Many business owners have overlooked a great source of untapped talent: former inmates. Many former drug dealers and gang leaders have skills and attributes you value most in employees, including charisma, resourcefulness, resilience, a willingness to take calculated risks, and strong management skills.

Take Jason Wang. He's a 23-year-old who was hired nine months ago as a business analyst at Ericsson. He’s already been promoted and makes $70,000 a year consolidating information for enterprise systems. His rap sheet? Four years in prison for aggravated robbery starting at age 15. He made a dumb decision as a teenager while involved in a gang. Upon release, he had a lot to prove. He graduated college in three years with a 3.5 GPA. This August, he’ll finish his MBA.

People like Jason can be a huge asset to a growing company. That's what Beth Valente, a Chicago-based serial entrepreneur and owner of The Marketing Group, recently discovered. She took a chance on hiring someone with a violent criminal history. When her employee regularly exceeded quotas as a call center manager, Beth had him launch two satellite offices and four new sales teams. Determined to make money--and a difference--Beth hired more than 30 salespeople with a host of felonies.

Like Beth's company, your business can win big by hiring some of America’s biggest underdogs. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Very affordable, undervalued labor
  • Some of the best sales and customer service experts in America
  • Exceptionally dedicated and loyal employees
  • Tax incentives and free federal bonding

Plus, you’ll create life-giving opportunities for people who want nothing more than to earn an honest wage.

Fighting Crime With Employment
Let’s start by addressing the main objection. It’s normal to experience fear when you consider rubbing shoulders with people who have been convicted of felonies. There’s no shortage of stereotypes and misconceptions about people with criminal records. Some assume they’re all serial killers, are uneducated, or are all drug addicts. Or that once a criminal, always a criminal.

It's true that not everyone who serves prison time wants to change. And not all former felons are cut out for the world of business. (And, yes, the recidivism rate in this country is 50 to 70 percent.)

But of those who are rearrested, 95 percent were unemployed at the time. Give a man a job, and he’ll work hard every day because he’s grateful for his chance. Although many people in prison don’t have college degrees, the go-getters take college and vocational courses while incarcerated and pursue degrees upon release.

Consider this: what would it be like if you were permanently known for the worst thing you’ve ever done? We call it a “criminal justice system” and use expressions like “they’ve served their time.” The reality is that, due to discrimination, people with felonies serve a life sentence--whether it’s behind bars or back in society.

Long prison sentences provide plenty of time for self-reflection and personal growth. The last thing most former inmates want is to return to hustling on the streets, knowing all too well where this leads. But then their résumés are automatically put in the trash pile because of that felony checkbox at the top of their job application. The enticing offers from old connections for fast money ($5,000 in five minutes for “just one last transaction”) naturally become irresistible after all that rejection.   

Benefits for Employers
When former inmates come across the rare employer who’s willing to give them a fair shake, gratitude turns into fierce loyalty. Their motivation to excel comes from a desire to prove to their bosses, customers, and most importantly themselves, that they’re capable and worthy of good opportunities.

Most “returning citizens” are still on parole or probation, which adds another pro bono benefit to employers. Former inmates are held accountable by their parole and probation officers every month, and must pass drug tests. Their fear of returning to prison motivates them to go the extra mile.

The Department of Labor encourages employers to consider this talent pool by offering a tax break called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program, through which employers can receive a tax credit of up to $2,400 per employee each year. The Federal Bonding Program additionally provides Fidelity Bonds that guarantee honesty. The bonds cover the first six months of employment. There is no cost to the job applicant or the employer.

Real Change, Real Results
Having spent the first six years of my career in venture capital and private equity, I was trained to recognize a great ROI opportunity. On my first prison visit, I was immediately struck by how much CEOs and Wall Street guys had in common with people behind bars. And I wondered what would happen if the incarcerated underdogs were equipped to go legit.

The notion that former gang leaders and drug dealers can succeed in business isn’t a matter of opinion. At my first nonprofit in Texas, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), 80 percent of our graduates had committed violent crimes--most with “accomplished” track records of leadership in drug dealing and gangs. During my five years leading the program, PEP’s 600 graduates had a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent; had an employment rate of 98 percent; and created more than 60 small businesses. Our graduates, who once burdened the tax system by receiving welfare, generated $13 million in income and paid $4 million in taxes per year.

Defying the Odds
I’ve worked closely with more than 1,000 people with felony histories in the past nine years. I’m now leading my second nonprofit organization, New York City-based Defy Ventures, which transforms former gang leaders and drug leaders into successful entrepreneurs, employees, and businesspeople. Funded and managed by investors and entrepreneurs, Defy recruits ambitious men and women with criminal pasts and provides them with super competitive, no-bull, MBA-like training, executive mentoring, character development, and career opportunities. Our signature program engages nationwide business executives who judge Shark Tank-style business plan competitions and award up to $150,000 in seed capital to our entrepreneurs’ winning ventures. In just over a year, Defy graduates launched 44 start-ups and created more than 24 new employment opportunities for others in the community. Our vision is to create a nationally replicable, scalable model.

Mikey Cole is a recent graduate of Defy Ventures. He made his first drug deal in the third grade after getting suspended for bringing weed to his school’s show-and-tell. Twenty years into building his drug enterprise, Mikey was finally arrested. Defy trained him in legal business practices, taught him financial modeling, and put him through rigorous character development. Through Defy, Mikey got to pitch his start-up to the renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Today, Mikey has offers for $60,000 in investment capital to buy a factory to expand his business: Mikey Likes It Ice Cream, a gourmet ice cream company.  

At Defy, we’re working to shatter the perceptions of people like Mikey. We aim to give formerly incarcerated men and women a “legitimate first chance” by opening doors to business opportunities, jobs, and other resources that change the trajectory of their lives. The private sector is taking notice--check out what Richard Branson said recently about Defy on his blog.

When I started working with prisoners in 2004, people told me I was crazy. One prison ministry veteran said to me, “These guys in prison aren’t even capable of writing home to their mamas.” His comment added extra fuel for me to get out there and disprove the stereotypes. I put my money where my mouth is--nearly half of Defy’s staff has felony histories, and they’re exceptional performers. Defy is a great place to find your top performers too. Individuals with criminal histories absolutely can defy the odds, transform their lives, and become entrepreneurs, parents, community leaders, and--if you give them the chance--your star employees.