Escaping the Odds and Increasing Employment Opportunities for Millions
Hosts: Steve Boese, Trish McFarlane
Guest: Aaron Smith, Founder of Escaping the Odds
This episode of At Work in America is sponsored by Paychex, one of the leading providers of HR, payroll, retirement, and insurance solutions for businesses of all sizes. As the workplace continues to evolve, businesses are being forced to adapt and innovate to meet the challenge. Our fifth annual workforce trend study will help you understand this year’s top business challenges — and set your strategic priorities. Get the report, 2023 Priorities for Business Leaders: Trends, Insights, and Ideas for an Evolving Workplace to learn the challenges facing businesses like yours and how you don’t have to go it alone. Visit paychex.com/awia to check it out, today.
This week we met with Aaron Smith from Escaping the Odds to talk about second chance hiring of those previously incarcerated.
– The importance of mentorship for people who are impacted by incarceration
– How business leaders can be more inclusive around opening hiring opportunities
– Utilizing more than just a background screening when hiring
– Bringing street smarts and common sense to the workplace
Thank you for joining the show today! Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts!
Welcome to At Work in America sponsored by Paychex. At Work in America digs in behind the headlines and trends to the stories of real people making a difference in the world of work. And now here are your hosts, Steve Boese and Trish McFarlane Steed.
Welcome the At Work in America show. We have a great show today, we will be talking again about second chance hiring in the workplace. For folks who’ve been impacted in the justice system. We love the topic Trish. We’ve covered it only once before, I believe, but it was one of my absolute favorite shows of 2022. And I’m excited to talk about that topic again today.
I am too, Steve. It’s something too once we did that episode, we had so much strong feedback from organizations who hadn’t really considered but at least that show we were calling Second Chance Hiring as an option. And so I think that’s really the point, right? We want to open people’s ideas to creative ways to grow your workforce in a really positive, strong manner. And yeah, this show will hopefully reinforce that.
And we’ve got a great guest who’s on the frontlines of those efforts. Before we welcome him. Trish, I want to thank our friends at Paychex. Of course, this episode of the At Work in America show is sponsored by Paychex, one of the leading providers of HR, payroll, retirement and assurance solutions for businesses of all sizes. The only constant in business is change and 2023 will be no exception. That’s why hundreds of in house compliance professionals at Paychex have compiled a list of regulatory issues that can impact businesses the most this year to help you prepare, and their guide find out about federal and state regulations and programs that may affect your business and your employees in the coming year. So you can take appropriate actions today. And you can visit paychex.com/awia to check that out today. So thanks to them.
Alright, Trish, let’s welcome our guest waiting patiently. We are happy to welcome today, Aaron Smith. He’s the founder of Escaping the Odds. As an entrepreneur, podcast producer and mentor, Aaron contributes to the ever changing narrative of the formerly incarcerated, he escaped the odds himself and he seeks to empower anyone who desires to do the same. Welcome to the show. Aaron, how are you today?
Aaron Smith 2:23
I’m doing well. Thank you all for having me on the show.
It’s great to see you. And as we said, at the top, we love the topic. We’ve covered it once before and super excited to cover it again. I think before we get into it, Aaron, man, your backstory is an incredible story that led you to founding Escaping the Odds and all the work you’re doing today. If you don’t mind, can you share a little bit about what’s sort of some of what’s taking you to where you’re at today?
Aaron Smith 2:50
Yeah, I born and raised southside of Chicago, I was the youngest of five children. Education was really valued. In our household despite being like the working poor, I knew that I would go off to college, and get education because that was like, I’ve heard all my life that was the way out. But also at the same time, on the other side of my door was drugs, gangs, violence, things of that nature. close relatives were really involved in the streets. And so it made it easy for me, I had access to the streets. And, you know, I also had ambition as well. So you mix those two together, and it can be, you know, an explosion. So that’s what happened with me. Despite finishing college before I was in college, and while I was in college, I ran a heroin operation in Chicago, unfortunately, bad decision. But yet at the same time, it led me to where I’m at now. Always was an entrepreneur, I’m just selling the wrong product. And so I’ve now I switch officers now. So now I have a trucking company, where I hired formerly incarcerated and also with the escaping media just want to create a platform where I can help change the narrative by telling those stories of men and women who overcame their obstacles and now successful we are incarceration.
Yeah, thanks. Thank you for sharing that. Aaron. It’s interesting. I’m thinking like the first thing that you said, that really just stuck with me was that access piece. Yeah. And also being someone who has ambition. And I’m just wondering, can you talk to us a little bit about maybe that connection that young young kids have, right, regardless of where you live? Or what your socio economic background is or what color you are? Right? How do we how do we help that right, because you were someone you said, you were told education was important, right? It’s not just enough to tell someone? Yeah, it’s not just enough to have ambition. But are there things and maybe you’ll get into this a little bit more of how can we give access to me Give me some different opportunities that would pull people away from maybe what you what you fell into? Should you be focusing on that youth more?
Aaron Smith 5:09
Absolutely right, right before they end up in a system, all right, and up on the streets. Mentorship is key. Although I had no idea that education was the way out, I didn’t really have anyone close to me, that looked like me sound like me, and was doing some of the things that I wanted to do, or even can open up my mind to say, hey, look, you know, you can work on Wall Street, you know, you can do this, you can do that. So I had to use my own imagination, which was, you know, again, I was ambitious. So, I believe that, that helped a bit. But it wasn’t until I went to prison, ironically, that I had the opportunity to meet men from all walks of life. And I was able to be mentored by, you know, men that were on Wall Street, and they were really successful in business, but they ran afoul of the law. And so like, wow, you know, if I would have met this person, 10 years ago, maybe my life decisions would have changed, because I would have met someone that, you know, pretty much gave me the idea that, hey, you know, if you like, finance, you’d like entrepreneurship, you can, you could be an investment banker, I never knew, even though I went to college, you know, I didn’t know what an investment banker was, I didn’t know that. All those different things that I know that you have access to others relates to just making better decisions or putting yourself and your family in a better situation from a financial standpoint.
Aaron, one of the things we talked about the last time we covered this topic, and was kind of eye opening for me, and I think would be eye opening again, for folks who may be unfamiliar with this issue is the sheer enormity and scope and size of the individuals out there in the US in the US who have been part of the in the justice system or had been formerly incarcerated? It’s, it’s a significantly large number. And perhaps, if you’re not dealing with it regularly, or maybe it’s not impacted you personally or someone close to you, you may underestimate it. I’d love for you to comment a little bit about just the size and scope of this issue and why that makes it important.
Aaron Smith 7:23
Yeah, absolutely. due to just the way the laws are written in the United States, that’s a whole nother conversation. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the system. I believe that’s about 70 million individuals throughout the country at one point was involved in the system. And that doesn’t mean that that was my felony conviction, it could have been like a misdemeanor. But nevertheless, those crimes or convictions or arrest, led to some kind of collateral consequence. And that collateral consequences, oftentimes related to employment, related to housing, even like healthcare. And so I don’t think that society knows those things again, because if you’re not dealing with it every day, it’s just not in your sphere of into your scope. Right. So you don’t even know that it exists. But it’s absolutely more prevalent than most people would think.
Yeah, one thing you said, Aaron, in terms of handling kind of that that large population that’s impacted by incarceration, right? Is around mentorship is key for them to even see that there’s maybe another way, one of the things that one of the things that’s not only Steve and I talk about quite a bit, but just in business, I think there’s a shift now to really focus on skills as opposed to a job title, right? So kind of in your example of, you know, you didn’t even know you could be an investment banker. But as you’re rattling off kind of the skills that you actually had, yeah, it would have made perfect sense, right. So I guess one thing is maybe the workforce is starting to change slowly in terms of the more we focus on skills people have, maybe those connections can happen better.
But my question is going to be, you mentioned that you didn’t have a mentor who looked like you. And my question around that is, I can see how that would be really valuable. But are there things that people who don’t look like you could be doing to be at true allies, right, not just someone who fills a hiring quota or tries to right, we don’t what we’re not trying to do with this show is to say, hey, look, here’s just another way to fill some quota. Right? What we’re trying to do is say, here’s a way to actually become a true mentor and a true connection for a human being right. So could you maybe give me your perspective on what if someone like me who looks different than you? Yeah. Is that an acceptable mentor, right to inspire You’re a younger person or someone who’s formerly incarcerated to use those great skills and bring it into my organization. Yes. How do you address someone like me?
Aaron Smith 10:09
Yeah, totally. As I mentioned earlier, most of the mentors that I met while I was incarcerated, but they didn’t look like me, you know, but nevertheless, they, they had that that one word, they had the empathy. Are they saying something to me, they said, Wow, you know, what, you got too smart to do it, you just didn’t have again, that that a word that access. And so the mentorship is key. And so I think it starts with that just, like, as you mentioned, it’s not about filling a coat, although, you know, of course, it’s been so as a part of, you know, just the way things go. But just taking a little deeper than that, even like the cultural competency, you know, just like really, really being the person where they act. And that’s, that’s key. And again, just just wanting to do it from your heart and say, hey, you know, this person needs another chance, you know, or better chance.
Yeah, I think to stepping aside, I learned in terms of just how to be an ally, right, it’s being able to not just give someone opportunity, but but seek people out to give opportunity, right, that you wouldn’t normally seek out. And that’s kind of working with the program you’ve started. That’s it, right? It’s taking the extra step of, of presenting opportunities to people that might not even know where to look for those opportunities for work.
Aaron Smith 11:28
Yes, and that’s true. It’s been great for me, because I’ve become like a living proof. So a company can look at me like I had a conversation with the CEO of a big trucking company. And he probably would not have had that conversation with me if he had not heard my story. And that was the whole premise behind creating escaping the odds that I wanted to change the narrative of not just my story, but men and women who are, were caught up in a system so that yourself has been an HR professional, you can hear these stories and say, wow, you know, that’s a, that’s a viable option. You know, this is a work of pool of talent, that’s untapped. And we need to tap into it. And as you mentioned earlier, working at the manufacturing company back in the day, that you like, wow, these men have grit, these women have grit, and some of the best workers, because we have something to lose. We don’t want to go back to incarceration. So that’s one of the big things.
Yeah, we’ve heard that a lot. Aaron, the last time we talked about this subject, the some of those very specific points. And the thing also that I, you know, I spent some time on myself, it’s just looking at just what’s happening, right in our labor market environment. And we’re talking about as many 70 million if not more, folks who have some thing in their record, right, something in their background that whether it was conviction, incarceration, arrest, whatever, the same time, right, we have three points, high percent, I think it is unemployment, right. It’s like a 50 year low 11 million open jobs in the United States, right? Lots of those. And probably more than that, even right, lots of those types of jobs, that would be actually really good fits for a lot of that people in that 70 million bucket. But yet, we still have a disconnect. Like, I thought about this a year ago or so when we talked about this dress. And I’m thinking about it, too, today, Aaron, is what are some of the ways you mentioned the CEO, the big trucking company you talk to right? If you’re talking to that person, or other business leaders, CEOs, heads of HR, etc? What are some of the things you like to tell them to be more open or being more inclusive around opening opportunities for folks in the formerly incarcerated population? What are some of the things you like to say to them?
Aaron Smith 13:51
Yeah, one of the main things I would convey is like, let’s create a pipeline, as you would, for an individual who’s in college, right? You have like internships to actually provide access, to know how to get the person familiar with the way you do things that your company has. So that pipeline could be created, through working with nonprofit organizations in those communities, right, that’s impacted by the system, or directly with institutions or prisons. You know, right now, reentry is really, really a big topic. And a lot of the state prisons and coordinators at phrases are great people to contact and reach out to say, hey, you know, what do you guys working on over there? Like, what kind of programs are you are you guys still in over there? Maybe our company we can collaborate in that way or even reaching out to individuals such as myself, who has a pulse on this population and can really help guide them.
I love those suggestions. And absolutely, if you’re listening to this show, please take note of those do all of those things. I think the other thing I learned really when I was really young, I was grateful for this last than was just because someone has been arrested or even incarcerated for something. You don’t write them off completely. Because now again, this goes for, regardless of race, age, gender, right, whatever. If someone has been arrested for a financial crime, you might not want to hire them immediately into another financial role. Right? But make it make it fit right, you wouldn’t eliminate them from all other jobs in the history of jobs, right, because they did one crime that was related to that. So I think, you know, when I started working in HR, it was more around, make sure that if you are trying to exclude someone, that there is reason, and what you find is there’s usually not, there’s usually not every job I was trying to fill, I could find someone both with or without former incarceration, who had the right skills, so focus on their skills instead of the crime, because the truth is with numbers like, you know, 70,000 to 100 million, I mean, that’s what what is as many as one in three Americans, any one of us, yeah, anytime, right? For anything, quite honestly. And then it’s the fallout from it. Right? So, yeah, I would just say make sure that you’re really not eliminating people for something that’s completely unrelated to the job you’re trying to hire for.
Aaron Smith 16:27
I like to think outside the box, as soon as you mentioned, the skill sets, keeping that in mind, and not the actual crime, you may want to think about the crime, right, in a positive light, like to switch that. There’s countless stories out there, where banks have hired someone who committed fraud on a high level, to be able to come back in and hired ms console to say, Hey, what did we do wrong? Right? What like, based on your experience, and you know, committing fraud against institutions like ours? How can we? How can you help us not have this happen again, and so if we think like that, there’s an opportunity for everyone, right, it’s a win win across the board. So it may be in a bank’s best interest to reach out to someone who’s, you know, been convicted of a financial crime, right, they can, they can learn some insight, they can kind of help them avoid that happening again, today institution. So I would definitely encourage that. I know, it’s outside the box, but nevertheless, and then at the end of the day, it gets results. And that’s what it’s about.
We’ve seen that a lot in cybersecurity very specifically, right? An industry where the those companies, tech companies will go out and try to find hackers, or like kind of notorious Black Hat types of folks and try to convince them to, say, come over to the corporate side, but if you will, but leverage their skills, right. And there’s some of those skills may have come with some baggage associated with them, right, in terms of maybe some run ins with law enforcement, but it’s a great point, Aaron, right. Like if we’re trying to be more open and more improve access and be more inclusive. And also, just, you know, again, we talked about this last time to win, which and again, this is not just about kind of, for companies, right? It’s not just about kind of doing the right thing, or being a good, you know, community member or, or whatnot, it’s really about filling filling roles that they need to fill with the kinds of people who can do a really good job for them, who just may come from a little different place come from a different background, and maybe have one or two extra things in their profiles that, you know, in the past, as you said, Trish would have been exclusionary criteria, which most companies that we talk to you and that we see, with very few exceptions. They really can’t afford to be excluding more people from opportunity, right? Because they can’t find enough people to do what they need done.
Right? No, I think too, when, at least in my experience, being in HR and hiring, it was sort of like, also kind of dig in a little bit on what they were incarcerated for, like, what was the reason for it? Because, again, we’ve I’ve even been in positions where I’ve hired people with a violent background, right? And if it was, maybe they were in a very specific situation that escalated to that. And I don’t wanna say it wasn’t their fault. They were involved, right? In some way, but in other words, just dig into the story of the human more than more than the line on the background Screening Questionnaire, right. Like yeah, there’s there’s more to it. There’s another side of the story.
Aaron Smith 19:40
And I’m glad you said that because we have to look at the context of the situation. And I believe like we’re backgrounds normally come back. haven’t had a chance to really look at the background outside of mine, but you just see like a blur we just see one line. So oftentimes easy for a HR professional just to kind of take that at face value and say, Okay, that it is what it is. But you could be missing out on a prime candidate, if you as you say, let’s go a little bit deeper. So I would encourage, you know, people in position to do that very thing. I know it takes an extra step, but it can mean a difference of hiring, you know, someone will be with your company for a long time opposed to not filling that role.
That’s right. Yeah, I remember hiring someone, I was very young, and he had a murder conviction. And you know, what he had done his time. And we talked about it. And I put him out into a really good job. But he was one of our best workers. Like, even when I left the company, he was still there. So again, I think it’s just you have to talk to the person and really figure out where are they in their life now? What is the context they’re in now? What is their, their aspirations? Right? You talked about, and then if you can provide the access to them for some for using those aspirations differently, then that ambition just turns into something really positive? So yes, even if someone’s murdered someone, even if someone’s done something that seems pretty atrocious. Again, there’s more to the story.
Yeah, Aaron, you mentioned the conversation with the trucking company, CEO, you mentioned your organization that’s created a, a trucking company of your own, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that, because I’d love I love the angle of, hey, some of the things, you know, that folks have done in their past actually are quite entrepreneurial. And I’d love that connection between, you know, maybe directing those entrepreneurial efforts is maybe the wrong way to now doing what you’re doing. And others like you who are kind of directing those those skills and those initiatives more positively.
Aaron Smith 21:44
Yeah, I currently, I have a trucking company called U Turn Transport, and kind of play on the term u turn, kind of, like China. Right. And so I hired individuals I was actually incarcerated with and he was incarcerated for financial crime, well, before they hired an individual who was incarcerated for federal crime. And these are some of the best people to work with, you know what I mean, they’re, they’re hungry, they have a zeal and a tenacity to not only just prove it to themselves, but to prove it to other people, and how I like to work with my job average, I like to give them a cut on a pie, right. So it may seem like a piece of ownership in a sense. And so I always split it, you know, equitable with individual on the low, and again, and make them feel, you know, their, hey, you know, this is, this is kind of a partnership more so than work for you, we work together. And because I know that a lot of people who are in the trucking space, eventually, they want to go out and do their own thing. And so that’s why we also started the the boxer course, where it allows for individuals to be owner, operator entrepreneur, without having a commercial driver’s license. So we provide training for that this led by myself, and another individual who was also a former, who’s also incarcerated, long as a trucking company, as well. And so we want to be living proof. But then also, at the same time, provide opportunity to be owners opposed to employees.
I love it. I’m just like, I have to tell you, I’m in awe, like, how do you? How do you teach yourself to do this? Right? It’s you’re out there, not only are you creating companies, you’re hiring people, you’re doing all of the things that an HR person would say a good leader needs to do. Right? Um, I’d love to just hear I know that some of that, obviously comes from your home life, right? Yeah. valued education. Some does come from college. But I guess what I’m curious about is, you know, one of the things I think of, if people are out there on the streets getting sucked into maybe that life, there is a real sense of loyalty right to each other and camaraderie. How does that translate then into this into this work world that you’ve created for these people?
Aaron Smith 24:13
Yeah, a lot of it. You mentioned comfortable to home life, it comes from just my education as well. I’m in college, but a lot of it came from what I learned on the streets, just being just strategizing and just improvising, like working with things that I don’t have, you know, you see a lot of that incarcerated, you have to go without, so you have to think outside the box and be creative. And so, I try to hire people that most people wouldn’t hire because I see. Again, you mentioned that loyalty, right? And believe it or not, I can we have that camaraderie. So we come in from the same space so I can trust you. Right, we both got a whole lot to lose, right? Like, I have to speak with your probation like you know that What’s your state? Right? I don’t want to go back to prison, right? There’s so many different compliances as it relates to the trucking, so we have to be on a gang, right? We can’t, we can’t slip up like someone who may not have a criminal background can can potentially, you know, slip up and it may be okay. Well, for us, it could be catastrophic.
Yeah, I think too, I love where you talked about sort of the improvising piece, because there are there are people who might be like, kind of living on the streets right now. Right, who have never been incarcerated. Yeah. Right. And one of the things they can bring your organization might be that street smarts, that common sense approach, which, how often in any corporate world setting do we say someone has book smarts, but they don’t have they lack the common sense? Like this happens all the time. Like, there you go, that like, hire someone who has street smarts, right? Yeah, who has that ability to improvise, because I think that’s what we see. A lot of our hires don’t have.
Aaron Smith 26:03
And then also being able to recognize the BS, right? And other people just for lack of a better term, and just like that discernment, you know, I can, I can, most likely, I can have a pretty good read on the person within 15 to 20 minutes, right? I spend enough, enough time with you. Just because I’m consistent. I’m always thinking, right, I’m observing. And growing up in those kind of environment, it forces you to do that you have to be able to recognize danger, or some kind of a threat to survive. And oftentimes, like, survival doesn’t always have to be like, imminent danger. Just be like your emotional threat, you know, so just being able to kind of pinpoint those things. And that’s really, that’s really important in hardware.
The last thing I wanted to ask Aaron was, you know, for folks who are listening to this, and we’ve talked, like I said, we’ve talked about the topic before, and I will continue to talk about this. And the larger idea of of providing access to opportunity to folks who, who maybe have been underserved in the employment market is, but for someone who’s listening to this, either they’re the owner of a company, or they’re an HR professional in a company that really hasn’t proactively reached out to this community or this untapped source of talent. Are there one or two things you would recommend for them to do and they want to, they really do, but maybe they just haven’t done it before, as you mentioned, engaging with prisons, etc. There are other resources, you might recommend, of course, escaping the odds, calm, they can go to for a lot of information and find you but you know, where do I get going, it’s something that I think will be meaningful to our organization.
Aaron Smith 27:53
I will say before even potentially reaching out to what is myself, a nonprofit organization, or institution, aka prison, I would just study the system, the prison system, right, just to kind of understand the history of it right? And just understand, like, why there are 70 million individuals with some kind of a criminal record, right. And Shannon, to kind of lean more into, like, the context behind why a person may be incarcerated. And no doubt, there are some people that need to be there, right. But also, there are some people that will just in the situation, and it happened, it was a one time thing. And so we need to kind of look at that. So that empathy, first and foremost, because as the HR, you know, or hiring manager, you’re going to hear some, some crazy stuff. And so you’re going to have to know kind of put your personal feelings to the side, and really dig deep into that person, as well. We’ll say start there. And then once you did that kind of good understanding of what you’re working with that talent pool and a system surrounding it, then I will say to you be in a better position to have an intelligent conversation with someone like myself, or institution or nonprofit organization.
Great. Awesome. Thank you, Aaron.
Aaron, thank you for mentoring us today. And the audience. I mean, I really feel like you’ve opened my eyes in a lot of ways I have not thought about in the past. So I really appreciate you I appreciate your perspective on this. And I think that you will make a lot of people who listen to this truly think about how to not just change something for the sake of changing it for the organization, but to actually be a helpful human to other humans. Right and, and to think of everyone in that way, because that’s really how things change. That’s how things are going to be more equitable, is when we start just approaching each other on that one on one basis. So I really, really appreciate this conversation.
Aaron Smith 29:58
Likewise, thank you all for having I mean, even the platform, you know that you all have to, to kind of shift the story. I know you speak on a lot of different topics, as relates to HR, but this is a really big piece that’s missing, but at the same time was is really needed. And so what you guys are doing are providing a voice and educating. So I appreciate that.
Yeah, thank you, Aaron for saying that. And we believe in it for sure. And it’s in this is a great topic. We’re all about hope, hoping to create a platform where people learn about creating access to opportunity for people who really need it, and the climate makes you think, right, this is a really good one because it makes us really wrestle with a really important question. I think Trish, which is like, Do we really believe as a society, right as a country? Do we really believe in giving people second chances? We everybody says that, right. But do we really believe it? Right? And that’s certainly from the HR and employment world, right? is one way to express that you not just say it, but you actually believe it?
Aaron Smith 31:02
Yeah, absolutely. This space and also housing as well as another big, you know, piece that’s, you know, kind of lacking that. Then inclusion?
Yeah. The other one I heard someone yesterday, Steven and I had a conversation with two gentlemen where someone mentioned food insecurity also plays a big role into kind of this overarching topic of why people might commit crimes right, like so again, that goes back to look at what the person the situation they were in. What was it that they did, what rule or law did they break right? Because it could have been for a very good reason it could have been they had no food it could have been they had no home they had right there they’re just reasons behind things. People don’t just, some I guess there are some who act randomly, right. But yeah, but for the most part, people have something that motivates them to behave in a certain way.
Aaron Smith 31:57
Absolutely. Mental Health all plays a part drug abuse and yeah, so all of that a lot of different variations. So to look deeper into it, look deeper.
This is great, great stuff. We want to thank Aaron Smith from escaping the odds.com we want to direct everybody there. Great stories. Aaron’s podcast is there. Also really good swag. I don’t know if you checked that out Trish, Aaron’s got some good swag available. So I’m gonna have to get some of that. But we do want to encourage everybody to check this out and to think about this issue. We’re not done talking about it. I’m sure we’ll cover this again on the show as well. But thanks to Aaron as well. Thanks to our friends at Paychex, of course, for all their support once again and Trish, great stuff. Appreciate it.
Yes, thank you so much.
All right. That’s it for the show today. Thanks, Aaron Smith. Thanks everybody else. We’ll see you next time. My name is Steve Boese and bye for now.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai