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Convict to CEO: How a second chance led Harley Blakeman to found Honest Jobs

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Harley Blakeman is the founder and CEO of Honest Jobs which helps people with a criminal record find meaningful work and helps businesses access a population of highly motivated, yet often overlooked, employees. I recently sat down with Harley to hear how his personal journey led him to start the company.

Harley Blakeman, founder and CEO of Honest Jobs

First off, can you tell me about Honest Jobs? 

Honest Jobs is the nation’s largest fair-chance employment platform. We work with employers who are open and interested in hiring people who have been affected by the criminal justice system.

We’ve built a network of community-based organizations from large nonprofits and government agencies, including probation and parole, to serve as a hub connecting employers with millions of job seekers.

Today, there are about 70 million people with some type of criminal history. The pain point we solve for employers is connecting them with this enormous talent pool.

How does that work in practice? 

In our role as the hub, we work to understand why employers—from HR to individual hiring managers—might say yes, or might say no. For someone with a criminal history, that’s oftentimes a mystery. They have no idea why decisions are made. We look behind the curtain across industries and states creating algorithms that help jobseekers understand the likelihood of being hired for a given job.

Based on the nature of the crime, the nature of the job’s duties, the state, and the industry, we help them identify the jobs for which they stand the best chance of getting hired. We don’t stop them from applying for jobs, but we give them insight into which have the best odds of success.

Do you charge for this service? 

It’s 100% free for jobseekers. Employers can also post unlimited jobs with us for free. However, we do offer the ability to sponsor your job listings as well as direct placement services which include wrap around support and a retention guarantee. The vast majority of our customers hire people through our platform without a lot of human involvement. It’s more of just our algorithm in our marketplace driving the engagement. On top of all that, we’re doing good for the community, which is our goal.

Can you talk about what led you to found the company? 

My mother was a drug addict. When I was 14, my father passed away and I was homeless between the ages of 15 to 18.

I dropped out of high school and was living on couches. I was extremely vulnerable and surrounded by terrible role models. At 16, I was a full-blown addict and at 17, I was selling drugs. Right after my 18th birthday I was busted in Georgia with a backpack full of different types of drugs and I was sentenced to14 months in prison.

It was terrifying, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got my high school diploma while I was incarcerated. I got sober. I read over 60 personal development books.

When I got out, I was motivated to start a real business. I moved into my aunt’s basement in Ohio and went to community college for a year where I earned straight As. Then I transferred to The Ohio State University. I ended up graduating at the top of my class, with honors, and writing a book which sold 6,000 copies.

After graduation, I interviewed at almost 100 companies and every single one rejected me after the background check.

Where do you go from there? 

I was $60,000 in debt with student loans. I had worked so hard to get through college and now I was begging for a job that paid $14 an hour to work at a fast-food restaurant. I was a white male with an education and all the privilege and advantages that brings, and I couldn’t get hired in a fast-food place.

That was the inspiration for Honest Jobs. I just knew it was way too big of a problem to ignore. I had never worked in tech. I’d never started a company. I didn’t know anything about anything.

How did you get past that?  

I was obsessed with the idea, telling everyone I could, and finally I was introduced to an angel investor in Boston. He listened to my story and said his son had been arrested for something similar and was sentenced to a year of probation. He said to me: “you got sent to 14 months in prison and nine years’ probation because you didn’t have money.” When you factor in race on top of socio-economic status, there can be wildly different outcomes for different people. In America, your livelihood is taken from you when you’re convicted of a felony. There are good people coming home from jail and prison every day that want to work. They want to provide for their families. They want to contribute to their community.

Do any of your placements stick out in your mind? 

We had a man with dreadlocks come through Honest Jobs applying for a job in a warehouse. Research shows that things like dreadlocks can lead to bias in the interview process. He also had a violent felony on his record. When he arrived for the interview, the company said they wanted to hire him for an open designer position in the engineering department. He was shocked and said, “You need to know that I have a felony conviction. I don’t want you to think you were tricked into hiring me.” They told him he’d been vetted by Honest Jobs and that he was being hired for the designer role based on his degree in architecture. Afterwards, they told us he cried in the interview because he had given up all hope of having a real career.  He’s working there to this day.

What advice do you have for other startup founders out there? 

Hire someone who needs a second chance. There are a lot of talented people who will be very loyal if just given an opportunity.

What has your experience been like working with Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub? 

I recommend all my team leaders to look for peers outside of the company. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and fall into set ways of thinking about problems. Our CTO was able to take advantage of the Mentorship Network through the Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub platform. It’s been extremely valuable to have access to mentors to bounce ideas off.

There has never been a better time for you to sign up for Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub.