Saving Lives: Contest to Create Jobs for the Formerly Incarcerated

With more states looking for an economic solution to solve their budgetary problems, more prisoners are being released early from their sentences. Politicians are calling for ways to let individuals out of prison faster because of the economics of doing so. In New York State, which has reduced its prison population significantly because of Rockefeller Drug Law reforms, many prisoners are now returning to their communities.

The question I pose is what do we do with them once they get out? How will they survive once ex-offenders return to the real world? Andrew Potash, a retired insurance entrepreneur and CEO, has an answer to this question. He wants to give back to society by creating businesses that employ the formerly incarcerated. He and his small team, Spring Into Action, were set to launch New York City's first mattress recycling business in October of 2010, until they came face-to-face with their greatest business challenge - bed bugs.

"With the mattress recycling business now on hold the Spring Into Action team became more passionate than ever to find a business that is financially sustainable, easy to teach, and provides opportunities for career growth for our future employees," said Potash.

To spur idea generation across the country, Spring Into Action has launched the "Ideas for Impact Challenge" , and is offering a $25,000 prize for a business they can implement in the next year.

The challenge asks individuals and teams to "envision a business that can be consistently profitable in the New York City area, while creating meaningful employment opportunities for people who need a second chance in life." The challenge winner is guaranteed $5,000, and another $20,000 when and if the idea launches. Spring Into Action has kept the application to six simple questions to attract the greatest range of participants. They hope to receive ideas for new businesses as well as examples of successful social enterprises from around the country that can be replicated in New York.

Although the February 15 deadline is just two weeks away, Spring Into Action's commitment is just beginning. Through Spring Into Action, Potash is willing to invest up to $1 million to get the winning idea to break even by either partnering with an entrepreneur who wants to lead the start-up or, or by building the idea out themselves.

The Ideas for Impact Challenge is important because it "will result in a business that will employ people in long-term jobs so they can turn their lives around," said Potash. Numerous social service organizations both in New York City and around the country are focused on helping folks who get out of jail develop the skills necessary to successfully re-enter the workforce. Yet in New York, 66 percent of formerly incarcerated people are employed and only 13 percent of those with jobs earn above minimum wage. Long-term jobs with career growth are a critical and missing piece in ending the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

Potash's long-term vision is to start several businesses in the next five years that employ hundreds of people who need a second chance in life. Starting businesses, and in turn creating jobs, is one of the things he enjoys most in life. The opportunity to use his passion to make a difference was what started this quest three years ago, after stepping down as CEO of his core businesses, The Distinguished Programs Group and ReSource Pro , which today employ over 900 people.

In June 2009, Potash hired two recent Cornell graduates who were interested in social entrepreneurship to help. Since then, they've spent time with over 40 organizations trying to understand what businesses might work best and what was needed to create an environment in which people had the best opportunity to succeed. They have now partnered with The Osborne Association, an 80 year old nonprofit that focuses on reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into society.

We need more people like Andrew Potash and his organization to help those returning to the real world in hope to become productive tax paying members of society. 

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