Prison Time Can Be Your Superpower in Business

I’m Formerly Incarcerated, and I Help People Reentering the Job Market Understand the Value of Their Experiences Inside

People with criminal histories and their potential and current employers each need to recognize the opportunities the other has to offer, writes Defy Ventures’ executive director Quan Huynh. Illustration by Be Boggs.

This piece publishes as part of the Zócalo/The James Irvine Foundation public program and editorial series, “What Is a Good Job Now?” which investigates low-wage work across California. Register for the event “What Is a Good Job Now?” For the Formerly Incarcerated on January 24, 7PM PST.

When you’re working with men and women coming out of prison to find meaningful career trajectories, it’s important to ask them about their prison experience.

Far too often, formerly incarcerated people don’t appreciate the value of their prison journey.

They will tell you, “All I did was work on a yard crew,” without recognizing that such work might prepare them for everything from construction to landscaping to property management.

They will tell you, “All I did was work in the kitchen,” without recognizing that they might have learned enough to get a job in food services, or open their own restaurant.

I work as the Southern California executive director for Defy Ventures, a national non-profit that offers both prison-based and community-based entrepreneurship, personal development, and career readiness programs. We call the people we serve—people who are on a journey out of prison—“entrepreneurs in training,” or EITs for short.

And one big advantage our clients have is the time they spent in prison. The public doesn’t understand it, but prisons offer opportunities. There are leadership positions. Men can push forward independent initiatives. I started a “Grief and Loss” group, and helped facilitate numerous other groups while I was inside.

While in prison, I actually had quite a bit of time to work on myself, in a lot of groups that I was involved in, and also through a lot of books that I had the opportunity to read. People out here have not had the same chance to work on themselves as those who have been incarcerated.

So, as I tell our EITs, all the work you’ve done on yourself can be the thing that sets you apart—even your superpower.

If you think about your prison experience this way, there are opportunities out there for you. One young man I worked with had learned how to install and fix the sprinkler system and mowers while working in the prison yard, and had realized that he was mechanically inclined. We had a CEO of an electric bus company who was supportive of hiring formerly incarcerated people, and was eager to find people with mechanical skills. The young man not only got hired—he also received equity in the company.

People out here have not had the same chance to work on themselves as those who have been incarcerated.

I know firsthand about the transition from prison to working life. While serving a life sentence for shooting a man to death when I was a gang member in Southern California in 1999, I spent time at four state prisons in California. At Solano State Prison, my last stop before I was paroled, one of my jobs was to clean the hospital. That proved to be one stroke of good fortune. The other was that I participated in a pilot program of the Defy Ventures program that I now get to help lead.

Once I got out, my brother gave me a job helping with paperwork at his real estate firm so I’d have an income. I knew that real estate wasn’t a long-term opportunity for me, because, as a convicted felon, the state wouldn’t license me. But I did notice that the janitor firm they used wasn’t cleaning the building the way it should be cleaned.

I talked to the building owner and offered my services. I used to run a hospital cleaning crew up north, I explained. I went on to reserve a name and web address for my company, Jade Janitors. I had to get my business license and find business insurance. Then I gave the guy a quote, and was hired the same week. I eventually had six employees, four of them formerly incarcerated.

I didn’t stop there. I helped my family start a restaurant. Within 18 months of leaving prison, I was both working there and at Jade Janitors. Then, in 2017, an opportunity to join the post-release services at Defy Ventures opened up, and I took it, while still holding onto the cleaning business.

I also wrote a book, which was published in 2020. It’s called Sparrow in the Razor Wire. The title is a reference to a moment in prison when I noticed a sparrow, badly injured because it had landed on razor wire, singing its song. From that moment, prison did not feel like punishment anymore—it became a place where I could remake myself into someone better.

We try to create that same feeling with our training. Defy Ventures’ core program inside prisons is called “The CEO of Your Life.” It’s a seven-month program with more than 2,000 pages of curriculum, four books, and twice-weekly facilitations for five hours. There’s another five hours of homework on top of that. At the halfway point of the program, we have a coaching day, where we bring in volunteers from the business world. Finally, the culmination is a business-pitch competition and graduation ceremony where everyone receives a certificate from Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management.

In this process, we are trying to shift two mindsets: the mindsets of people with criminal histories, and the mindsets of businesspeople. Each needs to recognize the opportunities in the other.

We—the formerly incarcerated—still encounter barriers in business and work. For example, during the pandemic, Jade Janitors lost 70 percent of its contracts because no one was paying to have their offices cleaned anymore. I started filling out a PPP loan for the business. But then I got to question five, which asked me if I was on parole. I answered yes, and the survey wouldn’t let me continue.

Why should my team be discriminated against for something I did over 20 years ago?

I can’t remember exactly how CBS Money Watch found out about what happened with Jade Janitors. The next thing I knew I was hearing from CNN and being contacted by the ACLU. After that Defy Ventures and the ACLU sued the Small Business Administration in a class action lawsuit on behalf of all small business owners with criminal histories. The application got changed, and I was able to qualify for the PPP loan.

Another big issue in California is licensing.

One of our graduates worked in prison as an optician, making glasses. But when he went to work at Costco and had to get a license, his crime from 30 years ago came up.

Another EIT who found an excellent job was performing well, but the company algorithm began saying he had to be fired because he was showing up late twice a month. The problem was that his parole agent would call him in the morning and insist on meeting right that day.

In that case, we were able to talk to management and explain the need for flexibility.

This is why it’s important for the formerly incarcerated to make sure they value themselves. Without knowing your own strengths, you can’t advocate for yourself and your worth.

Quan Huynh is the executive director of the Southern California chapter of Defy Ventures, and author of Sparrow in the Razor Wire: Finding Freedom From Within While Serving a Life Sentence.

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