Turning Over a New Leaf: Georgetown’s Pivot Program Teaches Formerly Incarcerated Individuals How to Enter the Business World

Georgetown Pivot Fellow Kadija Clifton with Swiss chard plants

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By Bob Woods
Photo by Jonathan Timmes

Kadija Clifton was on the hunt for a job, but getting nowhere. Clifton’s frustrations went beyond the average job searcher’s. She had been released from prison in 2017 and found herself in an all-too-common plight among formerly incarcerated individuals who routinely are shut out of the job market.

“I had drive and perseverance,” says Clifton, who earned her GED while in prison. “I was always an entrepreneur at heart.”

Still, Clifton could not overcome the stigma that hinders so many returning citizens in the workplace. “The doors just kept closing,” she recalls.

Clifton’s fortunes, and employment opportunities, finally turned around when she learned about Georgetown’s Pivot Program. Designed and implemented by faculty at the McDonough School of Business and Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI) for formerly incarcerated individuals in the Washington, D.C., area, this unique, one-year program imparts a wide range of business skills, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

The curriculum includes classes ranging from economics to English; training in personal finance, public speaking, and other practical matters; and a six-month paid internship. In addition to the collaboration between McDonough and PJI, the program receives substantial support from the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES), the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, and the Minority Business Development Agency.

Clifton was in the inaugural class of 15 Pivot fellows who graduated in June. She transitioned from her internship at One Tent Health, a community health care agency, to a full-time job with the United Nations of Individuals Fighting Impossibilities, a D.C. nonprofit that promotes food access and economic opportunities in underserved neighborhoods. She also is taking steps toward launching a plant-based food company called Cloud 9 Eats.

“I want to be a positive example that you can be bigger than the greatest mistake you’ve made.”

— Kadija Clifton, Pivot Fellow

“The Pivot Program gave me the business knowledge I lacked,” says Clifton. Thankful for the boost and driven by the virtue of paying it forward, she is actively sharing her story with other young women in her community who are dealing with life after incarceration.

“I want to be a positive example that you can be bigger than the greatest mistake you’ve made,” she says.

Overcoming Barriers

The idea for the Pivot Program was sparked during a meeting in early 2018 between Pietra Rivoli, professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy and then-vice dean, and Marc Howard,  professor of government and law and the founding director of PJI.

“I was interested in developing programs that would further engage us with the D.C. community and also build upon our Jesuit values and mission,” Rivoli says. She was familiar with Howard’s efforts in criminal justice and prison reform, particularly in D.C., which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and releases nearly 5,000 individuals from prison or jail every year.

“This was a really good opportunity to collaborate,” Rivoli says, “The study of entrepreneurship is particularly valuable for returning citizens. This program is about being able to create your own future.”

Howard teaches incarcerated individuals in the D.C. Jail through PJI’s Scholars Program and sees firsthand their interest in business, as well as the barriers they face.

“They sense that the world is stacked against them when they come out of prison,” Howard says, so the concept of starting a business, versus not getting hired when applying for jobs, is appealing. “They understand that people with business ideas and creativity stand a better chance.”

“They gave me room to grow and learn, and they exposed me to different technologies, including virtual reality.”

— Marcus Butler, Pivot Fellow

Pivot fellow Marcus Butler can relate to Howard’s view. “Being rejected for a job takes a toll,” he says. He had a knack for computers before his arrest in 2015 — at age 12 he rebuilt his father’s PC after downloading a crippling virus, and he completed a computer engineering training program in 2010. Still, he had a tough time finding work while on probation after his release.

Last year, Butler came to the attention of Joshua Miller, director of education at PJI and managing director of the Pivot Program. “He thought I’d be a good fit, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Butler says.

Fortified by Pivot’s rigorous coursework, Butler was a perfect fit, too, for an internship at Fifth Tribe, a web development and digital marketing firm in Arlington, Virginia.

“They gave me room to grow and learn, and they exposed me to different technologies, including virtual reality,” says Butler, who now works full-time at Fifth Tribe as a web developer.

Butler also is busy in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood where he grew up. He talks with young people about his experiences in the justice system and what he has learned.

“They know where I was a year ago,” Butler says of the buzz that follows returning citizens. “So for them to see where I’m at now makes me feel really good. It’s made a big difference in my life.”

Providing the Second Chance

The inaugural class of 15 Pivot fellows graduated at the McDonough School of Business on June 21, 2019.

The internships offered by Fifth Tribe and other public and private companies, particularly those in the local startup community, are a critical part of the Pivot Program curriculum, Rivoli maintains. “We need to have the engagement of area employers,” she says.

Equally essential is the involvement of the city’s government. “D.C. is way ahead of the curve in supporting returning citizens,” Howard says. Officials realize that more than 95 percent of those incarcerated will go home, he adds.

“The better prepared they are for success, the less likely they are to go back to prison, which strengthens families and communities,” Howard says.

Unique Morris-Hughes, director of DOES, shares those sentiments. “The Pivot Program is a great example of different entities coming together to do life-changing work,” she says. “What resonates with everyone is the idea of giving people a second chance. We all know there are many people who have touched the criminal justice system, and they need and deserve an opportunity like this program.”

“It’s still not an easy road to be on, but Pivot helped me focus and get myself organized. The program gives you academic knowledge and business tools, but you have to run and dig, with scrapes along the way.”

— Corey Pollard, Pivot Fellow

In addition to funding each fellow’s $600 weekly stipend, DOES matches them with business mentors and coaches who specialize in entrepreneurship.

“The fellows need different training and skill sets than someone entering the traditional workforce,” Morris-Hughes says. “It was important to recruit businesspeople who understand both the opportunities and challenges that come along with entrepreneurship.”

Corey Pollard had previously participated in DOES’ Project Empowerment, a work readiness program, when he applied for Pivot as another step on the rough road to employment after his release.

“It’s still not an easy road to be on,” he reflects, “but Pivot helped me focus and get myself organized. The program gives you academic knowledge and business tools, but you have to run and dig, with scrapes along the way.”

Pollard interned at Torti Gallas + Partners, an architectural firm in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he acquired rudimentary design skills while learning about the profession. After graduating from Pivot, he was invited to stay at the firm as a paid consultant to be a liaison with developers, architects, and government agencies.

In the meantime, he has been honing his entrepreneurial chops at the Georgetown Venture Lab, a collaborative space created as part of Georgetown Entrepreneurship and housed at WeWork Metropolitan Square. Ideating alongside Georgetown alumni entrepreneurs, Pollard is working to launch a used-car dealership, Finally Free Automotive, which is geared toward sales to other formerly incarcerated individuals. He also is nurturing another potential startup called SoundSense, a coworking space for musicians — an idea that earned him a $1,000 prize in Pivot’s pitch competition held just before graduation.

“My overall goal is to help not only people like me, but everyone in my community,” Pollard says. “I negatively impacted my community in the past, and now I can have a positive impact.”

Assets to the Community

Although teaching is elemental to the Pivot Program’s model, another key objective is debunking the stereotypes that prevent companies from hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. Research shows that they are actually good investments, according to Rivoli.

“They’re loyal, hardworking, grateful, and engaged,” she adds. “We found that as soon as companies engage with the fellows, they’re convinced that the preconceptions are incorrect.” Furthermore, when returning citizens are given the types of training and education offered by Pivot, they want to contribute to the community, Rivoli says.

“I’ve done research on incarceration and written blog pieces on the subject that were published on their website.”

— Sherri Davis, Pivot Fellow

That pay-it-forward mentality dovetailed perfectly with Pivot fellow Sherri Davis’  internship at Common Cause, a D.C.-based nonpartisan government watchdog group. She already held two master’s degrees — in business and primary education — and was a small business owner when she ran afoul of the law in 2015.

After completing her sentence in 2017, Davis recalls, “I thought about teaching again but couldn’t while I was on supervised release. I was beginning to lose hope, like so many returning citizens.” So when she heard a speaker talk about the Pivot Program at a conference last year, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it.

Reacclimating to the academic rigor was difficult at first, Davis admits, but she appreciated the chance to become more well-rounded. That has served her well at Common Cause, where she became a paid intern for the director of communications. “I’ve done research on incarceration and written blog pieces on the subject that were published on their website,” she says, adding that she was hired at Democracy Initiative, a partner organization with Common Cause, as an executive assistant and office manager.

Davis is a constant and enthusiastic advocate for Pivot — to the point where she persuaded a Lyft driver to apply to the program, which started up again on Sept. 23.

The 20 Georgetown faculty members involved found Pivot’s first go-round rewarding, and most said they wanted to return, according to Rivoli.

“They had to learn to teach in some new ways and to use their talents where they can really make an impact,” she says. “We’re a small program, so everything is very ground-level and personal.”

Likewise, Howard and others from PJI, who are familiar with the incarcerated population, gained new insights from their initial Pivot experience. “I don’t think even we realized the extent of the hardships faced by returning citizens,” he says.

Though the program continues to evolve, Howard is satisfied that it is making a difference in the lives of the fellows. “We are succeeding in showing that people are greater than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he says. “When you give them opportunities, they can grow, succeed, and thrive. That is our underlying mission.”

Seeking Employers for Internships

Because internships are fundamental to its success, Georgetown’s Pivot Program is continually looking to partner with companies and organizations in the region that are willing to place current fellows, as well as graduates of the program. The interns are paid by the D.C. Department of Employment Services, so there is no cost to employers.

While there is a philanthropic incentive to providing returning citizens the opportunity for real-world work experience and skills development, according to Marc Howard, a professor of government and law and the founding director of Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, “it’s smart business, too, especially in today’s tight labor market.”

To learn more about employing a Pivot Program Fellow or graduate, please contact academic director Alyssa Lovegrove at alyssa.lovegrove@georgetown.edu.

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2019