What Matters to Me Most

This is my first Huff Po post in quite a while. When I was active with the start-up, DoYouRemember.com, I wrote frequently about memories and how they intersected with my current life. It was incredibly powerful for me, and from the response I got on social media, I think a lot of people connected with my musings. 

I'm launching a new company, called 70 Million Resources, Inc. 70 million refers to the number of men and women who have criminal records in this country (the number may be as high 100 million). That represents one in three adults. When I tell people this figure, they're sure I'm wrong. But I'm not.

Despite the huge number of people who comprise this population, virtually no products or services are sold to them. Get this: there's no Internet job site, no housing site. Not even a dating site. As if people just out of prison wouldn't like to go on a date or two.

My connection to all this began about 11 years ago, when I was sitting on my cot at a Federal prison camp, where I was completing 22 months of incarceration. You see, I used to work on Wall Street, and built a very large, successful firm. We made a lot of money, including some the wrong way. Let me underline that thought: I was a crook and took other people's money. I knew it was wrong, I beat myself up with guilt and shame, but I continued until I couldn't do it any longer.

My partner and I decided to pay back all of our victims. We felt it was the right thing to do, and we hoped we could avoid legal problems by ponying up. Whatever I had left, I gave away to charity. Lots of people thought I was crazy, and I guess I was--crazy with shame and embarrassment and self-loathing.

Six years later, the authorities came knocking, as I knew they would. I admitted my guilt, and was sentenced to 24 months. The fact that I had no financial victims left and hadn't stashed money off-shore kept my sentence relatively light. And if the truth be told, I was glad to be sentenced. I needed to feel some sense of atonement, because I could not abandon an overwhelming sense that I was a miserable person who besmirched my family name, caused those close to me great pain and suffering, and would probably rot in hell.

Jump ahead ten years, and I began working at an incredible non-profit organization, Defy Ventures. Defy teaches men and women who are in prison and who have been released, how to become entrepreneurs, so they can gain control of their futures. I met so many wonderful, beautiful people who only wanted to get on with their lives in a productive, positive manner. They paid for their crimes, and were now ready to be responsible fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and children.

The organization is supported by so many generous, open-hearted, almost saintly people. Getting to know some of them has been one of my life's greatest honors.

People with a record learn early on that despite their best intentions, gaining a fresh start isn't easy. Job applications would be unceremoniously tossed in the waste basket; landlords would claim no vacancies; banks withheld basic services. The anxiety of disclosing their background--when do I talk about my past? How best to explain it?--none of these questions had good answers.

When I got out of prison, people told me to go on-line to meet a woman. So I placed an ad on Match.com, and met someone very nice. We planned a date. But on the day of our date, she emailed me to tell me that she couldn't go out with me. Why? She Googled me and discovered I was a convicted ex-felon. She couldn't go out with an ex-felon.

But the truth is, I'm not an ex-felon; like all my brothers and sisters who been incarcerated, I remain a felon, and always will be. I can accept that lifelong sentence, personally, because I had every benefit, every opportunity. I went to a good college. I had a loving family. I'm white in a largely racist world.

But what about all the others who weren't so lucky? What choices did they have? Who were their role models? 

So after working at a wonderful, transformative non-profit, I decided there was a way to build a successful business and do a lot of good at the same time, what's called these days "double bottom line" returns. I've always wanted to be financially successful, but at this stage of my life, I want as many good karmic chips on my side of the table. 

So I'm going to talk about this venture which, to me, is much more than a start-up business. I hope you'll enjoy reading about it, and perhaps sharing your thoughts. But even if I fail to reach an audience, this sort of thing does my soul a lot of good. A lot of good.

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