How a $2.9m startup is trying to become the LinkedIn for formerly incarcerated people

Jonathan Travis should have had an easy time finding work. The Baytown, Texas, native is an experienced welder with multiple construction certifications — the kind of background that usually means stable work, good pay, solid benefits. But having a prison record changed everything.

In January, Mr Travis finished a drug possession sentence. He told The Independent he would regularly make it to late-stage interviews for jobs once he got out, or even be fully hired, but would later get rejected once it came time for the inevitable background check.

“As soon as my background came in, they told me nevermind,” he said. “I got hired at a couple different jobs, basically. I can’t go to staffing agencies. I couldn’t even get into Domino’s pizza.”

Employers would tell him he couldn’t be hired until his conviction was at least 4 or 5 years in the past, meaning that it would be years before he could find work again at the lucrative oil plants in Baytown.

“All the major plants that are in my town, I can’t go into none of those because I can’t pass,” he said.

amazon, how a $2.9m startup is trying to become the linkedin for formerly incarcerated people
© Provided by The Independent Jonathan Travis faced barriers finding work as a welder because of his past convictions. (Jonathan Travis)

Eventually, Mr Travis found his way to Honest Jobs, a startup that hopes to become the Indeed or LinkedIn for formerly incarcerated people and combat the widespread hiring discrimination that faces many once they get out of prison. In a matter of weeks, Mr Travis was connected with a welding job with benefits in Houston.

“The job’s really good,” he said. “It’s a really good place to work. I got a 401K and insurance for me and my daughter and stuff.”

Honest Jobs, founded in 2018, has 850 employers on its platform including well-known names like Amazon, Pepsi, and Koch Industries, and has worked with more than 27,000 job seekers.

But the firm has its work cut out for it. Roughly one-third of the US working population, or 78 million adults, have some form of past criminal charge or conviction on their record. And nine in ten employers ask for background checks, which usually look into past contact with the justice system.

As a result, this means people getting out of prison often can’t get a legal job, leading to disastrous consequences. As The Independent reported earlier this year, people with prior contact with the justice system are 10 times more likely to be unhoused than the general public, and have a median wage of just above $10,000 in their first year after prison. Faced with so few opportunities, more than half of formerly incarcerated people go back to prison in the US at some point in their lives.

Mr Travis was able to help one of his friends from prison get a job at the same company, but not everyone is so lucky.

“Basically people get out, they can’t get a job, they go back to what they were doing making money in the beginning, selling drugs, whatever it was,” he said. “Everyone I talk to, only like two of them are still clean and not out doing what they were doing before.”

It’s this cycle of poverty and recidivism that Honest Jobs founder Harley Blakeman knows from personal experience.

He grew up in a trailer park outside of Gainesville, Florida, with a mother who left the family for periods of time and struggled with drugs. When Mr Blakeman was a teenager, his father died in a motorcycle accident.

The founder became homeless and dropped out of high school at age 16. He went on to use and sell drugs, a lifestyle that at least let him buy his own car and rent an apartment.

“Most people that live in my hometown were either addicted to drugs or had a criminal record. It was kind of a desperate, sad place to be, but it represents America,” he said. “I hold myself accountable for everything in my life. Of course there were other options but it was Dollar General, McDonalds, gas stations. No one from my high school went to college.”

He was soon booked on drug charges and sent to prison, where he set about trying to turn things around. Mr Blakeman got his GED and read every business and personal development book he could.

Once he got out, he went to community college and became a straight A student, all while working around the clock at various low-wage jobs. He managed to get into Ohio State University, where he studied business and graduated with honours.

After graduation, he thought he was finally back on track, but after 80 or so second- and third-round job interviews came back with rejections, Mr Blakeman started to realize that having a record made it almost impossible for him to get his career started.

“It was devastating,” he said. “I’m $62,000 in debt. I just spent 4-and-a-half years of my life working nonstop to prove that I can be trusted and do the work. I had done 400 hours of community service and complied with my probation. I had done everything. The truth is, in America, I’m a white American, with a good education, a support system, a 780 credit score—if I can’t get a job because I have a record, everyone else in the criminal justice system is extra screwed.”

Finally, he was able to find work at a manufacturing company, but the harrowing experience inspired Mr Blakeman to use his entrepreneurial drive and business experience and help other formerly incarcerated people.

Notably, Honest Jobs is free to jobseekers — a deeply significant attribute given the extreme poverty many people walk into once they leave the prison gates. The site uses a job-matching algorithm to suggest positions to candidates, and tell job seekers how likely they are to pass a company’s background check requirements before applying. The idea is to spare them the kind of surprise denials that Mr Blakeman and Mr Travis experienced.

According to company data, the average user finds a job in less than a month — more than six times faster than through other job search methods, with a nearly three times higher salary.

“I think that this is a very meaningful way to continue to have the American Dream,” Mr Blakeman said. “I had almost given up on the American Dream…It’s an enormous opportunity for GDP and our macroeconomics, but I also think it’s a very personal thing where many people in prison were abused as children. They watched parents use drugs. They watched their parents fight. They didn’t have parents around. It’s a mental health problem. It’s a limited access to a real ladder out of poverty, and we can give people a chance to stabilize enough to heal.”

It’s a pitch that’s clearly resonating with investors. In January, Honest Jobs closed a $1.5m investment round, and the company has raised $2.9m to date, employing 18 people full time. The startup is looking to raise another $8- or 10m this year.

And major firms like JP Morgan are getting behind so-called “second chance” hiring, employment practices that don’t automatically rule people out just because they’ve been in the justice system.

For Jonathan Travis, he says he’s thankful to have found a decent job and get to spend more time with his daughter. He wants his story to inspire other justice-impacted people that opportunities are out there, if you have some help finding them. And he hopes that people realize the deep link between incarceration and employment.

“If you can’t get a job, it’s a cycle,” he said.

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