Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs
Five years ago, he and his business partner founded Greenstream International, an Austin-based recycler and remarketer of used electronics, not just out of entrepreneurial zeal but out of necessity: Both men had criminal records.
Unlike the men in PEP, Shaw didn't have a felony; but a series of misdemeanors, including assaults -- the byproduct of years of drug and alcohol addiction -- closed a lot of doors. Shaw found out that, whether it's a few years in prison or a plea-bargained probation, "These punishments go on in perpetuity."
If on the rare occasion Shaw scored an interview with a potential employer, once they got to his record, "the whole tenor of the interview change[d]." To Shaw, a job rejection carries a sharper sting for an ex-offender. For non-offenders, it's an unfortunate roadblock on the path to the next interview.
But for "people like us, when [you're] being told no, you're really just being told, 'Hey, you're not good enough, and you don't belong here.'"
Today, even though Greenstream's 200 employees span several U.S. states as well as a facility in Hong Kong, Shaw still feels the sting of those interviews.
He and the company's co-founder are "now in our thirties, and we're fathers...we're business owners. We are still facing the consequences of those convictions, you know, ten, 12 years later. What we did as boys, we're still paying for as men."
That's why Greenstream hires ex-offenders, and why Shaw and his business partner are eager to talk about that practice with other employers.
"Usually," Shaw says, "the first thing out of another business person's mouth is, 'Oh, yeah, and you can pay them less.'" (For Shaw, it's quite the opposite: He says Greenstream's ex-offender employees are paid well. In return, "What we get is lower turnover; we get a better-invested employee, and we get people that have just a higher level of gratitude for what they're being given, and recognize it as a real opportunity and not just a place to spend eight hours of their day.")
Knowing full well what this latest class of PEP participants will soon be facing, Shaw was eager to pull up a folding chair and chat with each of them.
Two and a half years ago, Cornish sat in one of those chairs. He'd done the work to get through the application process, he'd done the work for six months of classes and business plan competition, and, on the outside, he does the work from about 4 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. during the week, and he spends the weekend fixing up his trucks for Monday. Some day he'll take a more hands-off role -- a position he says his wife would just as soon have him take sooner.
"My wife tell me all the time, 'Hey, baby, why don't you put on some clean jeans today and a clean T-shirt and some nice shoes?'" he says. "That's not me. I don't wear that."
It's all part of that "wise steward" value Cornish likes so much. For six months, PEP's staff and volunteers invested in him. When he was released, one of the program's board members lent him money to buy more equipment. A lot of people have a lot invested in James Cornish. He doesn't want to let them down. One day, he'll drive less and focus more on management and writing contracts. Getting there is all on him.
"I'm headed that way," he says. "But until it comes, it's me."