Amber and Jason talk with Richard about his experience with Wall Street as part of the Wolf of Wall Street firm. In the conversation, Richard takes us on his journey from prison and all of the collateral consequences to reentry up through his entrepreneurial efforts focused on others who have been incarcerated. He takes us from New York to Florida to California.
From Richard's bio on his new site Commissary Club: Richard was the founder and CEO of 70 Million Jobs and 70 Million Staffing. Before launching 70 Million Jobs, Richard served as Director of Defy Ventures, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to providing incarcerated men and women second chances upon release. Before that, he was a co-founder of the popular nostalgia website, DoYouRemember.com. His career began on Wall Street, where he managed money at Lehman Bros. and Bear Stearns. He eventually went on to found Biltmore Securities, a registered broker-dealer based in South Florida. Richard grew Biltmore to nearly 500 employees and took many companies public. After Biltmore, Richard founded Channels Magazine and launched several successful consumer product and service businesses. Richard was convicted of securities fraud in 2002, arising from his activities in the 1990s and served two years in a Federal prison camp.
Everyone has a voice, a story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted. What if there were a way to amplify those stories; to have conversations with real people in real communities; a way to help them step into the power of their lived experience. Welcome to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. Together, we can create positive change for everyone.
Good afternoon, and welcome to another episode of Amplified Voices. I'm your host Jason and I'm here with my co-host, Amber. Good afternoon, Amber.
Good afternoon, Jason.
Our guest today is someone that we had the pleasure of hearing recently, on a "Safe and Justice Michigan" webinar related to re-entry. His name is Richard Bronson. We'll get into a little bit about who he is and what he's done in a minute. But first, I'd like to say Good afternoon.
Good afternoon, Jason and Amber. Thanks for having me.
It's a pleasure to have you here. And to kick things off, we're going to ask you the same question we've been asking now of many guests. And that is: could you tell us a little bit about your life before you entered the criminal legal system? And then what brought you into the criminal legal system?
Okay, I'm from New York. And for many years, I worked on Wall Street in New York. And I worked at some big investment banking firms, and I did very, very well. I made a lot of money. At one point, I actually was a partner in the infamous Wolf of Wall Street firm, that you may have seen depicted in the Scorsese film. People asked me, was that accurate? And pretty much yeah, it was pretty accurate. It was a crazy, crazy time.
How'd you even get into that? Did you go to a school that prepped you for that? Or did you just end up...
to work at The Wolf of Wall Street firm?
Yes, I went to university to work at a insane asylum. And this is where they sent me. No, I went to college for journalism. And my plan had been all along to write the great American novel. And I worked in that field for a short amount of time. But it quickly became apparent to me that if I wanted to make money, and I did, then that was not really necessarily the best path to pursue. So, I left there. And I had lots of friends who were driving Porsches, and driving out to the Hamptons on Long Island with a pretty girl next to them. And I said, Yeah, that's what I'm after. And they all worked on Wall Street, and I got myself a job there.
What year did you start?
I started in 1987.
And I ended up at The Wolf of Wall Street firm in like 1990, I guess. I worked there, about a year, year and a half. I became partner there. And after about a year and a half, I had the opportunity with another fella to move to Florida and acquire a tiny little brokerage firm called Biltmore Securities. And so we decamped to Florida, and we acquired this firm. And we grew this business very, very quickly and very successfully. And within about a year and a half, we had 500 people working for us. And we were generating about $100 million in annual revenue. And I was making a great deal of money. And I was leading an incredible life. A life of private planes and art collections. And I was the chairman of the Miami City Ballet, and, you know, all kinds of crazy stuff. I was a big gambler. And casinos all over the world would send private jets to pick me up and my entourage at the time. And we would take over an entire floor of a hotel and, you know, be comped excessively. And during all this time, much of my behavior was fueled beyond just greed. It was also fueled by drugs. That was very, very common within the world that I existed. Our drug of choice were quaaludes. Quaaludes for those who are unfamiliar, they were an incredible drug. And I'm quite sure if they continued making them I would be dead from taking them or being addicted to them. And, of course, it leads to behavior that's incredibly destructive. For me, it included car crashes. I fell down a flight of stairs and broke my hip. And all sorts of really awful shameful behavior that I engaged in, that we engaged in, that I deeply regret and am very embarrassed by. What we were doing with this firm of mine, as well as at The Wolf of Wall Street firm, certainly, because we were sort of an offshoot of it, and our business was modeled upon it. We broke a lot of laws. Securities laws. We were dealing with very, very successful, wealthy people who their feeling was, well, we can beat the system. And our feeling was no you can't with a casino where the house and we're always going to win. And almost always that was true. But we manipulated markets, told untruths, and applied very heavy pressure on the phone, and other sort of garden variety, aberrant behavior.
Did you learn this when you were at that Wolf of Wall Street firm, and then you kind of perfected it when you went on on your own? Or...
I learned it when I began working at these big so-called respectable firms.
Wait, I'm shocked. You're telling me that they're not all 100% honest?
They're marginally honest, if that much. I started working on Wall Street the week, the event called Black Monday occurred.
I remember it.
Black Monday at the time, the market for no particular reason that anyone could possibly foresee, completely plummeted. And I watched firsthand, as not just clients lost their shirt, but people who were managing their accounts through no fault of their own. And at that point, I had a few, including like an aunt, who was mad at me. She bought like a few shares of stock and Black Monday happened. And I'd been in the business all of about four days. And then her investment really plummeted precipitously. And she was like mad at me that somehow or another, I was responsible, and I wasn't. No one I knew was responsible, certainly. Nobody even understood what happened. But what it did was it sort of imbued everybody with a real cynical kind of take. Like, this is out of our control. It's not a question of, if we work hard, and do our best and behave, honestly, then good things will come of it. Which is the way most behavior and most pursuits are rewarded. On Wall Street, at least then, doing the right thing was anathema. This was in greed is good days with Gordon Gekko and everything, where the idea was, it's a zero-sum game. Either he's going to win or you're going to win. He's going to make money or you're going to make money. And who's it going to be? Unless you're tough and strong, you're gonna be a loser. And on Wall Street, the only thing that's ever given any value is how much money you make.
But there was a big backlash to that, like popular opinion went against that. I went to business school in 1990 and they taught a lot of ethics, or they attempted to, right? Because that was right after Michael Milken, the situation with him. So and I know that there's a lot of hypocrisy. There's what people say and what they do. But at least on the surface, it seemed like there was going to be reaction to all of that. And you're telling me that in the culture that you were in, it was more along the lines of, we're gonna just keep doing this because it works.
So, Jason, I'm glad that you brought up culture. Because what I was thinking, as we're having this conversation is, it seems like it was a culture, almost a subculture, that had a lot to do with lifestyle. Had a lot to do with money. And it's something that you felt obligated to maintain. Is that sounding right?
Well, I don't know what you're suggesting the greater culture is. If you're talking about finance and Wall Street in general and that our work is part of a subculture, there's a certain amount of truth to that. Wall Street has a lot of very smart, well-educated people working on it. And at the Wolf of Wall Street firm, and at my firm, that was not the case at all. We had people could barely complete a sentence, and yet they were incredibly hard-working and driven. And they were real hustlers. And as such, they were very good at their job. But I don't accept the premise that merely because you went to college, and some teaching assistant gave a talk on ethics in finance, that that even remotely has anything to do with the real world. And unless you yourself ended up in finance on Wall Street, I think you can confirm that if you're being honest. And if not, I'm telling you, you haven't really seen it firsthand. It remains the reason why people do things. There is very little gratification to be had working on Wall Street, other than making money, which is fine. People do things for different motivations. It's not creative. It doesn't make you feel like you're a good person. I mean, look at them in the news. First of all, none of them seem to be very happy. They all have 14 wives and they all have a grimace on the face. The reason is, they're involved with behavior where they're surrounded by other like-minded people who are not warm and caring, and considerate. Just the opposite. It's me against you, pal. And that is an ethos that continues. Now, it's true that the US public has largely gotten out of investing directly. And I suspect some of the reasons are that they realize they don't really have a shot, you know. They're trading against really smart people who do it for a living and do it every day. And they don't have a chance anymore than if you go to a casino, you don't have a chance. If you play enough, you just will lose. The odds are inherently against you. And that I believe is true on Wall Street. But we took it to a very high level. And not only that, we worked very, very hard. And I'm not here to defend my behavior, even one percent. What I did was a function of my greed, and my impatience, and stupidity. And this is stuff that happened 20 years ago, or almost 30 years ago. And I wake up every morning, to this day, and I feel this sense of regret and despair, and emptiness for decisions that I made. And wondering what would have been had I taken a different path. I live with that. I went to prison, as we will shortly talk about. Not only that I also paid everybody back. Nobody ended up losing a penny, which is something of a rarity in this milia.
But that was something that I felt like I had to do, just so that I could fall asleep at night.
And having said all that, still, what I did was awful. And it's not why my parents brought me into this earth, at all. And there's nothing I can do about it other than try every day to be a better man. I'm a Buddhist, I believe in karma. And I got a lot to make up for.
I knew from listening to you on that webinar, that we wanted to have you as a guest. Listening to you talking about causing harm, which we know you're going to tell us about in a minute, and then go into prison. But one of the things we've talked about is that you're not the worst thing you ever did. And hearing you talk about paying everybody back and doing what you think is the right thing to do, I mean, I think that's very commendable. And I like the person that we're talking to today.
You said it so eloquently about that's something that you live with and that you're trying to do what will make things as right as possible. Things can never be undone. Right? So, we talk a lot about how people are affected, not just by the criminal legal system, but how they're also affected by causing harm or crime itself. And I think that you really summed up how that kind of lifestyle and that kind of behavior, even many, many years in the past, has affected the trajectory of your life. So, tell us a little bit about how you got there. You went down to Florida, and you were doing business. You had 500 employees. You were making money hand over fist it seemed like, but you were working really hard. What happens next?
The people that were part of my cabal of lawlessness, including the people from that Wolf of Wall Street firm, we all obviously knew what we were doing and we knew it was wrong. And our attitude was, let's just do it as long as we can and prepare for the certainty that we'll have to pay the price at a certain point. Which to some meant sock away a lot of money or whatever. I knew that the day of reckoning would certainly come. I had left the business prior to that day of reckoning. I just couldn't take it anymore. I had a new business that I was starting. This was early 2000, maybe or 1999, around there. And it was an early internet marketing business. And someone knocked on the door of my office and it was two people a man and a woman. They walked in and they said hi we'd like to talk to you. And I thought they were there for a job or something. I had no idea who they were. And I said, well, what what's this about? And the guy opened up his coat and he pulled up his sport jacket, and I saw that there was a gun and a badge there. And that kind of told me what this was all about, you know. And it was like, okay, it's happening. I was certainly expecting it. I was certainly sort of cringing, knowing that it would eventually come, and finally, it came. In a certain level, I felt relieved, you know. It's the anticipation that's often worse than the actual reality. They said to me, listen, we've been rounding up all of the people that you do business with, you know, your whole group. I knew what he meant when he said that. And, he said, it's your turn. And it's our intention to indict you. And we're going to give you one chance right now to talk. And I said, immediately, of course, I appreciate that but I'm not prepared to talk. The only person I need to talk to is with my attorney. And they said, okay, we understand. They were very respectful and very nice. They handed me their business cards and they said, have your attorney contact us. So I said, okay. And I spoke to my attorney, and I explained everything. And he, in fact, got in touch with them to learn that, yes, they were planning to indict me. And then things happen fast. It typically, in the criminal justice system, as my attorney even explained it, he said, at first, it's like a train racing out of the station. And everybody's going crazy. And a lot of people who have been indicted, or allegedly or whatever, they will freak out in that environment naturally. You know, it's something they've never experienced. And they'll sort of give in to it, all of this initial intensity, where you're having to appear and they're handcuffing you. And obviously, it's very unsettling. It's very upsetting. If you've never ever had any kind of dealings with the legal justice system, it scares the hell out of you. You know, hopefully, you have an attorney who says, just relax, things will calm down. And in fact, they did. And then they sort of take a slow pace of, you know, the guys on vacation for 11 weeks, and the courts got backed up, and bababa, and...
These police were from Florida? Federal?
They were federal.
So, the FBI is onto you. What you're describing is just this life of limbo at this point, where you know, something bad is coming. And it is, but now it's a little bit slow, right?
The bad has come. I was living in the limbo of is gonna come. Now it came.
And I have a lot of people, obviously - I'm sure you guys do, too - who are in trouble with the law who contact you, and they ask for advice. And the number one thing that I advise is, once they come to you, like they came to me, try to resolve the situation immediately, rather than try to drag it out, which is the natural inclination. Nobody wants to go to prison. Nobody wants to deal with it. So, you want to put it off as far as you can. But the reality of it is, is that period, from the time that those two showed up with their badge and gun, to the day I walked into prison, that was worse than going to prison. And I didn't get any credit for that time I served prior to walking into prison. So, I urge people get the clock ticking as quickly as possible. it's counterintuitive, but it's such wasted time in your life. So, I knew I was going to prison. My lawyer said to me, listen, this is federal. 99% of the cases are settled. The 1% that aren't they almost always win. The federal government has unlimited resources. They don't make business decisions. If you're on their list, they've got you period. Get used to that idea. You know, I'm going can we fight it? You know, you'll watch courtroom dramas and he's laughing. He goes, that ain't the way it is, man.
Now, how much were you in the media?
That was perhaps the worst part of it. I was living in Miami Beach at the time. I owned a nightclub on South Beach. I own this big company that employed so many people that were also out and about driving fancy cars. I was the chairman of the Miami City Ballet. I was on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I lived in this incredible home on the beach next to Eric Clapton, where I used to have parties. I drove fancy sport cars. And this is Miami, you know, everybody sort of aspires to that lifestyle. But, that was me and I was well known. And there was some reporter from the local weekly sort of tabloid expose. It was called New Times at the time. I think they went out of business, but you know what the sort of publication it is. And he just figured, okay, this is gonna be a good subject for me to write about on an ongoing basis. And, you know, he tried to interview me, I just, you know, didn't want to talk to him. I never did, but I knew he was asking around. And eventually, the article came out, and it came out with a front cover, huge caricature of myself with this lazing headline that says, bull in the market, question mark. And it was a big bull with my face on it. And it was really just incredibly awful. And I remember walking into like a local diner, you know, where people sitting at a counter. And they gave out this newspaper for free and it had just come out. And everyone on that counter, it seemed to me, had this newspaper that they were reading, holding it up in front of them, where I saw the cover. Ten in a row, as I'm walking into this thing. It was almost like out of a movie, it was so surreal to me. And that really was so upsetting to me. The publicness of all this, because I'm really not that sort of person. Some people revel in the attention good or bad. You know, I guess I like good attention. Who doesn't? But it was really incredibly upsetting to me. And part of why I say, get yourself in prison, if you're going. If you're not going, don't go. But if you're going get the clock ticking, because in prison, you're with a whole lot of people, maybe they've done something, they've been accused of it, certainly, but no one's judging you. Whereas in this diner, I was scum. And I would meet people before I went away to prison and I just felt so ashamed, embarrassed, and awkward. And it was like two years it dragged on. You know, you can't do business, you can't even have a relationship, because you feel like that's dishonest. This is before the internet really sort of took off. So that you know, your secrets could remain safe, if you want them to be sort of. And that was what I was trying to do to kind of put the covers over my head, you know, in hopes that everything would go away, which of course it doesn't at all. I would have been much better served going to prison.
So I think I would be remiss if I didn't just call out what a lot of our listeners may be thinking,
Don't be remiss, Amber, whatever you do.
So, obviously, your situation and the life that you were living is a lot different than many people who find themselves entangled in the criminal legal system, for whatever reason.
For instance, a lot of people don't have the opportunity to say, oh, please take me to prison, because they're in jail because they can't bond themselves out. So, there are a lot of things that people encounter that are very different than what you experienced. And I'm sure you're aware of that.
Yes, I have passing familiarity of that. I think it is a common mistake that people who don't have experience, directly or otherwise, assume that the criminal justice system is this monolithic, sort of one-size-fits-all. And you're absolutely right. There is a wide range of experience just between jails and prisons, for example. Jails being typically a much more transient kind of thing. And within that transience is sort of a lot of neglect and lack of professionalism, very often. In the federal system, the prisons are generally cleaner, safer, better maintained. And then within any system from state to state, it varies dramatically.
And then it's a question of which sort of prison or jail are you in, based upon the alleged crime that you've committed. I was involved in a non-violent crime and I had no priors. And I had a good attorney, and I was a white college-educated guy. And all things not being equal, that gave me a better sort of opportunity going in, when the judge was looking at me and deciding on a sentence. I was in prison with lots of young men of color, who had almost no money, no education, not a lot of job experience. And I got to know and became friends with a lot of them. What they went through was very, very different than what I went through. I will, however, say - I don't know if you've ever been to prison, Amber, have you?
No, I have not. But I do have a family member who was incarcerated, yes.
Okay. Then he or she, I'm sure, could confirm that when you're scrubbing toilets for 100 men in a prison, at that point, you're not all that. And the fact that I'm a college-educated guy, that drove Ferrari's and knew celebrities...
It really was very much so. It was an awful experience. For me, though, thank God, it wasn't the violent one. It wasn't like watching an episode of Oz. I didn't have that experience. I stayed out of trouble. You know, I only was in for a couple of years. So for me, compared to others, I can't even imagine going away for 25 years. However, I also had the pleasure of spending some time in a maximum-security prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi. And I also spend time in Rikers Island, which is arguably the very worst location in the world for anything. A place that just reeks of evil and awfulness. And that was a serious dose of adult correctional facility for me. And certainly, I don't want to go back there. But you're right, It's different for others and what I went through. I'm not suggesting, I never have suggested, that I've seen the worst of things. I thank God, I haven't, you know.
It's interesting when we talk about these bad things, and then we say, well, even within that, there's privilege. And I get that, but this is your episode, so I don't want to minimize what you went through.
No, I don't feel that.
I'm not trying to do that. I just wanted to throw that out there, because I know that many of our listeners might have that in the back of their mind. And I think it's important to talk about.
Absolutely. But what I'd like to ask you, Richard, is: looking back on it and knowing what you've been through, and everything you know now - obviously, you admit that you broke the law, you did some things that you're not proud of - was there another way that the system could have held you accountable, that wouldn't have involved what you ultimately went through?
That's an interesting question that you raise. Amber, the point that you brought out and now Jason, this question, I've done lots and lots of podcasts, nobody has ever brought up either of those points. So, I commend you on your original thinking. And it just shows that you really understand the space. In my particular case - and this again, harkens back to the point that Amber was raising - for me, going to prison was actually what I needed. And I'll tell you why. I suffered and continue to suffer a great deal of guilt for what I did. And I don't believe that I will ever get beyond it. And I know a lot of people who went away, and a lot of the people I was associated who went away, they've forgotten about this long ago. Their attitude was, listen, I paid the price I did my time. We were dealing with people who themselves were crooked, and we just happened to do it better. I don't feel particularly guilty about what I did. And life goes on. I wish I could feel a little bit more that way. But I don't feel at all that way. And so, I beat myself up endlessly. And I'm not asking for anybody's pity for it. I brought it on myself. I don't deserve any pity. But just to give you an idea of how overcome with a guilt I felt. I had a lot of money. I had assets. I had a significant net worth. And even after we paid everybody back, and even after I paid all the fines and the lawyers and everything else, I still had millions and millions of dollars in assets and in the bank. I gave it all away prior to my going away to prison. Literally, I gave it all away. I went into prison penniless. And it was purely for my own self-interest oddly enough. I was looking for forgiveness. I was looking to feel better about myself. I felt better when I would meet someone from a charity and give them the money and feel like they're a good person and I'm doing something good. And you see I'm not a bad person. And this is for me because I did it all pretty much anonymously. So, I gave away everything. And still, I felt overcome with the sense of guilt. When I walked into prison, I was addicted to Ambien because I couldn't fall asleep. I had terrible insomnia, and particularly worrying about going to prison, that's enough to keep anybody up at night. And I got to prison. And of course, they told me we don't give Ambien. You're gonna have to figure that out on your own. And they stuck me on a cot right next to the bathroom, which the lights were on always and people throughout the evening were coming and going, and using it and doing all kinds of things in there. The first night I was there, I said, I'll never ever fall asleep clearly, because this is just impossible for me. But do you know what, a funny thing happened after a couple of weeks. After I calmed down and realize that there was no threat to me. At that point, I started having the best sleep of my life. And to this day, my time in prison was the best sleep of my life. And being around other people who are not judging me negatively, was so therapeutic for me. And talking, but mostly just thinking and understanding how my ego was driving me to this aberrant behavior, that at the same time was so distasteful for me. That's like cognitively dissonant. How do you do both?
How do you be a moral person, but at the same time, do immoral things? What really are you? And I had lots of time to really sort of think about that. And when I came out of prison, I still felt guilty. I still feel guilty today. But I was a different person for sure. And I was an embarrassed person and ashamed person.
Were your parents still around when you come out?
They were not alive through any of this, through my behavior. Thank god they weren't.
Was there any family or any support when you came out?
Yes, an older sister and a younger brother. And they remained incredibly supportive and in my corner. My sister was a saint to me, you know, in every way.
Alright, shout-out to your sister.
Thank you, sister.
Thank you sisters is right. Love the people around you, boy, that's all I can tell you. Appreciate them, because, you know, it's one thing when you're on top. Everybody wanted to know me, everyone wanted to hang out, everyone wanted to do me favors. And then I came out of prison and people that I had counted on, who were among my very best friends, wouldn't even answer the phone. Wouldn't do anything. And it's funny, almost 20 years later, they've all come back, to try to reach out, to try to rekindle the friendship, or at least to apologize.
Because I'm sure, you know, they felt guilty about it. And it's like, okay, you know, if that makes you feel better, that's fine. But you know, when I needed you, you weren't there.
I do want to highlight something that you mentioned about when you were in prison, and the people that you encountered that were not judgmental towards you. And I know that we kind of hear quite frequently, people who have discovered great friendships and connections, either with, you know, if their a family member with other families. And so I always like to kind of highlight that resilience of people who have gone through this process and the idea that people find those connections in some of the most unlikely places.
It's a great point. The work that I'm doing right now has a lot to do with honoring the strengths and the goodness that came during that time of otherwise, mostly misery. Number one, they send you to prison with other people who either have committed crimes, and if they haven't committed crimes, they've been around crimes, for sure. And that's sometimes how they got into trouble. They didn't do anything, but they were in the wrong place. And you spend a lot of time with them. And all you have to do is sit around and talk to people. And for some, that means let's talk about how to be a better criminal. That goes on for sure. But I met some people that you feel like are brothers while you're there that are helping you get through a difficult time. And you have this obligation to each other. What I think I took away more than anything else. And that, however, was an understanding that morality is not nearly as black and white as people would tend to think. We look for simple answers to complicated issues. I was in prison with people who were guilty of drunk driving and killed somebody. I was in prison with people, and as a matter of fact, employ someone currently, who got in trouble with the IRS for cheating the IRS and went to prison. Now, I don't know a single person literally in my experience, that hasn't gotten behind the wheel of a car with an extra glass of wine or an extra beer that they should not have drunk prior to getting behind the wheel. And I don't know a businessman at all, who doesn't even joke about taking, you know, like a dinner with their family and writing it off as a business expense. But under other sets of circumstances, those relatively benign acts, you know, certainly not axe murderers or something. These people could have ended up in prison too. I discovered that, like me, I don't think I am an evil person. I think I am an imperfect person. I have the capacity when my ego takes over to do behavior that I know is wrong. And I think that's true of most people, unless you're a saint or something. And who among us hasn't done something that they don't regret? Jason is showing me a button that says I am human. Okay, I thought it was a button telling me to like wrap it up or something.
No, he loves the I am human button. Because at the end of the day - I think you said it really well - we try to find very simple answers to complex problems. And every human is a complex person. And we have this idea in our society that we can kind of label and silo. And you know, there's a criminal class, and then there's the rest of us who wouldn't hurt a fly and would never do that. And crime and even violence is all in the context of particular circumstances. And I might have to steal that from you, we look for easy answers to complex problems.
Yeah, and certainly go into prison and living with men who were brought into this world from day one in horrible, horrible circumstances, through no fault of their own. And without parental guidance. And without role models or clear paths to legitimate legal success. And they were motivated just like I was, and just like anybody is. They want to be successful. They want to have things. They want to lead a good life. And if you're only aware of a path to a good life, that is criminal in nature, you assume that that's just the way life is, you know. I'm omitting the .001% of people who are psychotic, you know, axe murderer types. I don't know what to do with them. Beyond that, it's like people are people. And when they drop their role that they feel like they have to kind of show to get by in their world. And when you're just all sitting around, at the end of the day, and you realize they're no different than I am. It's a different background, you know. I'm a New Yorker, you're from California, we talk differently, our experiences are different. You walk down the street, and you're afraid a cop is gonna shoot you. I have never had that experience. So that's something that you have to deal with. But you're not a bad person, per se. I don't think they're a bad people, per se at all. We're imperfect people, or as Jason likes to wear on his clothing, buttons that say "I am human." And that's the truth.
So you get out. Now, did you immediately start a business?
I tried, because I thought, alright, I'm a successful guy. I'm a home run hitter, I've done a lot of things, so why shouldn't I just pick up where I left off? And what I discovered was number one, no one cares that I was a successful guy at all.
That I was too old for someone to want to be in business with me. And I was radioactive. One piece of advice that I give everybody, particularly, you know, white-collar, people coming out of prison is, you got to really be humble. And don't expect to pick up where you left off unless you went away with tens of millions of dollars in the bank, in which case...
So then you come out. Are you under supervision? Do you have a parole or probation officer?
Yes. For two years I was on supervised release.
And is anybody in the system helping you with employment?
No, but I wouldn't expect it. Listen, the system is not existing to help people with college educations, who used to earn $14 million a year. I really wasn't expecting help. And whatever help they might have offered, I really didn't want, because I never would see myself as working in a warehouse or something, out of my ego. And my sister used to say to me, she said, stop being a big shot, go work at McDonald's. You can get a job there. It's better than what you're doing now sitting around moping around. And she was right. And I tell people who come out who used to be big shots, I said, figure out the industry you're interested in and find the lowest job in that company. The lowest paying most unglamorous job, and apply for it. And get your foot in the door because soon enough, they're going to recognize, if you are, you know, something special, they'll recognize it and they'll move you up. And if you're not, you didn't deserve it anyway,
This is a really important point you're bringing up. I want to pause here for one second and ask you a very targeted question. So we deal with folks often who have sex offenses. So they're on the registry. Do you have any guidance, given the experience that you've had, for people who are on the registry? Because I know at least one guy right now, he went to school for an MBA, he came out, he's young guy, does not have experience, and he can't get a job anywhere. And he is applied for administrative assistant-type jobs, to warehouse jobs, to everything, and cannot get anybody to hire him. Do you have any guidance there?
So, I launched the company called 70 million jobs as a employment platform nationally for people with records. And a certain percentage of these folks have the sort of background that you're describing. And I will tell you, no good news. I will tell you that when it comes to large companies in this country, they have a hiring matrix or parameters of what they can and they cannot consider. Some won't consider anybody with a crime. That's how most of them are. The ones that are much more progressive and open, they will not consider someone with that sort of background, any more than they will consider someone who committed murders or rapes or other crimes that they feel exist on a certain level. I get loads of men who are very well educated and articulate, and who have done their time and have had great experience and backgrounds in the workforce, and they can't get a single job, even the lowest paying job that's out there. They can't even get that. I don't have an answer. And honestly, I'm not a huge fan of how government operates and what it can do well. I'm on Medicare. Medicare is a good program that they do well. They do it better than insurance companies. I think, in the cases that you're referring to, this is something that's best handled by government. Because there's no willingness currently at all. I used to be involved with a nonprofit in the reentry space and eventually became director. And we had lots of donors. And we had lots of volunteers. And these were incredibly compassionate, caring people who got involved. But when it came time to folks with that sort of background, they were almost entirely uncomfortable with dealing with them, working with them, hanging out with them, whatever. I just don't think the zeitgeist is there yet, unfortunately. I'd love to be able to help everybody. And I feel compassion for everybody who sincerely wants to get on with their life. But there is little taste for it currently in this country.
So, can I ask you one question to follow up with that?
And I will say that we definitely don't find that super surprising, because we're very, very familiar with this area of the law, and area of culture and all of that. Do you think that some of it has to do with the public nature of the registry and people not wanting their business associated with that? What are your thoughts on that?
In general, businesses have to consider the optics of everything they do. And if it's a big business, they have to consider the optics of what would their shareholders say? What would the press say? What would their customers say? If it's a public-facing sort of business, like a supermarket or whatever, that could put them completely out of business, from their point of view, okay.
That's what their greatest fear is. Whether or not it would I don't know. It certainly wouldn't be good for their business, if that word got out. The good of saying, okay, you're a caring, responsible corporate citizen, that would give them a little bit, but the other side, you know, would probably be a lot worse for them. I think, however, the bigger issue, honestly, is that many people in business are parents. And it's very, very, very easy for them to imagine their kid, particularly when their kid was young, to be involved in a situation, you know, like this. And to them, that's an incredibly horrible, unthinkable thing for them to imagine. And, you know, it's hard to think about, someone robs a bank, you don't think, well, I don't have a bank. That's not going to affect me directly. But when it comes to your kids, you know, in general, I think humans have just a different level of protectiveness, and concern, and anger. And what would a mother not do to defend her child? A mother would lift a car up if the kid was trapped under a car. So, you're talking about incredibly powerful emotions that exist there: that I think are primal and go beyond the business considerations.
You bring up a good point, because people when they think about registries and things that are considered sex crimes, if you will, they immediately start thinking about the worst-case scenarios, of these rape-murders of children.
And people who know really anything about the registry, and the type of people who find themselves on the registry, know that the large majority of people don't fall in that category. And that the registry just strokes with a completely broad brush. Not saying that there are not people.
Yeah, I've come to learn quite a bit about this, you know. And I become friendly with people in my nonprofit work, we work with them as well as currently. So, I know that that's very, very true. Just the very nature of it, though. I'm not a parent, but I can only imagine that people might really just imagine, like, you say, the very, very worst...
you know, rather than it not being that case.
Thank you for going with us down that parallel discussion. Let's bring it back to you, and the successes that you've had with this 70 Million Jobs. Let's go back to that, if you would.
Thank you, I appreciate it. So coming out of prison, I tried to figure out what to do with myself. And I wasted years trying to figure out what to do with myself. And luckily, I discovered a nonprofit in the reentry space in New York, that would have me. And that's one piece of advice that I give to everybody with a record. Particularly people who have had some managerial success or financial success, who have been involved with businesses. Because a nonprofit in the re-entry space, obviously will have, in general, a much more open mind to hiring folks like this, and need to help badly. So I went to work for them in development, which is to say, trying to fundraise. And I was good at it naturally. It was what I was used to doing. And I eventually got more and more involved. And it was an incredibly powerful experience for me. And it was really good for my soul. And it was healing and therapeutic to be doing work that I just knew objectively was good. But at a certain point, my feeling sort of changed that despite our best efforts of all these well-meaning people, and they are all well-meaning, they weren't really having a great deal of impact. Even in the aggregate. The unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated, pre Coronavirus, was about 25%, the highest rate of unemployment of any discrete population in our country's history, including during the Great Depression. Now, it's probably 50% unemployment. And unemployment, as you both know, directly correlate with recidivism, whereby people can't get a job, and what are they supposed to do they have to eat, they have to take care of their family, they break the law again, and the cycle just never ends. And my feeling was the way things have been handled historically, for hundreds of years, just are not working, and they deserve to be disrupted. So my attitude was, let's try this as a for-profit venture. Let's bring a sort of aggressive kind of approach that is not generally found in nonprofits. Let's employ technology. And let's really raise money that we don't have to worry month to month that paying the rent but can actually strategically build something. So, I launched the company 70 Million Jobs as the first for-profit national employment platform for people with records.
What year did that launch?
It began really in the middle of 2017.
And for those folks listening, who were familiar with the tech world, we were included within Y Combinator, which is the preeminent early-stage investor and accelerator program. And I was able to raise seed capital from venture capital firms. And it took us a while but we really started kicking ass and we were successful in placing thousands of people, which I dare say is much more than anybody's ever accomplished. So, I'm very proud of that. And we were starting to make money as well, which was really incredible. But unfortunately, the Coronavirus had other plans for us. Because when that hit like in March, everybody got fired that we had placed and companies weren't hiring anybody. And those people they were hiring were people who didn't have records, because they had all of a sudden tens of millions of people to choose from.
I just want to let that sink in. So, all these people had jobs. The majority of people ended up getting let go, they're the first...
Every one of them that we had placed got fired. Partially, it's because the sweet spot that we work with are jobs and warehouses and manufacturing and shipping and construction and foodservice. Jobs you can't work from at home.
So, we had people that Smithfield Meatpacking, which was like one of the super spreader locations. They shut all this down. And how sad for these folks, obviously, to go through this. But nonetheless, it happened.
It sounds like the missing step though, is really convincing companies that it's beneficial to them to hire somebody with a record because now as soon as the market is filled with people, it becomes a buyers market. And they go for somebody without a record.
Yes. The irony is here, that it turns out that this population, in general, actually do incredibly well on the job. We are partners with the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, which is the global organization for HR professionals. And they, along with the Koch brothers of all people, they did a study and they found that Hiring Managers, almost all of them, who have had experience hiring people with records, their feeling is, the quality of hire is just as good if not better than with people without records. And not only that their retention is better, which is a big problem in HR. People jump around from job to job. They can't hold on to them. Our people stick around longer. Why? Because they don't have so many options. And without these options, they are loathe to do anything that will jeopardize a good thing, if they are lucky enough to find it. So they come to work with a smile on their face. They're appreciative. They're loyal.
So, we would get people in there and almost inevitably, in every case, they would come back to us and say we love them get us more just like them. So, it turns out that doing the right thing is also very, very good business in this case. But attitudes take a long time to change. They are evolving and improving. From the time I got to prison to today, things are better. But nonetheless, with historically low unemployment pre Coronavirus, it was still a very tough sale. With post Coronavirus, it was an impossible sale.
Now, is that just a temporary blip or is it turning back around again?
I don't believe that we will be, as a country or the global economy, will be returning to what it was. Despite Mr. Trump's disagreement, I don't believe we will be at three and a half percent unemployment, which we were prior to the Coronavirus, anytime soon.
There are a few companies out there that are really good with fair chance hiring. And that really believe in it. I'll mention a couple because they deserve to be mentioned,
that would be great.
If you're familiar with MOD pizza, they have about 500 pizza places, mostly, I think on the west half of the country. They're big bakeries like gray stone bakery, or Dave's Killer bread. They hire a lot of people. There's companies like Unilever, they're really good with it too. And then there are individual businesses, often owned by people themselves with records, that go out of their way to hire folks like this. But in general, the only reason that they end up hiring them, if they do, is because they have to. Because they're desperate to fill positions.
So what's happening with 70 Million Jobs? Did you have to lay off people?
I was lucky, I didn't have to do that. I had money in the bank. But we either knew that we would have to close up shop, because the business had gone from robust to almost nothing, or go to plan B. And what Plan B was, it had been always part of my plan to build out a social network for this population. And that's what Commissary Club is. And if you go to commissary.club, you can see it because we launched it in beta, a very preliminary kind of soft launch. We did that yesterday.
Wow. That's brand new. That's exciting.
So, if somebody has put their email address in and they get a number back saying you're on the waitlist, when are they going to hear?
We're starting to let people in, as I say yesterday.
The site is very complicated. It's sort of like Facebook for people with records, for lack of better description. And that is a very complicated site. And there's a lot going on and a lot can go wrong. And it does, initially, there's lots of bugs. And there's also lots of things that we're going to be iterating on on almost a daily basis to figure out. No one's ever done what we've done before. So, we don't know what the hell we're doing. You know, we got got to figure this out as we go along. So you do it in a controlled fashion. And you study the analytics and you find out what people like what they don't like, what do they understand. Did they understand how to get here? What did they do afterwards? All that stuff you study. It's a whole science. And we do it in a very slow controlled fashion before we open up the floodgates. We have 1000s of people on this waitlist. And we let in 20 people yesterday. So, the idea here is twofold. Number one, mostly, it's a social site designed to connect people. As you both know, this is a population that has historically forever lived in the shadows. They've been marginalized, they're ashamed, they're fearful of getting in trouble. They want to stay below the radar. And that's understandable. Unfortunately, the result of that behavior means that they never ever come together and have the chance to speak in one voice and demand, hey, we're not second-class citizens. Women were in a similar plight back in the 50s and earlier, and they were marginalized. Nobody wanted to hire them for any important job. And the opportunities were precious few educationally in every other way. They were demeaned. And then the women's woman came together, and women found sisterhood, and found strength in it, and found power in it. And that's true of African Americans through civil rights and the LGBTQ community.
By coming together and speaking with a voice, my population, our population, 70 million strong, we could elect any president, we want. The votes are there. We have an incredible amount of buying power. We buy a shitload of sneakers, and mobile phones, and McDonald's hamburgers, and music and on and on and on. But nobody markets a thing to us. It's like, we don't exist. And when you don't exist, you don't get a seat at the table. And you're maligned, and you're marginalized. And I think particularly with all that's been going on with Black Lives Matter, that time has come to an end. Enough already. So we're trying to bring them together to speak as one voice. And not only that, through connecting. They can find inspiration, they can find opportunities, and they can find friendship. When you come out of prison, when you're under supervised release, as you guys know, they prohibit you from talking to other people with a record. It's a crazy situation. You've been in prison for a while, maybe you've never held the mobile phone in your hand, you come out of prison, you're a deer in the headlights, and there's no one you're allowed to talk to who has a record. Who do they know? What are they gonna call up? How did they find out? We want to create opportunities for people to connect. So, we think that's an incredible opportunity. And at the same time, we're putting in one place a variety of existentially important resources, like employment, but also housing. And also educational opportunities. And also legal help and medical help, and mentorships, and fitness, and even a dating site. When I got out of prison, the first thing I wanted to do, I'm a single guy, I wanted to go out with a girl. I had a date through match.com. And then the day of the date, the woman called me up and said, I can't go out with you. I said, why not? I was so disappointed. Why? She said, well, I googled you, you have a criminal record. I'm not going out with you. And I said, this is going to be a lot harder than I expected. There's no dating site for people like that. We think all of these things, they're not important, they're required to live a life that has some prospect to it and happiness and opportunity to it. We aim to be on the front lines of that demonstration; that liberation, if you will, at the risk of really sounding sort of over the top. But that's really what I see is the opportunity. And I see that needs to be done and the time is right. And I believe that me and my team are uniquely qualified to be doing it.
Now, did your marketing team come up with like a one-line why or catchphrase?
Yeah, we have about 9000 of them. The problem is we have too many. like re-entry done right, is really the elevator pitch. It's not been done right. And we can do better. Ultimately, you know, in all the important ways.
It's incredibly exciting and I'm looking forward to being part of it. Has everybody that you've talked to been receptive?
In general, I have always found a high level of receptiveness to our work. You know, we were involved with employment. Who doesn't believe in employment as being an objectively good thing? You may not want to hire this person, but you like the idea that someone would, you know. So, the one thing, you know, which is true in a lot of situations is, don't tell me how you feel, don't say it, act it. Let me judge you on that. For example, our path that we're on, it's a tech company, we raise money from venture capital firms. And every venture capitalist out there that I've spoken to pretends to love our mission. But whether or not it's something that's investable, well, that could be a different story. Now, through it all, we've managed to raise the money we needed, but there certainly has never been easy. But the funny thing about things not being easy. I'm 66 years old. You know, my father taught me long, long ago, unlike kids these days who think that life is just a series of one wonderful events after another for them to sample. My father said, life is tough, and the world doesn't owe you a living. So, I don't look upon things being tough, as unexpected. Frankly, I'm suspicious of things being too easy, you know. I don't know that I could ever win the lottery for that.
So, is Commissary Club something that you're living and breathing every minute or do you do other things for enjoyment at this point?
Sad to say, I have zero life other than my work. And only exacerbated by the Coronavirus, living in my apartment for eight months to the exclusion of going or doing anything.
Do you miss your old lifestyle?
Do I miss it? Yes. I would be lying if I didn't say that it wasn't fun driving Ferraris and hanging out with celebrities and on and on and on and on. And also not worrying about paying the rent, you know, and having a lot of money in the bank. But I sleep better. And that's worth a heck of a lot to me these days. And I'm proud of the work I'm doing. And I feel like it's good for me karmically. I have a shot to go to heaven after all. So that's sort of encouraging. And, you know, it's been a weird, weird kind of path for me. It's been an objectively interesting life. I'm reminded of the Yiddish expression that goes something like, you know, "Man plans and God laughs." Nothing that I have ever, ever done came out of a plan. It was always just sort of the spur of the moment of what my instincts told me to do. But whatever it is, here I am today to do the best I can do today.
Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to us today. I think that, at the end of the day, even if someone is not super altruistic, let's be pragmatic. So, we can either have people who are broken that we have to take care of as a society, in some kind of way. Or we can lift people up and we all rise together.
I couldn't agree more. When we let people out of prison, it's almost like our expectation is, they will here on in not have to eat, not have to have a roof over their head, not have relationships, not have anything, to say nothing of mobile phones and hamburgers. And if they have no path to any of those existentially important things, what do we expect to happen? It is really the height of idiocy and it's completely perplexing, that it's not much clearer. You know, I've read that if we could resolve recidivism like they do in most countries, we could solve every one of our problems. So, maybe some sanity will come to the world. But in the meantime, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it and I had a good time.
Well that's awesome, Richard, and you're able to spread a very positive message and your story is inspiring. And I'm happy that we had the opportunity to spend this hour with you. So, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you. It was my honor to be here.
Until next time, Amber.
We'll see you next time.
You've been listening to Amplified Voices, a podcast lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system. For more information, episodes, and podcast notes, visit amplifiedvoices.show.