideas,’” says Legend. “All of the members have business ideas that will help them feed their families, employ others and strengthen our communities.”
In 2007, Teresa Hodge, a member of the inaugural Unlocked Futures class, began a 70-month prison sentence for a nonviolent white-collar crime at Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia—the same prison where Martha Stewart famously served her time. After her experience with Unlocked Futures in 2017, Hodge, 56, became the cofounder of R3 Score, a background screening company.
The U.S. is home to 5 million formerly incarcerated people who face severe obstacles when trying to find a job after their release. Returning citizens are unemployed at a rate of more than 27%, nearly seven times higher than the unemployment rate for the general U.S. population.
Unable to secure employment, many formerly incarcerated people turn to entrepreneurship. But they often lack the business skills, social networks and capital needed to launch a successful company.
That’s where Unlocked Futures comes in. Participants receive coaching on leadership skills such as board governance, fundraising, communications and talent strategy. They also undergo an assessment that gauges areas for improvement and team up with mentors from a network of organizations, including Bank of America, which provided $500,000 grants for both cohorts, a total $1 million commitment.
“Six hundred thousand inmates are getting out every year, and if we want to lessen the risk of them recidivating, programs like this are important,” says Andrew Plepler, the environmental, social and governance executive for Bank of America.
Many formerly incarcerated people experience a revolving-prison-door scenario after their release: At least 95% of people incarcerated in state prisons are released into their communities, yet more than half of them are arrested again within three years.
To be admitted into the Unlocked Futures program, applicants must have fully operational businesses. “We come in when you’ve established your proof point, you have your model built and you’re ready to figure out sustainability, growth, and measurement and expansion,” says Tulaine Montgomery, a managing partner at New Profit.
Participants are each awarded a $50,000 unrestricted grant. Hodge, whose first business venture upon release was Mission:Launch, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people reenter the workforce, says that many returning citizens are unable to gain access to growth capital because of their criminal history.
She put her $50,000 from Unlocked Futures toward performing user surveys and designing the algorithm for her background screening platform. In July, Hodge participated in the Techstars Impact Accelerator, which backs founders who are building technology aimed at solving social and environmental problems.
Through this program, she was able to raise another $500,000 from the Motley Fool, American Family Life Insurance and others. Now in the seed stage, her goal is to raise $2 million by the end of the first quarter of FY 2020.
“It’s certainly a challenge to be a black woman raising money, not to talk of being formerly incarcerated,” Hodge says. “But we know that we have a solid business model because there’s a strong upside for investors.”
Since January, more than 700 individuals and companies have signed the Society for Human Resource Management’s pledge to give qualified applicants with criminal backgrounds the same opportunities as those who haven’t served time. And just this week, JPMorgan Chase announced an expansion of its efforts to hire people who were formerly incarcerated, continuing the trend of companies removing questions about criminal history on employment applications and offering opportunities to those with records.
“If we want the full human potential that is contained in our communities to be maximized, we need to include formerly incarcerated people in conversations around hiring and how we develop the workforce,” Legend says. “These folks are valuable and they’re worth reintegrating into our society.”
At the kickoff event for the second Unlocked Futures cohort, participants sat down with Legend and discussed their personal stories, business ideas and aspirations for the future. As business leaders begin to shift their attitude toward hiring and investing in returning citizens, that future may start to look a little rosier.
I’m a reporter covering the various aspects of diversity and inclusion in business and society at large. Previously, I was a reporter at CNBC, where I focused on leadership and strategic management. I’ve also dabbled in video journalism, working as a breaking news digital producer for New York Daily News, followed by a yearlong stint as a producer at Rolling Stone. My work has been featured on New York Daily News, Yahoo Finance and Time Out. I’m a proud alumna of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, receiving honors for my investigative thesis on the alarming number of physicians dying by suicide. Tweet me @ruthumohnews or send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.