“Our criminal justice system is broken. Poor communities and communities of color are over-policed and they're over-punished.”—
Harley Blakeman has never been afraid of risk. Back in 2010, when Blakeman was 18, he knew trafficking drugs from Florida to Georgia was a risky endeavor. But he was making good money. He thought he was on the path to becoming a millionaire. Instead, that year he ended up in a Georgia jail for two months, and then prison for a year.
“Before I was incarcerated, I had been a homeless teen for a couple of years. I was abusing drugs and alcohol really badly before I was locked up,” says Blakeman, who lost his father at 15; his mother came in and out of his life. “When I got locked up, I was sober for the first time in a couple of years. I looked around and was able to see the path I was headed down.”Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
Blakeman has family in Central Ohio—two aunts and a grandmother—and while he was in prison, they started sending him books. “I was a high school dropout, so I didn’t like to read, but this was the first time where I didn’t have anything to distract me,” he says. “I read a book or two and realized I really enjoyed reading. Then I read 50 or 60 books, mostly on business and personal development, and it opened my mind that I’m not an idiot. So I got my GED while I was in prison.”
When Blakeman got out of prison, he had a couple of things going for him: He had a place to stay, and it was far from the people and places associated with his past. One of his aunts, a schoolteacher, let him live in her family’s basement, and she also helped him get a job working in the kitchen of a Japanese steakhouse. He saved for an apartment, a car and community college. After a year at Columbus State, Blakeman transferred to Ohio State University, and during his senior year he began his job search, but he got rejected again and again due to his prison record.
Eventually, Blakeman got a manufacturing job in Newark, and worked his way up to supervisor. The pay wasn’t bad, but the night shifts and long hours were brutal. And the plight of his post-prison life nagged at him. He knew other people were having an even more difficult time with re-entry, trying desperately to get new jobs and careers instead of falling back into situations that could lead them back to prison.
It was time for Blakeman to take a risk again. “One day, in late 2018, I decided I’m going to take out my 401(k), and I’m going to start a company where I help people get back to work.” He created an online platform to help ex-offenders rebuild their credit, go to college and get jobs. That idea stalled, but he had another: Honest Jobs, a marketplace for people with criminal records and their probation officers to match with fair-chance employers. Another local entrepreneur, Claire Coder of Aunt Flow, introduced him to an investor who put $100,000 into the company and enabled Blakeman to officially launch Honest Jobs last year.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing. The company had government contracts lined up, but those fell through once COVID-19 began shutting things down. But through “sheer willpower,” a couple of loans and some new contracts, Blakeman and his team have kept Honest Jobs afloat. Another recent development put more wind in its sails: This fall, Honest Jobs was one of 11 companies chosen to participate in the Techstars Workforce Development Accelerator.
The opportunity includes a cash investment, but even more important to Blakeman is the business accelerator’s three-month mentorship program. He acknowledges the stress of startup life, but he’s motivated by his mission. He says the protests after the death of George Floyd served as a wake-up call for the business and tech sectors.
“Our criminal justice system is broken. Poor communities and communities of color are over-policed and they’re over-punished,” Blakeman says. “Every company is trying to prove to the world that they care about the Black and brown community right now. More and more companies are saying, ‘We stand with them rather than against them.’ ”
Still, there’s a long way to go for people with criminal records. “It’s a slow development. [Most] companies haven’t implemented an effective way to practice what they preach,” Blakeman says. He’s hoping Honest Jobs can help them do just that.
Joel Oliphint is associate editor for Columbus Alive.