Nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record, which means they are virtually locked out of job opportunities and prospects for a brighter future. More than half are unemployed one year after their release from prison, and partly as a result, more than 70 percent return to prison within five years 1.

In 2017, New Profit, John Legend’s FREEAMERICA, and Bank of America teamed up to take on this challenge and launch Unlocked Futures, an accelerator program with two key areas of focus: Backing entrepreneurs who have direct experience with the criminal justice system and changing the public mindset about renewal and the constructive role people who are formerly incarcerated can play in society. In its first year, Unlocked Futures has supported eight early-stage entrepreneurs with unrestricted funding and strategic support. The results have been promising:

  • Amanda Alexander opened the doors to the Detroit Justice Center in April, which has served more than 150 clients to date through its Legal Services Practice and Economic Equity Practice, and launched Michigan’s first large-scale revolving bail fund in partnership with The Bail Project. [VIDEO]
  • Clean Decisions, led by Will Avila, won a contract for green cleaning and maintenance through the D.C. Department of General Services and now employs more than 17 staff, all of whom are returning citizens. [VIDEO]
  • Marcus Bullock of Flikshop launched the Flikshop Angels program, which allows the public to purchase gift cards for children to send pictures to their incarcerated parents, and has connected 14,000 incarcerated people to their communities. [VIDEO]
  • Jason Cleaveland launched ObodoHub -- a tailored technology that helps nonprofits streamline their data, outcomes, and training systems -- in three new cities: East St. Louis, IL; Lawrence, KS; and Bentonville, AR. [VIDEO]
  • James Monteiro and the Reentry Campus Program teamed up with four other organizations to create the Rhode Island Reentry Collaborative, which was awarded a 2018 Second Chance Act Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide comprehensive services to assist high-risk individuals being released from prison. [VIDEO]
  • Topeka K. Sam and Ladies of Hope Ministries raised $750k and expanded their team to four full-time staff and six part-time contractors who have all been impacted by the criminal justice system, enabling them to employ an additional 12 impacted people by Q1 2019 and expand to new sites next year. [VIDEO]
  • Dirk Van Velzen, founder of the Prison Scholar Fund which creates educational opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals, was accepted into JustLeadership USA’s 2019 cohort of its “Leading with Conviction” leadership program. [VIDEO]
Lessons Learned from Unlocked Futures for Philanthropists

As we near the end of the first year of Unlocked Futures and look towards supporting a new cohort of entrepreneurs in 2019, we are reflecting on what we’ve learned. Here are some key points:

Recognize the Power of Proximity
The first step in supporting formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs is to recognize and trust their talent and potential, which requires shifting from a deficit mindset to an asset mindset. These entrepreneurs add value with first-hand experience of the criminal justice system and a deep understanding of its opportunities for improvement. They are immersed in the communities they serve and uniquely positioned to help the 600,000+ individuals re-entering society each year who face the same challenges they did in securing jobs, housing, and health care.

Be Intentional About Removing Barriers
Removing barriers for these entrepreneurs is often about connecting, building relationships, and advocating. New Profit has helped many of the entrepreneurs begin conversations with folks who were originally unresponsive to their own outreach efforts, resulting in funding and opportunities from which they were previously shut out. Philanthropists can do small things to help these entrepreneurs achieve big things, such as opening doors, making a call, sending a note of support, and asking how to help.

Support Community-Building
It is not only about philanthropists vouching for entrepreneurs who were formerly incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system -- it is about entrepreneurs sharing their credibility, knowledge, and networks with each other. This happened so naturally among the Unlocked Futures cohort; they have such a deep commitment to broadening the landscape of opportunity for fellow entrepreneurs impacted by incarceration. In my 20 years of doing this work, I have never seen entrepreneurs so dedicated to not only their enterprises, but also to their broader community. Rather than having a zero-sum framework, those who have been exposed to the most struggle have the most abundant mindset in regards to supporting others.

Stories Matter
Supporting entrepreneurs in telling their story in compelling ways is as important as building the capacity of their organizations. Changing the public perception about the potential of these entrepreneurs and the impacts of mass incarceration is critical to criminal justice reform efforts, and stories are powerful tools to do this. We saw how much people care about the stories of these entrepreneurs through the launch of FREEAMERICA’s 8-part video series. This campaign showcased the journeys of each entrepreneur of the inaugural accelerator program and highlighted their businesses as well as their impact in their communities. We invite you to get to know each of these remarkable entrepreneurs, and think about ways that you can support their work and share their stories.

Learn more about the Unlocked Futures Issue Fund.

1. The National Reentry Resource Center

Original contribution by Tulaine Montgomery, Managing Director at New Profit, a national venture philanthropy organization that provides growth capital and strategic support to a portfolio of breakthrough social entrepreneurs to help them dramatically scale their impact.