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Homeboy Recycling Helps Formerly Incarcerated Workers Get On Their Feet With E-Cycling

Homeboy Industries–a nonprofit job-training organization for formerly incarcerated people–just acquired a for-profit e-cycling company, creating a new model of how the two sectors can work together for good.

When Kabira Stokes founded Isidore Electronics Recycling in 2011, she knew she was doing things a little bit differently. Even though electronics waste (or e-waste) is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, e-cycling services were still a pretty new and rare concept. As a “lifelong environmentalist,” Stokes tells Co.Exist that she couldn’t ignore the potential of bringing an e-cycling enterprise to her home of Los Angeles. But her company wouldn’t just tackle the growing problem of electronics ending up in landfill: Isidore would also open up space in Los Angeles’ job market for formerly incarcerated people, by making a point to hire men and women with a criminal record.

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Combining two progressive business approaches under one for-profit umbrella is remarkable, but given Stokes’s background, unsurprising: After years working in the city council as a staffer for Eric Garcetti (now the city’s mayor) and witnessing firsthand the barriers to employment faced by those with a criminal record, Stokes enrolled in the University of Southern California to study the California prison system. While there, she also consulted with the Bay Area-based nonprofit Green For All, which lifts people out of poverty by connecting them with employment opportunities in the sustainability sector. It was through that work that Stokes learned of RecycleForce, an Indiana-based e-cycling nonprofit that employs formerly incarcerated people. “It was like: get out, and three days later, come here and pull apart a TV, and you have a job,” Stokes says. After she finished at USC, she couldn’t get that idea out of her head.

“I felt like if I asked people in Los Angeles to give me their electronics, they would, and I could hire people with records to do the recycling,” Stokes says. As she was working on founding Isidore Electronics Recycling (named for St. Isidore who, despite being canonized in 1598, the Catholic Church has since been deemed the patron saint of the internet and computer technicians), Stokes says she faced a lot of pressure to establish the enterprise as a nonprofit. But Stokes had a different take.

“Of course, there’s a tremendous need for nonprofits and transitional job-training programs in the U.S.,” she says. “But the issue is that there becomes a bottleneck. When folks get their training and are ready to work, there just aren’t a whole lot of regular, for-profit companies that are willing to hire people with criminal records.” By setting up Isidore as a for-profit benefit corporation, Stokes wanted to bridge that gap between training and permanent employment; in Isidore’s six years, the company has employed 27 formerly incarcerated people, who have recycled over 2.2 million pounds of electronics.

But that is not to say that Stokes bypassed the nonprofit sector entirely. Los Angeles is home to Homeboy Industries, founded in 1988 by Father Greg Boyle, a priest at Dolores Mission Parish, as a job-training program for people with criminal backgrounds. Since then, it’s grown into one of the foremost re-entry programs in the country, supporting 10,000 men and women each year through 18-month training programs in which participants work at various Homeboy-affiliated businesses, like a bakery and a silkscreen company. Before Stokes founded Isidore, she met with Boyle to ask if she could hire people out of the Homeboy training program; he said yes, and the first people employed by Isidore were all former Homeboys.

Now, the two organizations will more closely tied. Homeboy has acquired Isidore and will relaunch the business as Homeboy Recycling–a standalone company that will fall under the larger umbrella of Homeboy Industries and supplement its other social enterprise businesses. By leveraging a for-profit to provide jobs and revenue for a nonprofit, Homeboy Recycling is showing how two different business models can work in tandem to support a range of social good.

Homeboy Recycling will be able to grow its recycling and employment capabilities once it moves to a larger facility this year; Stokes imagines hiring people out of the Homeboy training program at first to do entry-level jobs, like dismantling a computer, then moving up to more managerial roles.

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Tom Vozzo, the CEO of Homeboy Industries, moved to the nonprofit four years ago after serving as the executive vice president of Aramark. In his time at Homeboy, he tells Co.Exist, “I was struck by the fact that the rest of the business world needs to understand that these folks who’ve faced barriers and overcome them are good hard workers, and they should be employed. So it became our vision to not just have our nonprofit Homeboy businesses, but to push the frontier and have a set of for-profit enterprises that employ the same folks and prove to the world that this model can be successful.”

Because the sustainability sector is so nimble and fast-growing–the e-waste market was estimated at $8.4 billion in the U.S., and has grown at an annual rate of 15.4% over the past five years–that’s where Homeboy is focusing its for-profit efforts; acquiring Isidore, Vozzo says, is a first step. But the merger, Stokes adds, also represents something larger. Homeboy Recycling shows how a for-profit business can sustain itself on a practice that benefits the planet, but it also how the private sector can and should be acting to support “the rights and opportunities of people who have fallen through the cracks in our society,” Stokes says. “It’s very clear that the government cannot–and perhaps, in the case of this new administration, will not–do so, and the nonprofit sector can’t do it alone.” The Homeboy Recycling model, Stokes says, “is the future of capitalism.”

[Photos: via Homeboy Recycling]

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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