Interview with Richard Bronson
Meet the former ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ partner who’s helping 70 million ex-offenders find work. Back in the early nineties, Bronson was a partner at Stratton Oakmont, the infamous brokerage house portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Today, not coincidentally, he is one of 70 million US citizens with a criminal record, and he’s working obsessively to improve the career prospects of his fellow ex-offenders — or as he puts it, his brothers and sisters.
Hi Richard! Your business name, 70 Million Jobs, refers to the 70 million people who have a criminal record in the US. How much of a difference could they make to their country, given the opportunity to work?
70 million people, 1 in 3 adults have a record, its staggering number. What’s even more staggering is how frequently this population comes in and out of jail through their rearrests. What could be doing differently? How could they be contributing to society? Well, as an economically, of course, what’s involved with re-arresting someone time after time, and incarcerating them, is feeding them, paying for the medical care, clothing them, on and on and on. Depending on where this is, it could be 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars per year. When people are rearrested they create new victims, when people are rearrested cops get shot, all types of terrible things occur. They aren’t paying taxes, they’re not contributing to society. They’re not paying their bills, they’re not taking care of their family, and society often has to take that responsibility. Some estimate the cost at 100 billion dollars a year. We could be doing so much better, these folks could be doing so much better, they’re families, and their communities could be doing so much better.
Some of your users will likely be carrying some frustration with them, having encountered difficulties in getting work through other means. Is this a factor in how you design and deliver your services?
It’s absolutely so that some of the applicants we work with generally have gone through incredible frustration to try to put the past behind them, to lead a logistically legitimate life. It isn’t easy showing up for an interview for a job that pays minimum wage where there’s a good shot that you won't even get that job, its hard not to be negative in that capacity. So I don’t blame anybody for feeling that way. We go out of our way to try to simplify that process and we try to do it in a compassionate loving kind of fashion. All of us have had to ask for forgiveness at some point in our life, all of us have made mistakes, all of us deserve a second chance. We really try hard not to judge the people who we are working with. I for one, personally don’t feel I am one to judge anybody for what they have done. That informs everything we do, all our conversations, all our work, all our development work, all our software, everything. We want to create an environment where folks have one less door slammed in their face.
We understand the inspiration behind 70 Million Jobs comes from your own experiences as an ex-offender. Now, you’ve created yourself an opportunity for redemption, by redeeming others. How does that compare to accumulating wealth, as a motivator?
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy the material trappings that I had in a past life. There's nothing wrong with nice clothing, and nice cars, nice food, nice vacations, they’re all fun. But ultimately what I’ve discovered is that a good night’s sleep is far more important, and a good night's sleep requires a clear conscience and a clear state of mind. At this stage of my life, that's more important than anything. I discovered my calling in life, late in life and that is to help my brothers and sisters who have been realised from jail or prison finding jobs that they can avoid rearrested and heading back to prison. That’s a strong motivation for me. I've seen first hand that redemptive value of employment, I’ve seen husbands and wives reunited, and have seen their children hugging both parents simultaneously in a desperate attempt to keep them connected. This only has come as these folks have accepted their responsibilities as a husband, and a wife, and a parent. That is a powerful motivator for me to be in some part of this, and it's certainly an honour and a privilege to be part of it.
You’ve got the logos of brands including Coca-Cola, Facebook, Google and Staples on your homepage. Do companies like these need much pitching on how being a fair-chance employer is a PR win?
The logos that we show on our website are companies that signed Obama’s ‘Fair Chance’ business pledge, an initiative he ran out of The White House, seeking agreement from large employers that they would consider hiring a formerly incarcerated person. Some of these companies take that pledge very seriously. In addition to having serious HR needs, they are eager to assert their leadership as being second chance friendly and want to set an example by being good corporate citizens. We are in a climate of historically low unemployment, so arguably many of these employers have to do something for their dire HR needs, and theoretically, some of them would rather not hire from this population but just have to. Having said all that some of the tech firms could do more, and despite signing this pledge, I believe that it's our role to hold their feet to the fire to fulfil that pledge. Despite the fact that many of their jobs are highly technical in nature, they still have the opportunity to hire plenty of folks in other positions. It always work to get them to sign on.
Have you or your colleagues noticed any tendencies or trends amongst ex-prisoners that might make them superior candidates to the average non-offender?
Studies have recently come out that suggest that those folks who have a record and that have been hired by a company often emerge as that company’s very best employees and not only do they perform better than their counterparts on the job without a record but the retention is actually longer. Retention in the HR world is where the game is won and lost. I think its fairly understandable why that is. People with records don’t really have any sense of entitlement and they have fewer options than those without a record. Therefore, they realise they have to work very hard to make it work where they are located. We hear from employers that having these folks on their workforce often adds powerfully to overall morale at the company because once they get to know and become friends with those employees that have a record, they realise that they are a human beings and they feel very very proud of their company for taking a chance on hiring them. It worked very very positively for those companies who have hired the formally incarcerated.
Are employers’ and the public’s attitudes towards ex-offenders changing?
I have certainly seen a difference in the last twelve years since I’ve been released, in the attitude of people regarding criminal justice in general, and those who have records specifically. So far 1 in 3 adults have some kind of record. Almost everybody either directly or indirectly have been touched by having a relationship with someone who was formerly incarcerated and when people are no longer a statistic but rather a human being with whom they’ve had some kind of relationship, there’s a great deal more compassion and a lot less objectification going on. I think there’s a growing awareness that our criminal justice system doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, it's enormously expensive, it's not done much to rehabilitate. In fact, there a pernicious cycle of recidivism that exists in this country. People come out of prison or jail and frequently will return there in short order. But the only thing the democrats and republicans agree on is how seriously broken the system is. So that growing awareness I think is propelling progressive thought in this area. So yeah, I’m very positive about the thoughts of where this is going.