How a Columbus founder went from a Florida jail to founding an exciting startup
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are released from prison after serving time for a variety of crimes. But just because the justice system has released them doesn’t mean many of those people are able to return to normal lives. One of the biggest roadblocks on that journey is finding a job, as many companies are unable or unwilling to hire people with a criminal record. Columbus entrepreneur Harley Blakeman wants to change that with his startup Honest Jobs.
“There are 19 million working-age adults in America that have a felony criminal record, and that makes up nine percent of the U.S. workforce,” said Blakeman. “But most companies tend to avoid hiring that population. They’re willing and ready to work, but employers often avoid that population because there is a risk. They’re worried about negligent hiring lawsuits or what might happen if they hire someone with this background. Our technology mitigates that risk in a brand new way. We are a jobs marketplace where employers and job seekers come together on our platform to make smart hiring decisions.”
Honest Jobs isn’t just a niche job board, the site uses technology to reach its goals. Using intimate knowledge of the landscape for job-seekers with criminal records, the site can ensure that participating companies aren’t taking unnecessary risks or breaking their own HR standards while also finding good fits for these jobs.
“Our software is able to read job descriptions and understand what types of crimes would make a hire considered negligent and which wouldn’t,” said Blakeman. “We are making matches on a case-by-case basis. We know the criminal history of every applicant and we’re able to promote jobs that match where their crime does not conflict with the job duties, state or federal laws or HR best practices. This is an algorithm that drives the search results for job seekers while also promoting posted jobs.”
Blakeman has a very personal connection to his company’s mission. As a homeless teenager in Florida, he was charged with drug trafficking and grand theft and was sentenced to 14 months in prison at just 18 years old. In prison, he earned his GED and pledged to change his course. When he was released, a family member in central Ohio gave him a place to stay. Over the course of the next few years he put himself through Columbus State and The Ohio State University, where he graduated with a business degree at the top of his class with honors.
“I realized that I have a unique voice here and I have the ability to expose a problem that’s even worse than the problem that I had,” he said. “The fact is, I had it easier than many. I was a white male with a good education and a support system. The others coming home every year probably don’t have all of that. I think most people in this country believe that everyone deserves a second chance. And on the business side, we try to talk about the cost of inaction. What’s the trade-off? The cost of isolating nine percent of the workforce is just too big.”
Blakeman knows things could have gone much differently for him if he had ended up in a city other than Columbus. He credits central Ohio with welcoming him back to society, helping him get back on his feet and even getting Honest Jobs up and running.
“I love Columbus and Ohio State changed my life,” he said. “I started with a prison GED, made it through Ohio State with honors, and loved my experience. And then the Columbus startup community helped me quite a bit. Went through multiple accelerator programs that helped me learn over the last couple of years. And my angel investor is from Columbus and I was introduced to him here at Columbus. He made the first $100,000 investment in our company. I was an outsider who came here as an adult at 21 and was able to find other people helped me make connections.”
Since launching in 2019, Honest Jobs has made massive strides toward expansion, capped by a recent $1.2 million funding round. Across the country, 400 employers in ever-broadening fields use the service, while more than 9,000 formerly incarcerated people looking for work have created profiles. But with a background like his, Blakeman isn’t just interested in succeeding in business, he wants to give opportunities to people in a position he once found himself.
“There was one gentleman who applied for a warehouse job at $15 an hour,” he said. “When the company interviewed him, they found out that he had an AutoCAD background and they ended up hiring him for a draftsman job in their engineering department. That’s just one of those really cool stories that shows that there’s so much underutilized talent. They’re just overlooked by everyone and there’s so much value sitting idle in this country because they’re not being fully utilized. We understand why they weren’t being utilized and found a solution to that problem, and it’s a multi-billion dollar opportunity we’re pursuing. We’re very proud of that.”