Brooklyn-based Refoundry trains ex-offenders to create home furnishings out of discarded materials


Refoundry participant Dexter Nurse; Refoundry entreprenuers Gene Manigo/Kambui, Custom Craft, and James L Eleby Jr., Eleby Designs. (Photo by Christina Maida.)

Although there are other programs that teach formerly incarcerated individuals entrepreneurial skills, Refoundry takes a slightly different approach. This Brooklyn-based not-for-profit has trained its pilot project participants to create home furnishings out of discarded materials and learn how to sell them.

Although they may have felt discarded by society, participants become confident that they, like the furniture they create, have value and purpose.

“Everybody’s got creativity, and working with our hands is one of the things that define us as human beings. Building things is in our DNA,” says Tommy Safian, the organization’s co-founder and executive director.

“When participants are giving discarded material new value they feel like they’re giving themselves new value as well. It’s very personal. When they send these things out into the world and people who may have formerly looked down on them purchase and bring them into their homes, it makes our participants feel valued.”

Formerly incarcerated individuals display incredible talent

“We’re providing opportunities. A lot of people coming out of prison have an incredible amount of talent,” he says. And Refoundry’s pilot project has taken five of those people, taught them woodworking and entrepreneurial skills.

It may be a not-for-profit, but Safian, who previously had a business collecting furniture from the trash in L.A., refurbishing and selling it, runs Refoundry like a business. He has high expectations of the participants and funnels the profits made from the furniture sold by them back into their training.

Safian doesn’t recruit participants straight out of prison but rather finds those who are already being served by reentry organizations and set up in programs, including the anger management and addiction counseling programs required by the state of New York.

“We’re looking for people who are ambitious, who understand their role, who are willing to learn and who take personal and professional responsibility,” he says.

For the first nine months participants learn how to create furniture from discarded materials and are taught the customer service and entrepreneurial skills needed to sell the pieces they create at the weekly Brooklyn Flea (flea market).

Once trained, participants may go out and start their own business, which four of those in the organization’s pilot project have already done.

Building community

Safian tells a story that exemplifies what Refoundry is trying to achieve. One participant who sold a table to a couple at the flea market had been in prison for 30 years for murder. When he delivered the piece, the customers invited him and his wife to dinner to christen the table.

“Our model is designed to make those types of connections and open up the space so that people can meet on common ground and recognize each other as individuals,” he says.

“In our program the transaction happens hand-to-hand and face-to-face. People have stereotypical and denigrating opinions of each other, but within the space of that transaction, they develop empathy, understanding and common values, and these develop community.”

Refoundry plans expansion

Refoundry now takes up a unit at the Brooklyn Navy Yard but plans to expand by adding more units and possible satellite locations. Safian also said that organizations in 12 states are interested in bringing the model to their communities.

The organization is currently establishing a campus at the Navy Yard, which is expected be ready by the end of the year. It will have wrap around services and a classroom. Columbia Business School will teach financial literacy, the School of Visual Arts will provide design and Pratt Institute will teach web design. Community partner Shake Shack will provide hospitality training and offer participants short-term “Internships” at one of its outlets.

Because he realizes that not everyone has the skills or desire to run their own business, Safian also plans to train people in bookkeeping and sales and marketing so that they can be placed in jobs in Refoundry’s partner organizations. These skills will also help those who launch their own enterprises.

Embrace your story

Whether Refoundry participants start their own business or work for someone else, however, Safian urges them to share their story.

“We encourage our participants to embrace their story and use that in marketing their pieces. There’s a huge amount of talent in New York, and what distinguishes them is the story that they tell,” he says

“Embracing your story with a narrative that’s positive for them and has meaning for others is what’s going to help those coming out of prison find a job.”


S.F.’s Cala restaurant gives second chance to those in reentry

second chance employer

Cala Restaurant, San Francisco

In San Francisco, a city of exceptional eateries, one recently opened restaurant stands apart – and not just for its amazing food but for the fact that it is a second chance employer, making a point of seeking out and hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.

That restaurant, Cala, is the latest and first U.S. venture for celebrity chef Gabriela Camara, who has four restaurants in her native Mexico. And although she wholeheartedly supports targeting this population for her employees, it was her general manager, Emma Rosenbush, who came up with the idea.

Before operating a pop-up restaurant in Mexico City, where she befriended Camara, Rosenbush studied sociology and criminal justice, and worked at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif. During her time there, she visited all of the California state prisons. And it was that experience which inspired her hiring practices when she got into the restaurant business.

A whole population who can’t get work

“When I had the opportunity to work with Gabriela there was a hiring crunch. No one can afford to live in the city (San Francisco) and work in the service industry, so it’s hard to find good people to work in restaurants,” she says. “And, at the same time, there’s a whole population of people who can’t get a job because they have a record.”

Rosenbush had decided several years earlier that if she ever had an opportunity to hire people with criminal records, she would. And now she has the chance to give them a second chance.

The restaurant opened late last September, and she started the hiring process in the summer by reaching out to former professors and holding meetings with CJCJ (the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice) and Delancey Street.

Rosenbush worked with the San Francisco Probation Department’s Community Assessment Service Center (CASC), where she conducted seminars and was able to interview 40 to 50 applicants.

75 percent of employees have convictions

And among the 33 current employees, 75 percent have convictions.

Although Rosenbush has been able to hire quite a number of formerly incarcerated individuals, it’s been a challenge.

“I wish that I had more support,” she says. “The biggest challenge is that a lot of people I’ve hired are getting support elsewhere like living at Delancey Street or there’s some kind of safety net under them, but I’m not a social service. I’m a business. Another issue is a lot of insecurity. It’s intimidating to go into a new world.”

The restaurant business requires a certain level of knowledge and sophistication, and she says that Cala has diners asking about wine from servers who may have never drunk a glass of wine in their lives.

Doing the right thing by giving second chance

In spite of the challenges, Rosenbush is convinced she’s doing the right thing. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The level of loyalty and the sense of family we’re in the process of creating make it all worthwhile. And it’s why I want to go to work everyday,” she says.

What’s she’s looking for in a potential employee above all else is a sense of commitment. “I’m interested in people who are interested in something more than just a paycheck. I don’t care if you don’t know anything about food or wine or cocktails. If you’re committed to showing up every day that counts,” Rosenbush says.

She’s lost many of her earliest employees. But she’s also had some amazing success stories, including a guy who had been living in a halfway house and on his first day of looking for a job had heard that Cala was hiring.

“He came in off the street, and I was having a meeting, but he shook my hand and looked me in the eye. We hired him as a back waiter, and he did so well that we promoted him to server,” she says.

Unfortunately, the man no longer works for the restaurant, because he was able to find a job near his family 250 miles from San Francisco.

Others have graduated from back serving to serving and transitioned into working the bar, but in addition to their own personal success stories, the employees have been part of Cala’s success.

“The restaurant has had great acceptance into the city in part thanks to who we’ve hired. It adds to the experience,” says Rosenbush.

Tips for re-entry job seekers

Rosenbush offers tips for people in re-entry who are looking for a job:

  • Perseverance is very important. If you come back again and again it shows you really want to be there.
  • Look people in the eye. If I interview someone who doesn’t make eye contact that’s the first red flag.

Advice for businesses

She also has advice for restaurants or other business who are committed to hiring employees who were formerly incarcerated:

  • Have a lot of patience with your staff and support them during their the training. You might have to say things three times instead of just once.
  • Be aware of the other life issues that may come up for them.
  • Understand that employing someone and giving them a regular paycheck offers access to stability, and in some cases an opportunity to transition out of halfway housing and into their own living situation. You’re making a big impact on their lives.


Blackstone Career Institute changed life of former inmate

Michael Harris, legal administrator/paralegal, Saldivar & Associates, PLLC, Phoenix.

Michael Harris

The thousands of hits we’ve received – and continue to get – on the article we wrote about Blackstone Career Institute three years ago indicates the appeal of the paralegal correspondence course it offers to those in prison.

It fact, it can change their lives, as it did for Michael Harris, who was incarcerated in Arizona and is now a legal administrator/paralegal at Saldivar & Associates, PLLC in Phoenix. And he’s just one example.

At any given time, more than 1,200 incarcerated students are participating in the Institute’s Correspondence Paralegal Program for Inmates. The old-fashioned paper-based course – no Internet is required – has been delivered to more than 1,800 institutions since the program began in the late 1970s.

Using time in prison to one’s advantage

But back to Harris. When he was sentenced to three years in prison, he was determined to make good use of the time.

“My wife and I made a strategy of how we were going to make this time work for us. I had never been able to return to school to finish a degree but wanted more education,” he says. “So I researched to find a school that would give me something worthwhile and offer a chance to do it through correspondence.”

Although Harris, like many others, had originally signed up for the monthly plan payment, an inheritance his wife received soon after his incarceration helped him pay off the cost of the course in one lump sum, which made things easier. If you pay on a monthly basis Blackstone only sends out the materials once it receives payment, but if the tuition is paid in full at the beginning, the books for the entire course are sent in the initial shipment.

Completing coursework

Of course it depends on the person and his or her background, but Harris said he only read five to 10 pages per day and developed a test strategy in which he went through the course work marking the answers to the practice questions. It took him a total of 24 months to complete the course, a bit more leisurely than he could have done it.

“I went through 16 books for the paralegal course. You could easily do one a month very comfortably,” he says.

Making money in prison

Not only did he set himself up for a career once released, Harris also used the skills he gained to make money while incarcerated. He found that several fellow inmates, including himself, needed to file for bankruptcy, and he helped them do it, work which, he says, kept him really busy.

His selling proposition: “By being in there (in prison), I could get the Federal court to waive the filing fee. I would tell guys to give me $200 and I’d get the $335 filing fee waived.”

The bankruptcy filing business even got him the support of prison employees.

“Prison officials were curious about what I was doing so they’d kind of peek in and say, “Hey what’ve you’ve goin’ there,” and I’d explain it. Most of the guards were in financial distress and would start asking me questions, and I’d refer them to online resources. Doing work for them would have created potential conflicts of interest, so I didn’t go there, but through their curiosity they were supportive,” he says.

What did the course mean for Harris while he was in prison”

It meant that it wasn’t wasted time. While everyone else was counting the days, I was using the time to my advantage,” he says. “It was also very instrumental in keeping my marriage together because in my absence my wife knew I was doing something that was going to benefit us all in the end.”

Prison experience makes better paralegal

And what did it mean once he got out?

Harris had worked for a law firm before he went into prison but at a lower than paralegal level, so the Blackstone paralegal certificate gave him credibility to get a better job.

Because he works in a firm that specializes partially in criminal law, Harris’s prison experience gives him insight that others in his firm don’t have.

“I’m able to connect with the client in a way that the attorney can’t. I’ve been there and done that,” Harris says. “When clients are in custody and I meet their families and I say I’ve been there, they say, “No you haven’t.” But when he finally convinces them that he has, they know he really understands their situation.

Advice for others

His advice for those still incarcerated:

  • Structure your time and make it work for you.
  • As felons we’ve been selling ourselves our whole lives. Most of us are quite the characters. Take that skillset and turn it into an asset instead of a hustle.
  • Get engaged in your community and network through nonprofits. Put yourself out there and make yourself available to others and it’s amazing what comes back when you do that.

If anyone else has taken the Blackstone Career Institute’s Correspondence Paralegal Program for Inmates, we’d love to hear from you. Please add your comments below or contact us directly.


Texas nonprofit hires ex-offenders to build houses for veterans

Maria Pic

Maria Schneider, Terra Shelter, Inc.

Maria Schneider is out to change the construction industry in Dallas, Texas, one ex-offender at time. Her way to do this: By building a nonprofit that sells rehabbed homes to veterans at below market rate prices and hires employees who were formerly incarcerated.

Her original plan was to rehab houses, but how she decided to hire formerly incarcerated workers came about in a rather serendipitous way.

Trained as an electrical engineer and a biomedical engineer, Schneider got started in construction in her late 20s. The only house she could afford to buy needed a lot of work, and she did it in her spare time. She loved the process and later launched a construction company.

“I had a residential custom building business in the mid 2000s. It was in Austin, and there was an economic boom there,” she says. “The only people I could find to work were ex-offenders, and I got to know them really well and started understanding some of the issues involved in reentry.”

These issues ranged from a lack of a place to live and bad relationships with family members to substance abuse and access to reliable transportation. Another issue was not having a way to make money, which Schneider solved by hiring them.

It wasn’t easy though. “You really have to start from scratch and teach them a lot of things besides the job. You have to teach them a lot of life skills and tell them what to do,” she says.

“But ex-offenders are excluded by a lot of places automatically, so if someone doesn’t include them they’re not going to end up with jobs. A lot of programs provide job training but not jobs. You have to provide them not just with the job training but a job that goes along with it, so they’ll have some income while they’re developing skills and be able to show some experience on their resume.”

After starting to build homes again and forming a nonprofit, Terra Shelter, Inc., Schneider remembered those workers she had once hired and wanted to create jobs for others like them. And she has. In fact, she has made it her mission to do so.

Although Schneider is just, as she says, starting out, her organization has already rehabbed five homes built in the 1920s and 1930s – most of which had to be completely gutted – and located in some of the worst neighborhoods in the city of Dallas.

She’s teamed up with the Tarrant County Housing Partnership. The organization works with several banks, which are required by the government to donate some of the foreclosed homes they receive to nonprofits as part of an anti-blight effort.

The organization began about a year and a half ago, when it received donated houses that were in pretty bad shape. “While our focus was on providing affordable housing, in the process I decided that what I really wanted to do was to work with ex-offenders and teach them the skills they needed to do the job,” she says.

Although working with employees who have been incarcerated has more than its share of challenges, Schneider has found many of them to be very loyal and hard working.

Up until now, she has hired people rather randomly. In the rough and tumble neighborhood of southeast Dallas where her nonprofit works rehabbing houses, she’s often approached by ex-offenders looking for work.

After dealing with the unreliability of some of the workers she hired this way, Schneider decided this recruitment method was unsustainable and has partnered with the Oasis Center, a nonprofit organization providing reentry services and mentoring that help formerly incarcerated individuals get a new start.

In the meantime, her site supervisor is an ex-offender, and Schneider tries to hire as many formerly incarcerated individuals as possible. If she can’t, however, she turns to veterans. Her plumber and electricians fall into this category.

The houses she’s rehabbed have been a really good learning experience, but as a sustainability consultant, Schneider is passionate about green building and would like to get into new home construction. “Trying to build green and affordable is kind of radical here in Texas,” she says.

But no doubt so is hiring ex-offenders. And both are challenges she’s determined to take on.


Oakland employer reaches out to hire ex-offenders


Ashleigh McCullough of Telecom, Inc.

Ashleigh McCullough, senior project manager of Telecom, Inc., is not your typical hiring manager. Far from it. And too bad more people aren’t like her – willing to give ex-offenders a second chance.

Addicted to meth for five years, previously homeless and in and out of prison, she turned her life around and now helps others who have backgrounds that would make them unemployable in the minds of many. But not Ashleigh McCullough.

In fact her company is dedicated to that effort. “We’re a second-chance employer,” McCullouigh says. “No matter where you come from, there’s always someplace you can go.”

Telecom, an outsourced contact center solution provider, employs about 100 people at its facility in downtown Oakland, Calif. The company offers technical and sales support and does order taking, as well as telesales, lead generation and market research.

Five years ago, after a six-month rehab program, McCullough went to Goodwill Industries for help with her job search. The first job they sent her to was a minimum-wage level telemarketing representative at Telecom. Five years later she’s a senior project manager who overseas the outbound sales department, managing about 50 people including four other managers.

As part of her duties at a second-chance employer, McCullough attends job fairs and participants in events like the reentry expo at Santa Rita Jail.

She also works with a halfway house. “When people come out of federal or state prison, I hire them and give them an opportunity,” McCullough says. “The project manager under me who I oversee came from that halfway house.”

There’s no box to check on Telecom employment applications. The company doesn’t’ even do background checks. “There have been one or two cases over the past couple of years when I interviewed people within the prison who had some type of conviction for identity theft,” she says. “For something of that nature, I had them bonded but still would hire them.”

And what sorts of employees do those who were formerly incarcerated make? “They make great employees. I can’t say that every apple in the bunch is great,” she says “They’ve been through struggles, but they give it their all. I have people with drug histories who have been here for three years to 15 years, and they become successful. There are members of the management team who have had their struggles and they’re still here.”

McCullough offers a few tips to help those with a record present themselves better:

  • Concentrate on your appearance.
  • Pay attention to the way you carry yourself.
  • Be reliable and dependable.
  • Go out with an open mind, because there are people who will hire you and give you an opportunity to grow.

How about employers who might be considering hiring those with a record?

  • Give everyone an opportunity, because everyone has something to bring to your company regardless of their background.
  • Keep in mind that everybody deserves a second chance, but no one can prove themselves if they’re not given a chance to do so.

McCullough has now been on both sides and knows first hand what it means to be given a second chance and how giving someone else a that chance can benefit not only a company but society as a whole.

Her example is proof of that. In addition to her career success, she’s a grandmother now and just purchased a new car. “I’ve continued to climb,” she says. “Working at Telecom has given me a second chance at a first-class life.”


Target Corp. bans the box on employment applications

237014_Martinsburg_VA_TargetThe nationwide battle to ban the box is gaining strength with the decision late last month by Minneapolis-headquartered Target Corp. to remove from its employment applications the box that applicants must check if they have a criminal record.

Target’s move, however, was not totally altruistic. Intense pressure by TakeAction Minnesota, a statewide coalition of organizations dedicated to economic and social justice, helped force the issue.

And on top of that, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed a law earlier this year – effective Jan. 1, 2014 – that expands the ban-the-box policy already in force for state government agencies to cover all private employers in Minnesota. To its credit, however, Target plans to carry out the policy for all of its employees across the U.S.

The company will keep the box off of the application form, postponing the question until the applicant is being interviewed or has a tentative job offer. This gives those who were formerly convicted or incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door and make a good impression, hopefully encouraging the hiring manger to approach them as a human being rather than with an all-too-typical stereotypical attitude about their past.

As the country’s second largest retailer after Walmart, which removed the box from its applications in 2010, Target’s action could have an impact nationwide. The company operates 1,797 stores in this country – it also began operating stores in Canada in March – with 361,000 employees worldwide.

“Target is finally doing the right thing by reforming its hiring policies so that qualified job applicants aren’t automatically screened out simply because they have an arrest or conviction from the past,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Other large retailers around the nation need to follow suit, because their hiring policies send a strong message about whether they are committed to the communities that support their business.”

Four states lead the way

Although Target’s action may help propel the ban-the-box movement forward, true credit should be given to Minnesota lawmakers. They took the initiative, joining Hawaii and Massachusetts, which have already enacted laws requiring private employers to ban the box, as has Rhode Island. Like Minnesota’s, Rhode Island’s legislation will go into effect at the beginning of next year.

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico all ban the box for employment applications for state agency jobs, and more than 50 cities, including New York City, Baltimore and Chicago have banned the box on applications for local government positions.

The National Employment Law project publishes a Ban the Box directory detailing all of the cities and counties that have banned the box. The directory includes a history of how they did it and their current hiring practices, as well as contact information and links to government agencies, organizations, reports, laws and examples of employment applications. It also includes other resources for those who want to know more about the subject.

While ban-the-box efforts have been ongoing for several years on a variety of fronts, Target’s action may prove to be an inspiration to continue to broaden efforts beyond government agencies. In fact, it didn’t take long for Illinois State Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) to take action. On Oct. 29, after Target announced its new intentions, Ford, who was the driving force for a state initiative banning the box on application for state agency jobs, made an appeal to all Illinois businesses to follow suit.

Who will be next?


Citizens Awards to recognize successful ex-offenders

CB063448While many people leave prison and go on to lead successful lives, few are formally recognized for their accomplishments. One New York nonprofit, Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc., is out to change that.

Since 2007, the organization has honored the successes of ex-offenders in New York City with its Citizen Awards, and the deadline for its 2013 competition is Sept. 14.

The awards have a motivation beyond mere recognition. “We want to change the perception of formerly incarcerated people,” says Mika’il DeVeaux, Citizens Against Recidivism’s co-founder and executive director. Past recipients have included people with doctorates, educational and religious leaders and directors of social programs.

In 2012, the winners included Cheryl Wilkens, the associate director of the Criminal Justice Initiative: Supporting Children, Families, and Communities (CJI) at the Columbia School of Social Work; Eddie Rosario, Associate Director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Prison Visiting Project; and Kevin Chiles, publisher of Don Diva magazine.

Nominees must have been out of prison for at least three years and do work that serves people who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised or marginalized. The recipients are all in the New York City area, because DeVeaux says they have no budget to fly the winners in, but his efforts may inspire others to launch a similar award program elsewhere.

Although there will be only five awards presented, nominations can be made in five different categories:

Freedom Fighter – For someone who works to gain rights for those incarcerated or previously incarcerated.

Advocacy Award – For someone who has advocated for change and helped to shape policy, legislation or regulations that affect those incarcerated or previously incarcerated.

Bridge Builder – For someone who has brought together diverse groups or individuals to help those incarcerated, previously incarcerated or affected by encounters with the criminal justice system.

Social Action – For someone who shows a commitment to social justice or through their community building efforts serves as an example of the spirit of social change.

Leadership in Education – For someone whose work facilitates the academic growth of or establishes policies or programs that benefit those incarcerated, previously incarcerated or affected by encounters with the criminal justice system.

Research and Scholarship – For someone whose research and/or scholastic achievements help increase the quality of life for those incarcerated, previously incarcerated or affected by encounters with the criminal justice system.

Spiritual Leadership – for someone whose efforts enhance the spirituality, character, ethics, attitudes and behaviors needed for positive human health and well-being by those incarcerated, previously incarcerated or affected by encounters with the criminal justice system.

Instructions for nominations can be found on the organization’s website.

The award ceremony will take place Nov. 9 at the Malxom X & Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in New York City.

Meanwhile, another organization, Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services in San Francisco, has been giving out similar awards for 11 years. Its 2013 In the Trenches Awards were presented in July.

There are five categories, but unlike the Citizens Awards, not all winners have to be ex-offenders. They must, however, be working to improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated. One award is given to an organization, and local government officials have been among past winners.

The purpose of both awards remains the same. “It is to break the stigma against formerly incarcerated people. To show the world that people can change,” says Frank Williams, director of the Ex-offender Senior Program at the Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Center.


Rubicon Bakery says employees with barriers prove to be an asset

Worker displays Rubicon Bakery's sweet treats.

Worker displays Rubicon Bakery’s sweet treats.

Andrew Stoloff, owner of Rubicon Bakery in Richmond, Calif., has a secret he’d like to share. Hiring people with barriers to employment can result in some of the most loyal workers anywhere. And it makes good business sense. Is anybody listening?

Baking is a business that Stoloff fell into by chance. Nonprofit Rubicon Programs had operated the bakery since 1993 to train homeless people, ex-offenders and recovering substance abusers. The bakery was losing money, and Rubicon recruited Stoloff, a local restaurateur and former Morgan Stanley director, to help sell it. After finding little interest in the business, Stoloff decided to buy it himself. The terms were that it would continue to hire the same sort of workers it did in the past.

That was in 2009. Since then, Rubicon Bakery has increased its staff from 14 part-time to 100 full-time employees and increased its output from less than 1,000 cakes per day to about 5,000. It sells through a distributor to places like Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Mollie Stone’s and smaller San Francisco Bay Area stores.

What does Stoloff look for in the people he hires? “Someone who has committed to turning their life around and is not afraid of hard work,” he says. “We don’t turn people’s lives around or even help them turn their lives around. Rather we give people a break if they’ve demonstrated what they have done to turn their lives around.”

And among those who have done that are ex-offenders, who make up about 15 percent of the bakery’s workforce.

Once hired, new employees start right to work. There’s no official training program, and Stoloff doesn’t expect anyone who starts working there to have any baking skills. Some do, however, including people he hires from Emeryville’s The Bread Project.

Each new employee is assigned a buddy who has been working at Rubicon and knows how things are done. It’s a kind of mentoring relationship that works well, says Stoloff. And the proof is in the low turnover in an industry that tends toward the opposite.

The personal training/mentoring is crucial, as the company makes more than 100 different products and each of those has a different process, but Stoloff is pleased with his loyal employees.

In fact, he’s learned a very important lesson in his new venture: If you give people a second chance, they very frequently surprise you at what they can accomplish.

Knowing that, he has a suggestion for how ex-offenders can increase their odds of securing a job.

“They need to tell their story and explain to a potential employer what they’ve been through, how low they got in their life and how hard they’ve worked to make sure they never go back there again,” he says. “Any employer who is willing to listen will realize that, yes, they made some really bad choices, but this is a pretty exceptional person.”

And hiring this sort of person is a win-win for everyone involved.

“Not only should you hire them to do a good thing for society, but you should do it for your business. When I bought the bakery the condition of the sale was that I maintain the social mission. What I learned is that it makes business sense. I have all of these very loyal employees that I wouldn’t normally have. If businesses understood that, they’d all be better off. And the rest of us would be too.”


Defy Ventures program graduate launches internet business

Fabian Ruiz launched Infor-Nation Corp. after participating in Defy Ventures entrepreneurship program.

Not much more than a year ago Fabian Ruiz was in prison serving 21 years for killing the man who shot his older brother. Today he is an entrepreneur and founder of Infor-nation Corp., a company that provides Internet services to those still inside.

From committing a major crime at age 16 to creating a company was a long, circuitous journey, but Ruiz’s story shows that with determination and a little help along the way people who’ve been incarcerated can make it.

During his stay in prison, Ruiz participated in a variety of programs and earned his AA degree. After finishing the college program, he studied to become a paralegal by taking correspondent courses through Blackstone Career Institute and spent the next decade working as a paralegal in the law libraries of various prisons.

It was through working as an in-prison paralegal that he got the inspiration for his business. “The Internet was very useful for me, but in NY prisons there’s no Internet access,” Ruiz says.

“I was fortunate that I had family and friends who I corresponded with and had them go online and look for info for me in places like LexisNexis. That info was pretty valuable, and I always had an idea in the back of my mind that if they won’t let the Internet in, I would create a business facilitating that service for prisoners.

Joining Defy Ventures

When he was released from prison in 2011 Internet access was still not available to prisoners in New York prisons, and no one had started a service to cater to inmates who needed to search for things online.

At the same time, a friend told him about Defy Ventures, a New York City organization that helps a select group of formerly incarcerated individuals learn how to become entrepreneurs. Defy Ventures was founded by Catherine Rohr, who also created the Prison Entrepreneurship Program at the Cleveland State Prison in Texas.

Ruiz decided to apply for the Defy Ventures program, and after an information session and screening process, he was selected to be one of 100 participants in the organization’s first class.

Following a 45-day introductory training program during evenings and weekends, he was among the 50 participants chosen for an internship, in which professional mentors and trainers coach participants as they prepare to launch their own businesses.

At the end of the first six months – Defy Ventures is a yearlong program – Ruiz participated in various competitions in which he had to present business pitches and business plans. The people who win these contests, and those who the organization’s investors are confident can succeed, go into Defy Venture’s business incubator. Ruiz was one of only nine members from his class who made it that far.

“In the incubator, you start the business, and Defy Ventures provides different services like lawyers who formulate contracts and people who do marketing and website assistance,” Ruiz says. It also provided a mentor to work with Ruiz, and he was fortunate that his mentor is the COO of a multimillion-dollar hedge fund.

“He (my mentor) would come to class and see what we were learning, and then we’d have an hour to talk about things. Then we’d have meetings at his office and figure out how to get my financials together,” Ruiz says. “We would go on picnics with Defy, and it developed into a pretty good relationship.”

The final phase

The last phase of the class was to incorporate. Ruiz incorporated his business, Infor-nation Corp., in June but didn’t actually start the business until August.

Infor-nation Corp. offers remote Internet search, remote email management and remote Facebook management, charging a set fee for each service.

He used the $2,000 in grant money he received from winning a Defy Ventures business competition to print and distribute the company’s initial brochures to inmates in prisons, who then fill out their info and what they’d like to have done. He began with four New York prisons, but the New York State prison system did not allow him to provide email and Facebook services.

Ruiz is now looking to expand into New Jersey and has contacted 17 correctional facilities in that state. New Jersey doesn’t seem to have a problem with email or Facebook, so he will be able to offer his full range of services in prisons there.

At this point. Ruiz is working on Infor-nation part time while also being employed part time as a paralegal for a group of criminal trial attorneys.

What’s the most important thing he learned from the whole experience? “You can’t do it on your own. I’ve always been the type of person who tries to do everything on their own, never asks for help,” he says.

“There are different phases in Defy Ventures that concentrate on hard skills and soft skills. They teach textbook stuff and find out which kinds of characteristics you have that are strong and which are weak. It was doing those things that I realized I have to break out of old patterns and do new things to get results.”

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Stanford law student helps female ex-offenders launch businesses

Angela McCray (center) with the first ReMADE class (left to right): Mary, June, Chloe and Mahnani.

With so many barriers to employment, many ex-offenders find that starting their own business provides a better option than working for someone else. While entrepreneurship has its own challenges, those with creative ideas and determination can succeed, perhaps with a little help from programs like the one created by Stanford Law School student Angela McCray to help female ex-offenders get a head start.

McCray launched Project ReMADE, which stands for Rentry: Making a Difference Through Entrepreneurship, early this year. An MBA, CPA and a member of a family of entrepreneurs, McCray was inspired by a corrections class she took at Stanford. In a paper she wrote for the class on how to reduce the recidivism rate, she proposed a program to help entrepreneurial ex-offenders, and the endeavor developed from there.

Project ReMADE consists of weekly meetings, which alternate traditional classroom training in such business skills as marketing, accounting and how to get funding with meetings with mentors. Each participant is matched with a law student, a business student and a member of the business community who help her put together a business plan.

McCray also recruited students to teach workshops and act as mentors and worked with the San Francisco Reentry Council to locate potential clients. Five were chosen for the initial 12-week program, but one later dropped out.

Participants must have a high school diploma or GED, have been out of prison or jail for at least one year and be working or in school.

The program is just the beginning of the process. “We focus on giving participants the social capital they need and a framework and a mentor so that they can work more fully with their plan and their ideas,” McCray says. “They can’t develop a business in 12 weeks.”

They do develop a business plan, however, and that plan is formally presented before a panel of representatives from organizations including Working Solutions, the Small Business Development Center and Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. “Our goal is to connect them with the organizations that can help them carry on from there,” McCray adds.

The first class of entrepreneurial women established plans for a creative design company, an event planning firm, a clothing line for the LGBT market and a supplier of domestic services that range from cleaning to closet organization.

McCray plans to start recruiting the next batch of five future entrepreneurs in the fall, when classes at Stanford resume.