by Moxye Staff

Oscar and Grammy award-winning artist John Legend and venture philanthropy fund New Profit have teamed up to support eight formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs from across the country — and three are growing their businesses in Washington.

The team hopes the effort will help eliminate the stigma and barriers to re-entry the incarcerated face when they return home.

The 20-year-old Boston-based nonprofit, which supports social entrepreneurs with access to capital and leadership, has launched the Unlocked Futures accelerator, a program to help returning citizens from prisonbuild their organizations. It comes in partnership with Legend who, in addition to his music and film careers, runs FreeAmerica, a communications campaign focused on criminal justice reform. Bank of America is also a partner, with its charitable foundation providing a $500,000 leadership grant.

‘Help, not punishment’: John Legend lends his support to local advocates for criminal justice reform

“Entrepreneurship creates opportunities for people with a criminal record to live with dignity, realize their potential and return to their communities and families as positive leaders,” Legend said in a statement to the Washington Business Journal. “Self-employment is a pathway for individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system to earn a family-sustaining income, build a career, and give back to their communities.”

The accelerator’s inaugural 16-month cohort kicked off in December. New Profit provides its members coaching, media strategy help and access to potential investors, and each entrepreneur also receives a grant of $50,000. Then the partnership with FreeAmerica comes in, as a platform to inform the public dialogue about people affected by criminal justice, said Tulaine Montgomery, managing director of New Profit, based in its D.C. office.

Teresa Hodge runs one of the three District-based organizations in the cohort. She founded nonprofit Mission Launch with her daughter, Laurin, after she was released nearly six years ago from federal prison, where she served five years and 10 months for a white-collar, nonviolent first-time offense. The organization has been holding hackathons and other events since 2013 to help ex-inmates get back on their feet. But Hodge, director of strategy and innovation of Mission Launch, is now working toward the launch of R3 Score, a readiness index that provides “decision-makers,” as Hodge calls them — landlords, bankers, employers, anyone who might be considering working with formerly incarcerated people — with data about these individuals. Her plan is to first work with licensing boards and the banking industry in rolling out the product.

Will Avila, Once a violent offender, now his company Clean Decisions keeps D.C. kitchens spotless

Another local member, Will Avila, is founder and CEO of Clean Decisions LLC.His idea came from his struggle finding employment after he was released from federal prison in 2013 following more than a decade of entering and exiting the system. He applied for 22 jobs and was rejected by all of them, so he started a commercial kitchen company to provide jobs to returning citizens. That eventually became landscaping, then event setup and clean-up (think Taste of D.C.), and other types of community support. He also started Changing Perceptions, a nonprofit arm of the business to promote entrepreneurship.

“That’s basically what my dream, my vision was, to create jobs and create careers and to also provide that step, that path to get into this ecosystem,” Avila said.

The third Washington-based entrepreneur is Marcus Bullock. He was convicted at age 15 for carjacking, attempted robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, then tried as an adult before serving eight years in different maximum-security prisons. He launched FlikShop in 2012 with the goal of making sure every person in every prison cell in America gets mail every day. The tech-based service turns digital messages into postcards, like the Instagram for prison. It now has about 70,000 users a year, and expects to grow in 2018 because of the opportunity with Unlocked Futures, Bullock said. The company will set out to raise $1 million this year.

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]

“Whether it be a check or the network or social capital, these are the tools and resources that most of us have never had before, and now we finally have that,” Bullock said of the Unlocked Futures accelerator. “That executive coaching is huge for us, being in an environment where you don’t have to play guesswork and allow your hustle to be the only thing to push you to success.”

New Profit sees Unlocked Futures as an ongoing initiative, Montgomery said. This first group will identify specific goals related to fundraising and revenue generation, and strengthen their leadership, “so that they can get to the point where they don’t have to be quite as scrappy in order to function — moving toward sustainability,” she said.

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