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This Woman Is Changing Ex-Felons’ Lives–And Her Own

Urban Stone is an eco-friendly business working to end poverty and provide opportunities to former felons.

This Woman Is Changing Ex-Felons’ Lives–And Her Own
[Photo: Flickr user Alexander C. Kafka]

Three seemingly unrelated events changed the course of Mary Cunningham’s life–and has the potential to change the lives of men and women who have passed through the American prison system.

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First, Cunningham decided it was time to pursue her dream to become a social entrepreneur. She began researching poverty to get a sense of a viable business idea. “I was appalled to learn about mass incarceration,” she says. “It was even more appalling to learn that felons upon release are cut off from welfare, housing, Pell grants, federal student loans and most jobs. It became apparent why two-thirds re-offend within a year. To fix the broken system with a meaningful job was common sense. It was the fastest, most economical and humane way to address our annual $875 billion poverty and prison tax bill.”

Mary Cunningham left her career in the corporate world to start Urban Stone.

After nine months of research, she hit upon a business model that would become Urban Stone. The company’s mission seems simple: They recycle stone construction waste into valuable green building materials. Yet what it accomplishes is a lot more complex–and rewarding. Urban Stone, which launches in early 2015, also provides jobs, profit-sharing 401(k) and the potential of company ownership to employees who have worked there for a year.

“People drop out of life when they lose hope about their futures,” says Cunningham. “Urban Stone exists for one reason–to lift up people and the planet by leveraging capitalism.” Urban Stone works with non-profits that specialize in ex-offender re-entry, and hires these men and women with the goal of bringing the bottom 10% of the population out of poverty while also helping to lower recidivism rates.

But coming up with a unique business idea wasn’t enough to get her going. “I was afraid to leave the corporate world where I was a 2% wage earner and risk everything that I spent a lifetime building,” says the New York-based former business performance advisor. “Yet here I was, at a crossroads: Do I always wonder what if? Or do I risk everything and start all over?”

Enter the second event that changed her life: hearing Steve Forbes give a speech. “He spoke about the economy, the importance of job creation, servant leadership and the correlation between wealth and helping others,” recalls Cunningham. One month later, she resigned.

Next, there was the phone call no parent wants to receive–the one that propelled her not to wait any longer. Her daughter’s half-brother, who is like a son to Cunningham, had been arrested for selling marijuana and was facing prison time. “I discussed my business model with him. His eyes welled with tears and he said, ‘You want to help people like me,'” she remembers.

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That was two years ago, two years that Cunningham has spent finalizing plans. “The biggest challenge was finding an innovative green business that required low-skilled employment with high-growth potential. Stone fabricators pay to have their waste hauled. There are currently 500 billion pounds a year that pollute our overcrowded landfills. Instead of hauling it to the dump, it will end up in our manufacturing plant where we create solid-stone tiles and pavers for the commercial markets,” explains Cunningham. Urban Stone hopes to establish relationships with quarries, as they produce tremendous waste. “These businesses can donate their waste and get a tax write off for doing so.”

In lieu of engaging angel investors–who would take ownership percentages away from employee–she has used her life savings to fund the operation, and will launch a crowdfunding campaign later this month to raise additional capital. It will be an opportunity to not only help realize Cunningham’s dream–but to give possibility back to many who seemed to be without.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that Cunningham heard a speech by Steve Jobs.

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About the author

Ayana Byrd writes about people, ideas and companies that are groundbreaking and innovative.

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