From the Prison ‘Box’ to Entrepreneurship

Thomas Safian, who founded Refoundry alongside Cisco Pinedo, from Los Angeles. The non-profit offers training to ex-convicts and incubates companies started by them. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Thomas Safian, who founded Refoundry alongside Cisco Pinedo, from Los Angeles. The nonprofit offers training to ex-convicts and incubates companies started by them. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Ralphy Domínguez, a Dominican who lives in the Bronx, was a good student, which earned him a grant to study in Boston. However, instead of building a career for himself, he took a wrong turn.

“I started taking drugs and ended up in charge of a group of dealers,” he said. Living on the edge has consequences and, for Domínguez, now 30 years old, that meant getting arrested in 2009 and spending four-and-a-half years in prison.

“After getting out of prison, I looked for work but the ‘box’ makes it hard for you,” he said.

The “box” he is referring to is the checkbox on a job application where candidates are asked if they have been in prison. For ex-convicts, this results in a second sentence of sorts, as it places limits ‒ or makes it impossible ‒ to access job opportunities and readapt to society. [Editor’s note: On Oct. 27 a “ban the box” law known as the Fair Chance Act went into effect in NYC, prohibiting employers from basing their job offers on whether or not a person has a prison record.] 

Deprived of the chance to find employment, many recent ex-convicts end up relapsing and getting arrested again. Those able to find jobs often do so thanks to dedicated organizations, but the positions they are offered are usually low-paying and provide poor professional and personal prospects.

Taking advantage of a trade he learned in prison, Domínguez decided to start Pen & Pistol, a company selling leather accessories for men. He was then selected to participate in a reintegration program created by the Refoundry organization, which gave him the chance to build his management skills.

Refoundry is an innovative program designed to develop companies founded by people who have been in prison. The participants make furniture using wood and other recyclable materials which are discarded, for instance, during repair projects carried out in brownstones. At the same time they build chairs, tables, dressers and cabinets, they learn the management skills required to oversee such projects, including accounting, sales and shipping.

Domínguez is the only one of the five current participants who had already started a business [before joining the Refoundry incubator]. The rest started from scratch.

Refoundry was founded in Brooklyn last April by Thomas Safian, the organization’s director, and Cisco Pinedo, from Mexico, founder and creator of a South Central Los Angeles furniture manufacturing company. The two men speak passionately about the need for effective reintegration.

Safian combined his teaching job with his hobby of restoring and selling furniture he found on the street. At the time, he was living in Los Angeles, and ended up establishing a factory in the same area as Pinedo’s. In 1998, he returned to Brooklyn, New York, where he opened a successful furniture store. He later closed it in order to take care of his son. During his time working as a consultant, he met people in various organizations dedicated to helping ex-convicts reintegrate, a cause he has passionately embraced himself.

Safian laments the prison population growth and the fact that many of the inmates come from neighborhoods where not many financial opportunities are available. He is also concerned about the cost this represents for the country, both because keeping people incarcerated is expensive and because the jobs ex-convicts usually land are underpaid, which forces them to depend on government assistance “for years.”

The alternative to the lack of adequate employment is for them to create their own companies and learn to find meaning in their work.

The extensive entrepreneurial experience of both founders in the furniture manufacturing industry is allowing them to test a business model in which they incubate businesses, similar to the one Pinedo already had in his California factory.

“Before the crisis, we had 280 employees,” said Pinedo over the phone. “In 2008, business dropped 70 percent and I couldn’t keep everyone, but I didn’t want to fire them like that. They deserved an opportunity and hope.”

Pinedo selected a few employees and asked them to start their own businesses. He would pay part of their salary, allow them to use his equipment and mentor them. By reducing his own expenses, Pinedo would be able to outsource part of the labor to them. Six months later, thanks to this assistance, the worker-entrepreneurs were leading their own companies and had other customers besides Pinedo.

“These people have created more than a hundred jobs, and Cisco too, as he is now employing more people than before the crisis,” explained Safian.

The idea behind Refoundry is to make it a space where these entrepreneurs are trained and the companies they create can coexist next to them, like satellites. “Ten or 12, depending on the amount of space we have and what they do.”

The space will be used to provide follow-ups as well as office space. “If these new companies need additional workers sporadically to supplement labor during peak periods in the business ‒ which happens in the beginning ‒ those in training can join them as part of their education.”

Refoundry also seeks to teach participants that machinery services can be subcontracted to other companies to limit expenses. When the companies are ready, they will leave Refoundry and go back to their communities to create jobs there.

Almost 70 percent of Refoundry’s funds are earned by selling the furniture the participants build. The rest comes from donations contributed by foundations or other sources. “In just three months, we made $60,000 in sales, mostly at the Brooklyn flea market,” pointed out Pinedo.

Safian explained that these funds cover 25 percent of their current operation costs. He initially invested $95,000 of his own money, with Pinedo adding $15,000 plus goods and services. He said that Refoundry needs to collect $350,000 in the next few months to find permanent space to establish their offices, “take in more participants and implement the model.” They are currently housed by Big Reuse in Brooklyn.

Safian said that West Elm and ABC Carpet have shown interest in their furniture “because they like the product,” and he is eager to bring this model to other businesses so that people coming out of jail can, by their own means, break what he calls “not the glass ceiling, but the concrete ceiling they find regarding employment.”

Piece of furniture built by one of the Refoundry participants in Brooklyn. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Piece of furniture built by one of the Refoundry participants in Brooklyn. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Recycling lives

Refoundry Operations Manager Ronnell Brown knows prison well because his mother was in one and also because he did time himself for doing things he “shouldn’t have done.” Brown comes from Los Angeles’ South Central area, home to a large Latino community, where he learned Spanish. However, most of the conversation is carried out in English, in which he reveals his interest in poetry.

“This job gives us the freedom that we lacked in jail. I feel that I am not just recycling wood, but also my own life,” said Brown. He said that there is a connection between what the hands do and what the head thinks, and that he puts a lot of work into his pieces.

“It is not hard for us to sell our product because there is a lot behind it. This is not just a piece of furniture but the result of a great program,” he said. At 46 years old, he said that he is going through the happiest time in his life and that he will return to Los Angeles in a few months, where his family lives, to help establish the Refoundry project there.

“What we do here is change the ‘box,’” said Brown. “I don’t want to be in the ‘box.’ Let’s change that. ”

This idea is also in James Eleby’s plans. He is currently making more than minimum wage and he does it with a smile as he works the wood. Eleby is 47, but he was 15 the first time he landed in prison. “Since then ‒ he has told me ‒ he hasn’t been free for more than 90 days,” said Safian. “Prison is over for me,” said Eleby. “I have a future ahead of me.”

Eugene Manigo said that he sees himself managing a business in about a year. His lively spirit makes him look younger than his 63 years, even though he spent 30 behind bars. “This is the beginning of a new life.”

Candidates for the Refoundry program

Safian said that the organization works with people 30 years and older because they feel that, at that age, they are ready to make a change in their lives. “We are looking for the same thing as employers do: enthusiasm, work ethic, professional and personal responsibility, a sense of humor…”

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