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."
Before there were gas stations, roadways or traffic lights, people really couldn't drive their cars very much, or far. It took a while for momentum to build and create the pull for new services. During that time there were people who were just trying to get others to not use their horse.
Even with the technological advances we've seen in the last century, the pathway to recovery still involves jumping on your horse and going a quarter mile down the road.
I tell people all the time, as a psychologist and the founder of a tech company creating solutions to help people find treatment: There is a moment when someone decides they want help. When we come to it, we are filled with the simultaneous feeling of relief and dread. Relief that the person finally wants help, and dread about where to start and how to find them the right place in the brief window of time that desire to get help exists.
That is the window I've been dedicated to decreasing.
Mental Health Nonprofits and Their Struggles
When someone gets or makes that call for help in the mental health industry, there are countless directories, resource guides, websites and other attempts to capture both real-time information and basic essential information on resources.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), estimates that since COVID began, calls to their 800 number hotline have increased 1,000%. Yes, that's one thousand percent.
What do the people answering those calls depend on for their information? A postcard that is mailed out to facilities once a year and (hopefully) mailed back to SAMHSA. That's what they use to update their database. Many great organizations are often not listed or are out of date, duplicated or out of business when they are. Many of the providers I talk to don't remember ever getting that postcard.
They aren't the only government system that attempts to catalog this information. There are so many disparate, disjointed systems, it's impossible to properly inventory all of them. For example, the state of California has invested significantly in a system called the Service and Bed Availability Tool (SBAT). Any substance use disorder program receiving state or federal funding is required to update the system each day at a certain time of day. They need to do this manually, by either calling or by logging in to a portal and updating the information. Each SBAT system is managed separately by each county in the state. The data is not shared. Not with us, not with SAMHSA, and not with any other of the countless systems, databases or hotlines trying to get people help.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County's homeless authority has their own "real-time bed availability system." The city of Los Angeles, too, dedicates some of their funding (both government and philanthropic) to creating a paper resource directory of available beds.
Non-government funded homeless shelters such as the Union Rescue Mission and recovery houses such as Awakening Recovery that also provide beds, can't be found in any of these systems because they do not receive government funding.
None of these systems are integrated with one another, all require a manual process of counting beds and updating a system, and none of it is anything a clinician in the public can easily or readily access.
How is a person making that midnight call to find someone help supposed to navigate all this? They can't.
It's not just a problem for those trying to solve homelessness. This happens amongst many programs and services across the county — and that same inefficiency, lack of coordination and miscommunication is replicated across the state and country.
Solving the Same Problem Again and Again
Even within this single space within a much larger industry there are nonprofit organizations competing with private enterprises for funding and resources, none of which are truly cooperating with one another. The for-profit, philanthropic and public businesses rarely cooperate. In fact, there are barriers to interact.
A hodgepodge of investors find themselves investing in an industry that desperately needs disruption. Alongside them are philanthropists who donate to nonprofits because they don't want to "make money" off helping the homeless or people with mental illness. Both end up investing deeply in disconnected or uncoordinated ideas.
Many, if not most, recovery residences are still operating using pen-and-paper methods to intake patients, track bed inventory and communicate with one another. At best, some programs use Excel or Google Sheets to communicate, or they pay for overly sophisticated electronic medical record (EMR) systems that are designed for clinical programs tailored for government or insurance billing practices.
Their marketing practices are often word-of-mouth, since programs such as these cannot advertise, even if they could afford to do so, on platforms such as Google, which requires facilities advertising any type of addiction treatment to be certified (which is often too lengthy and costly for non-clinical programs to undergo).
The industry must, by necessity, be more concerned with their daily operations and keeping their organization operating — making sure investors and donors are happy (i.e., beds are filled and patients moving through the program) than on attention to standards and outcomes. Even this is done in a vacuum, with each program focusing on their own goals and protocols, without effectively or efficiently communicating with one another.
What gets lost in all of this is the patient needing services.
File:Homeboy Grocery Salsas.jpg - Wikimedia Commons File:Homeboy Grocery Salsas.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The New Models
We see innovation happening on a small scale, at the individual program or regional association levels.
There are nonprofits creating positive cash flow with their donation monies, building a food kitchen, incentivizing and employing people who go through their programs who need employment, coming from vulnerable backgrounds.
Look at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which calls itself "the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world." Through their efforts they have created a bakery. Yes, rehabilitating gang members through bread making has turned into an industry of food chains, catering services and partnerships across the country. If you've been through LAX recently you've probably seen one of their restaurants.
These nonprofits are enterprising, opening and expanding business. They're organized as nonprofit hybrids that are breaking down the wall between nonprofit missions and private investment operations. They are partnering with other social enterprises and creating networks across the country and world.
The missing piece: connecting these organizations to one another, and giving professionals such as myself, and the public, access to find out more about them. We need these enterprises and programs connected in a platform that everyone can access.
A Post Pandemic World
What we are creating now is a new formula for success. In a post-pandemic era the need is greater than it's ever been.
The California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP) refers to this phenomenon as the "parallel pandemic," where we will see an increase in addiction overdose deaths and homelessness. "Saving lives endangered by addiction in the era of COVID-19 will take concerted leadership and a cross-systems approach," the consortium wrote in a report to the governor and Legislature.
Prior to the pandemic, Feeding America estimated that 1 in 7 Americans depended on a food pantry for weekly food. That number is only going to rise following the joblessness and homelessness resulting from the pandemic, while the means to locate and provide such services is just as difficult and disconnected as ever from other services and providers. Various nonprofits — again, all functioning and operating independently — and organizations such as Foodpantries.org are providing those services but are disconnected technologically from other search tools and engines.
A social worker would need to know where and how to access these services and provide that information to the individuals receiving services.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We are seeing groups of people and organizations coming together now in new and unique ways. We are working with nonprofit organizations providing services, seeing those services get subsidized by philanthropic dollars, for technology that is backed by private investment dollars. All in the effort to get people off an oval track just going in circles, and onto a road, ultimately preparing them to drive down a superhighway that hasn't been built yet.
There is a nonprofit we are working with (can't mention the name yet), that received significant funding to create a digital resource directory. Rather than using that money to outsource technology developers to create a proprietary tool, we are partnering together, pooling our resources and sharing our technology to create something greater than the sum of our parts. Together, we are doing more than either of us could have done individually. This saves the nonprofit hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars paying for the creation and maintenance of the tools we'll need to work together.
It also allows us to combine our collective intelligence and expertise, and create an even better tool, maintain that tool, and benefit from the collective wisdom of other partners across the country, in other segments, serving different communities.
To realize this vision, we'll need to build new onramps for public, private, and philanthropic partnerships. We need money to pave that way for the impact we want to see. That is exactly what we are working on at GET HELP, with our partners and affiliates.
What we're planning and creating together is a new infrastructure. One that is built by visionary customers, entrepreneurs and the next generation of social impact investors. Amongst these are the next Rockefellers and Carnagies. They didn't build or invent the automobile, but they supplied and fueled the infrastructure that surrounded, supported and sustained it.
We are creating partnerships and affiliate programs with national and statewide associations such as CCAPP and the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR); with "feet on the street" organizations such as Hope through Soap in Atlanta, GA,; and with social-model recovery residence programs such as Awakening Recovery; and large homeless shelters and service providers such as House of Hope and the Weingart Center.
In addition, we are in collaborative conversations with seeming "competitors" in the private sector, where we are focused on the same vision: to raise the industry standards and improve the processes for collecting and sharing data.
It's better for everyone involved, including the ultimate beneficiary who may never know the work we are doing together to get help for them: The person suffering from mental health, addiction or homelessness.
What we — as the entrepreneurs and investors in the healthcare technology industry — are defining is a whole new infrastructure for a much longer journey to empowered recovery.
The question that we face on a daily basis is this: Who are the innovators both within the industry and without who are willing to invest time, effort and money into creating a new system?
Today, we see private automobiles driving on public roads --- those were built by public sector funds, and the public sector provides licensing and regulation. Using those models, we have to think broadly about sources of capital and how philanthropic, public and private companies can contribute to the journey.
Dr. Tony Greco is CEO and Founder of Get Help and a licensed clinical psychologist and author with over 20 years of experience working with addiction and severe mental illness.
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The vision of LA-Tech.org as it prepared to launch this month was of a thriving tech ecosystem coordinating its resources to give back to the L.A. community.
Built by a group of L.A. CEOs and founders from the likes of Cornerstone, Blackline and Factual, the coalition originally sought to bridge the growing divide between wealth and want in Los Angeles through programming to provide low-income youth with internship opportunities at tech companies like Snap and ZipRecruiter. The idea was both to give back and to support the L.A. tech world by strengthening its local labor pool and helping employees feel connected to their community.
But as the coronavirus plagued one corner of the world after another, holding live events became impossible and the suffering of low-income Angelenos took on new urgency. Taking a page out of the startup playbook, LA-Tech.org has pivoted. It is now launching with a fundraising program to raise $415,000 for two local nonprofits, Homeboy Industries and iFoster. In doing so, LA-Tech.org is addressing two areas of severe collateral damage caused by the pandemic: food security and the digital divide.
An Ugly Crisis, Acute Needs
"The economic contraction that's happening in L.A. right now is worse than it was in the last recession," said LA-Tech.org Executive Director Sean Arian, who in 2008 was Director of Economic Development for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It is faster than it was in the last recession, and it is hitting the lowest-income people first."
The crisis, Arian told dot.LA, is thus exacerbating the economic inequality that spurred the formation of LA-Tech.org in the first place. Since 1990, low-wage service jobs have grown in L.A. by 17%, while high-wage, mostly high-knowledge jobs have grown by 7%. But middle-wage jobs have plummeted.
Whereas the 2008 recession first struck the well-off – mostly via finance and real estate – the coronavirus fallout is most acute among the economically vulnerable. Worse, the nonprofit community that seeks to serve such people has seen its funding shrivel.
"The need for services for low-income people has gone way up at the same time that revenues – basically donations – to nonprofits have started to dry up," Arian said.
After several conversations across government, nonprofits, and the private sector, LA-Tech.org had its plan of action.
Combating Food Security with the Homies
File:Homeboy Grocery Salsas.jpg - Wikimedia Commons upload.wikimedia.org
Homeboy Industries helps formerly incarcerated gang members heal from conflict and trauma and re-enter society. Included in its suite of therapeutic programs is a chain of social enterprises – the Homeboy café, bakery and catering service – where a subset of members work, usually before moving on to jobs elsewhere. About 90% of participants have never held a job for more than a month, Homeboy chief executive Tom Vozzo told dot.LA.
With the coronavirus shuttering its programming and slashing business traffic, Homeboy can't serve or employ as many people. In response, it, too, has pivoted, to making fresh, prepackaged meals. And it will now be getting a hand from LA-Tech.org.
"If we can get to 1,000 meals a day then in our café we can get to employing the same amount of people we had before we closed our doors," Vozzo said. Currently they're making less than 500 meals per day.
Donations will not just help Homeboy keep its program running, but will also send prepackaged meals to the needy, including people experiencing homelessness, foster youth, and low-income seniors.
"There are a lot of tech companies that have these huge catering budgets they aren't using anymore," Arian noted. He hopes these funds can be redeployed via LA-Tech.org to Homeboy.
Having adjusted its operations to accommodate social distancing, Homeboy is ready to move quickly. "Once the L.A. tech community donates money to us, in 48 hours we're turning that around into meals."
Filling the Digital Divide with iFoster
"What happens when someone who's a low-income student has to do all their learning online and doesn't have a laptop?" noted Arian.
"Mass panic," said Serita Cox, co-founder and chief executive of iFoster, an L.A.-based, national nonprofit that aims to provide resources to foster youth.
Normally, Cox told dot.LA, items like laptops and smartphones are a key priority for iFoster, because technology isn't included in typical child welfare benefits. A joint study with USC, Cox noted, found that only 21% of late-high school and early-college age foster youth in L.A. county had access to the internet and a computing device at home; that compares to 79% of non-foster, low-income students aged 13-17, according to a Pew Research report.
"In child welfare, technology took a backseat to basic needs," Cox said. "But now, technology has come front and center as a basic need."
The list of resources that foster youth depend on but can no longer access face-to-face include school, family visits, social workers, attorneys and therapists. Requests for gear have ballooned, from a typical 50 per week to over 500.
Stepping Up for L.A.
LA-Tech.org has a fundraising goal to deliver 1,000 laptops through iFoster.
"Only 8% of foster youth ever get a college degree," Cox said. "We can't make it worse."
Arian wants tech companies throughout the community to get involved with the Step Up For LA program and "make it their own."
It's the beginning of what the LA-Tech.org founders hope will be an ongoing collaboration among the tech community in its efforts to give back.
"We felt," said Adam Miller, Chief Executive of Cornerstone OnDemand and co-chair of the LA-Tech.org Board (also a dot.LA investor), "like we could accomplish this collectively much better than we could individually."
Sam Blake is a reporter at dot.LA, where he primarily focuses on media & entertainment. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA
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