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Why John Legend Is Backing Startups Launched By These Former Inmates

Unlocked Futures, a 16-month accelerator for social entrepreneurs impacted by the criminal justice system, wants to help other former inmates.

Why John Legend Is Backing Startups Launched By These Former Inmates

“I’m tearing up!” shouts entrepreneur Teresa Hodge. “I feel like a proud mom.” Hodge is beaming after a presentation by Marcus Bullock, the founder of Flikshop, an app through which family and friends can send photo postcards to inmates.

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It’s a Wednesday morning, and I’m at an event in Lower Manhattan celebrating the inaugural class of Unlocked Futures, a 16-month-long accelerator for social entrepreneurs who have been incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system. The room is just big enough to hold the eight entrepreneurs selected for the first group, a videographer with a formidable body-mounted camera rig, and a smattering of employees from nonprofit philanthropic fund New Profit, who come and go as they please.

For much of the morning session, New Profit’s affable, deliberate managing partner Tulaine Montgomery holds court. But about an hour in, each of the entrepreneurs steps up to share their story through what is called a PechaKucha presentation, in which speakers are tasked with compiling a 20-slide photo presentation and can only spend 20 seconds explaining each slide.

Tulaine Montgomery [Photo: courtesy of Unlocked Futures]
Hodge and Bullock already know each other well, having spoken on panels together or otherwise crossed paths via their respective entrepreneurial journeys. (Hodge is the founder of the Mission: Launch nonprofit, which helps train formerly incarcerated people to reenter the workforce.) But other entrepreneurs in the cohort are meeting for the first time–and are laying the groundwork for partnerships just hours later.

Amanda Alexander, one of two entrepreneurs in the group who did not go to prison, wants to transform Detroit into a “Just City” through the Detroit Justice Center, which seeks to make Detroit more equitable by improving transitional housing, reducing fines and ticketing, and more. One of her peers in the cohort is Topeka K. Sam, who just launched the Bronx-based Hope House, which will house women for up to a year after incarceration to help them get back on their feet. During a roundtable the next day, the entrepreneurs had a wide-ranging conversation with John Legend, collector of Grammys and founder of criminal justice reform initiative FreeAmerica. Alexander talked about her own hopes for Sam’s venture. “I can’t wait for Hope House to get off the ground in the Bronx so it can go to Detroit,” she mused. 

Amanda Alexander (center) Founder, Detroit Justice Center [Photo: courtesy of Unlocked Futures]
Connecting entrepreneurs in this space is something Legend and New Profit had in mind when they conceived of Unlocked Futures, which is backed by a $500,000 grant from Bank of America. The accelerator is awarding $50,000 in funding to each entrepreneur, along with coaching and support from New Profit. 

“For entrepreneurs who are often overextended and under-resourced, who are often isolated, who rarely have a place where they can talk openly about what they’re up against–the power of creating a community that is a counterweight to that isolation can’t be overstated,” says Montgomery, who is at the helm of Unlocked Futures.

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Related Video: These Entrepreneurs Were Inmates—Now John Legend Is Backing Their Companies

One of the reasons they sought out people who weren’t new to entrepreneurship—founders who had a “readiness to grow,” according to Montgomery—was because a key component of the Unlocked Futures program is not only supporting entrepreneurs from a business perspective, but also schooling them in how to effect change and further the broader conversation on criminal justice.

“We were able to curate a cohort of eight leaders that have already jelled and built a support network, even in the first time we brought them together,” Montgomery says. Her team can take credit for some of that. In the sessions I sat in on, the entrepreneurs didn’t just share their business aspirations and talk shop. They were encouraged to discuss their time in prison, ask each other questions, and share the lessons they had learned from friends and family–all of which is inextricably linked to their work. Relationship building, Montgomery says, is one of the things she believes sets Unlocked Futures apart from other accelerators. 

Will Avila Founder and CEO, Clean Decisions [Photo: courtesy of Unlocked Futures]
The instant camaraderie I saw is also the result of bringing people together for whom entrepreneurship has offered a path forward; it has empowered the group’s entrepreneurs to carve out opportunities when employers were unwilling to take a chance on them. When Hodge applied for a job upon her release from prison, one of the first questions she encountered–after filling out basic information like name and address–was “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” The minute she checked the box, the screen went black, and she was told she was disqualified for the job.

“That’s how blatant the discrimination is,” Hodge said at the roundtable. “Entrepreneurship is important because we may not get jobs . . . We’re hiring ourselves. It’s out of necessity.”

Left to right: James Monteiro, Topeka K. Sam, Jason Cleaveland, Marcus Bullock, Dirk Van Velzen, Amanda Alexander, Will Avila, and Teresa Hodge [Photo: courtesy of Unlocked Futures]
Of course, opportunity doesn’t mean equal opportunity. Entrepreneurs who are formerly incarcerated are less likely to get funding and support and are less likely to have moneyed networks to draw from. People of color are both disproportionately affected by mass incarceration and struggle to secure funding. And if it’s hard to raise money as a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur, it’s harder still to do so when the people you want to help are also incarcerated or at risk of going to prison–which underscores why background wasn’t the only criteria for Unlocked Futures. Having experienced the criminal justice system firsthand, these entrepreneurs are also some of the people best equipped to identify and address its myriad issues.

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“We wanted people who had an agenda and a mission that was directed toward that community of formerly incarcerated people and people who are vulnerable who we want to prevent from getting caught up in the system again, or in the first place,” Legend says. “So all of the entrepreneurs we’re supporting meet that criteria. Even if they have for-profit businesses like Flikshop–it’s targeted at people who are in prison and their families, to make sure they’re communicating with each other.”

For entrepreneurs who have been incarcerated, moral imperative may drive them to serve those communities. As Sam said during the roundtable, “it’s very difficult to leave prison and not think about the people you left behind.” But for those who value cold, hard numbers–say, the powers that be in local and state government—there is also an economic incentive to help people unmoored by incarceration.

More than 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated, and the criminal justice system reportedly costs the government and the families of incarcerated people upwards of $182 billion per year. What might happen if, after leaving prison, more of those people could reap the benefits of a program like Unlocked Futures? “Ninety-five percent of people in [state] prison come home,” Hodge said. “It’s fiscally irresponsible to lock them out of opportunities.”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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