Former Prisoners Have a Tough Time Finding a Job. This New Incubator Teaches Them to Become Entrepreneurs Instead
It can be nearly impossible for former convicts to find a job in L.A. A new incubator is training formerly incarcerated Angelenos to start their own businesses instead.
"Nobody runs a criminal record check on a company," said Reboot LA program director Claudia Diaz.
Reboot LA will offer 28 formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to participate in their incubator program offered in partnership with the city of Los Angeles this fall. Its curriculum comes from Sabio Enterprises, a coding and educator developer community that provides boot camps for future software engineers.
"They're taking control, but just being hired on their own digital portfolios and their own talent," she said.
Because of the stigma, many people who have done time in prison or jail face higher hurdles to getting a job. Owning a company, instead of working for someone else or consulting as an individual is often an easier path toward economic sustainability. And studies show that jobs are also associated with lower recidivism.
Reboot LA helps students build skills to be competitive, including how to source clients, create a digital portfolio, perform full stack development and, ultimately, own their own tech consulting company.
Reboot LA's Roots
Sabio co-founder and chief executive officer Liliana Monge came up with the idea while working with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) in L.A. She thought Sabio's curriculum could help people with criminal records gain skills to work in tech and started devising a program to steer them toward employment after they finished a boot camp.
She hosted biweekly coding information sessions at Homeboy Industries and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition last year to gauge interest and engage possible participants.
But when Los Angeles went into lockdown, those classes went online and recruitment got harder. Then the city of Los Angeles agreed to cover the costs for 28 enrollees, and applications started to roll in. "In October, we finally got our first 100% remote program participant," she said.
Monge didn't want to disclose the names of participants because they attend classes alongside other Sabio students. She doesn't want her students to have to deal with the stigmas around incarceration. But she would say said the first participant is a Latina woman.
"[There is] a lack of women talent in the tech industry," Monge said. "So we're excited that our first program participant is a woman of color. And we look forward to having more program participants that are super diverse, and we want gender parity as well."
The city of Los Angeles was already working with ARC to provide job training to formerly incarcerated individuals. The Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD) noticed the tech workshops Sabio was doing with ARC. When Monge decided to expand the pilot program, EWDD worked closely with her to make Reboot LA available to all Angelenos with a record.
"The tech industry is thriving in Los Angeles, yet for some Angelenos, finding a job in this realm feels completely out of reach," said Carolyn Hull, general manager of EWDD. "EWDD invests in incubators as part of the city's mission to cultivate the city's clean tech industry and create opportunities for the city's underserved populations to gain access to the tech industry."
Few Legal Protections for Those with a Criminal Record
Angelenos with a criminal record are not legally protected against hiring discrimination based on their record. People with incarceration histories are four to six times more likely to be unemployed than peers without a record, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.
There have been a few recent measures in California that aim to provide them with protections against discrimination. But for the most part, these efforts haven't increased opportunities for formerly incarcerated people in the tech industry.
Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom passed an Assembly bill that expunges the criminal records of former prisoners who fought against the California wildfires Not all prisoners are on the front lines of fighting fires, however. And this measure is intended to help formerly incarcerated people seeking employment in emergency response.
In 2018, California passed the Fair Chance Act, known as "Ban the Box," which refers to a box on job applications that indicate whether the applicant has a criminal record. California employers cannot ask applicants about their conviction histories. But that doesn't protect employees from a criminal history check after they are hired, according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. And any job that already requires a background check, such as those in finance or the government, is not subject to this law.
Emiliano Lopez and Guillermo "Memo" Armenta founded a web app and development company called FutureWork. Courtesy Reboot LA
Future Work: Rate My Parole Agent
Emiliano Lopez and Guillermo "Memo" Armenta — two Sabio graduates — helped Monge develop the ideas for Reboot LA. Both are social justice advocates and their work ranges from community outreach to housing people coming out of incarceration.
"Both my mom and I come from a marginalized community, we both formerly incarcerated folks," said Lopez. "We took advantage of the opportunity that ARC and Sabio had at one time where we were able to join the coding boot camp on a scholarship."
Since graduating, they have founded a web app and development company called Future Work.
Lopez and Armenta were introduced to Sabio's programming at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. They took a 12-week coding bootcamp, and after finishing, started looking for work in the tech space.
"From there, Memo and I decided to look for jobs in the coding world. And we noticed that it was largely closed for people with a background," said Lopez.
They brainstormed and worked on small projects for a while, which Lopez saved in his Google Drive within a folder called "future work."
"We were just fed up with the way things were going. And we just threw our hands up in the air and we went downtown. We filed to create a company called Future Work, named after the folder on my Google Drive," said Lopez. "We're a functioning part-time business right now. And currently, we have a little product to offer."
That product is an app aimed at improving relationships between parole agents and parolees, for people with backgrounds similar to their own.
"[It's] going to be a "rating app" for parole agents, to understand what the relationship between parole agent and parolee is," said Lopez. "What that looks like on the grand scale is, 'What does that culture look like, with an entire office of parole agents and an entire community of people on parole?' [We'll] use that data to improve those relationships in the future, so we can build a safer society — one that is based on mutual respect, and the common goal of having someone succeed and not go back into the institution."
Reboot LA is still looking for participants for its first official cohort of participants. Applications are available on their website. Los Angeles residents can apply to the free program, and cohorts are selected every month.
Full-time courses run for 13 weeks, six times a week. Part-time courses meet on weekday evenings and Saturdays. Participants are trained in Microsoft's .Net platform, Node.js development, client side frameworks, database architecture and API tools.
"L.A. is really kind of brimming with exceptional tech talent," Monge said." And so we're excited to make sure that through this program, we can bring in diverse voices to the tech ecosystem."
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Richard Bronson debuted Los Angeles-based Commissary Club in beta just three weeks ago and already has thousands of people on a wait list. Bronson aims to reach an estimated 70 million Americans who have a criminal record, whether it resulted from years in prison or an arrest without a conviction.