ConConnect wants to become the LinkedIn for the former inmates

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He had neither a home nor a job. He was no longer with his longtime girlfriend. He didn’t know who to contact or how. After being imprisoned for nearly six years, he missed most of the technological updates that shaped the world he entered.

The open gates didn’t offer much freedom – at the age of 23 he walked out of his sentence with $40 in goal money and a bus ticket, which didn’t get him very far.

Peart lived in local accommodation for about a year. He earned money as a garbage collector and took care of the maintenance of a gym.

“It reminded me of prison,” said the 31-year-old entrepreneur. “I wanted to thrive and do more to get out.”

He began frantically applying for jobs to no avail.

“My bachelor’s degree didn’t matter, my previous training in journalism didn’t matter, my previous experiences didn’t matter. I would be turned down as soon as they found out about my time in prison,” Peart said.

The need to get a job wasn’t just financial — it was a condition of probation, along with other mandates like completing an anger management program, which Peart didn’t know where to find.

Then he discovered LinkedIn. He was excited to find a tool to build a professional network and find resources. But he was still turned down for the jobs and connections he applied for, despite having good references.

“I thought it would be extremely powerful if there was a tool like this that catered to men and women like me,” he said. “And because there was nothing like it, I decided to build it.”

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Peart then founded ConConnect in 2020, the first professional networking platform for ex-prisoners.

“My vision is to connect these people in one place with jobs, reintegration resources, classes, nonprofits, second chance employers, mental health and substance abuse agencies, and an entire community that can offer support,” Peart said. “I want to give other people instant access to resources and opportunities that I didn’t have — or didn’t know how to get.”

Peart also hopes the company will help reduce recidivism rates in the United States, which is among the highest in the world.

According to a 2018 study by the National Institute of Justice, more than three-quarters of those released from prison are arrested again within five years. About 44% are released before the end of the first year, and about 68% of the 405,000 prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years.

It didn’t take long for Peart’s idea to attract investors interested in financing the company. In 2021 he was accepted by the Center for Black Innovation for mentorship, access to leadership and resources to bring his concept to life.

Techstars, a venture capital firm, and Cox Enterprises, a leading communications company, soon decided to fund the project. In 2021, ConConnect was one of nine companies selected for Techstars Social Impact Accelerator program, which focuses on companies addressing issues rooted in social injustice and systemic racism.

Before the platform officially went live two months ago, it had already received around $125,000 in investments. It should reach $2 million by the end of April, Peart says.

Although it is still in beta, it has already attracted 2,700 users. To accomplish this, Peart has had to work with probation officers, nonprofits, and state local governments to share the platform with those formerly incarcerated.

The site also hosts over 220 community partners, 40 employers and offers 60 different services. Peart says ConConnect should have 1,000 vacancies by this summer, with three to five vacancies being posted each week.

Coping with a broken system

Many people leaving prison are not familiar with the latest technology, so Peart has developed a web-based platform that is user-friendly and easy to navigate.

Users have free access and answer a questionnaire about their background to create a profile. They can then interact with people in the reentry community via a social media feed and make connections as they network. You also have access to three sections: Jobs, Courses, and Services. Businesses can also sign up and post jobs and resources by paying a subscription fee.

Christopher Mabry, who spent six years in New York State Penitentiary, believes ConConnect is a “much needed platform” that goes beyond helping people find jobs.

When he finished his sentence in June 2020, he was struggling with mental health and housing. He didn’t know how to find support. Mabry, one of the first people Peart helped through ConConnect, was able to connect with nonprofit organizations that helped him find housing, counseling and a job.

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“Having a platform where you can get help and support is extremely valuable,” Mabry said. “You can share your story and hear from people who have been through or are going through very similar things.”

In prison, he studied real estate for almost a year. But he was devastated to find out that the formerly incarcerated in New York state can’t get a real estate license.

“You’re dedicated to these programs, and when you come home you can’t really pursue your dream,” he said. “It feels like so many doors are closed and you’re left with manual jobs like construction, which is what I ended up doing for a living.”

Peart wants to tackle that too.

“I want to offer non-minimum wage jobs. Leadership, highly skilled, creative jobs. The stigma can’t be bigger than our skills and brains,” he said.

Though there are restrictive laws for ex-prisoners, in most cases it’s the stigma that keeps them from getting the jobs they want, Peart says.

On ConConnect, companies can filter candidates based on their criminal convictions. That’s what Peart is working on for the next phase of the deal, though.

“We want to work with companies to make it easier for them to give people a chance on the platform despite their beliefs,” he said.

For now, the platform has partnered with companies like Amazon, the New York Sports Club, and cannabis-focused Illinois Equity Staffing. Candidates have the opportunity to apply for positions such as filmmaker at Not Not Films, a production company founded by filmmaker and photographer Anthony B. Rodriguez, paid search strategist at Bcode, a digital advertising company, and executive director at ReEntry Columbia, a nonprofit Organization to promote helps people get back on their feet after incarceration.

Although Mabry’s career did not take the course he expected, he found joy and success in his job at LIC Builders in Long Island. And he hopes to use the platform to connect with others going through a similar situation.

“I want to offer a success case and help inspire people who are struggling to adapt,” he said.

Probation conditions: A stumbling block

Mabry also highlights the struggle to meet all parole requirements while trying to adjust to life after incarceration.

“One of the hardest things about getting out is that you have to do mandatory programs related to your fees. It’s time-consuming, not to mention expensive, to find and attend these programs in person while trying to get an education and find a job,” Mabry said.

Many organizations on ConConnect offer resources and help people find and complete required programs online, he says.

According to Jonathan Alvarez, director of the non-profit organization 914 United, based in Yonkers, New York, Mabry’s problem is widespread among the formerly incarcerated. The nonprofit is a mentoring organization that provides guidance to youth in marginalized communities and provides a support system for those returning home from incarceration.

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“I’m dealing with a current participant now who’s trying to get a barbershop license, but because he’s going to have to major in coding after he gets out, he can’t go to school full-time,” Alvarez said. “But I think ConConnect can solve this problem as they offer easy and convenient access to programs where many people can now take these courses online and save time, money and effort to engage in their education and professional development .”

Nonprofits like 914 United also use the platform to share and sell their educational programs for other organizations to use and to build partnerships with other agencies.

Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization that offers entrepreneurship programs and connects individuals with mentors and career opportunities, is already beginning to partner with other nonprofit reentry organizations.

“It’s a great place to strengthen our organization and help the community grow stronger, either by developing workshops together, referring someone to an outside service, or hosting an individual who would benefit from our entrepreneurship boot camps,” said Kyle O’Connor, a program manager at Defy Ventures.

For Terrell Hall, career programs manager at Defy Ventures, ConConnect also represents a landing pad that can be trusted.

“Most people who end up in prison have experienced a lot of distrust in their lives,” Hall said. “This platform offers them a safe space.”

The same applies to employers who want to offer formerly incarcerated people a chance.

Peter Harper, a marketer-turned-entrepreneur mentoring and part-time lecturer at Rutgers Business School, is gearing up to post jobs for his new home improvement franchise in April.

“There are so many intelligent people who have been judged on the worst thing they’ve done in their lives. And so many of them are really trying to get back in and become productive citizens again, so I think this is a wonderful pool of potential collaborators,” Harper said.

Harper believes the platforms can also help with the current shortage in the job market. Although he will start hiring people for manual labour, if he decides to step down he hopes to find someone to take on a bigger role in the business.

“In a way, Andre represents all of the untapped talent that is misunderstood by our criminal justice system and that lies dormant or frustrated or buried,” he said. “So creating a LinkedIn for these returning citizens… it’s bloody brilliant.”

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