By Chandler Luhowskyj
Eli Rivera and Ruben Gaona share a similar story with the millions of Americans who made decisions in their young adulthood that unfortunately impacted the remainder of their lives. After both served their time for drug trafficking and other criminal activities, they were released and faced a similar issue: trying to find a meaningful career and re-enter society.
After meeting with probation officers and several other key individuals throughout the process, they were disheartened by the lack of promising career options available. “One, two, or even three mistakes don’t define you,” says Eli, “You have your entire life to create a sum of actions. Don’t let any one thing define you. If you focus on helping others, everything else will fall into place.”
After working through the emotional turmoil and lack of employment opportunities, Eli and Ruben joined forces to solve a problem that affects many families across America by starting The Way Out.
Recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend despite having faced negative consequences. Ruben takes note of this habitual cycle, “I grew up on the Southside of Milwaukee and I’ve seen many people go in and out of prison for most of their lives. I was determined to break the cycle and help others break it as well.”
In May of 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report stating that a staggering 45% of former prisoners were arrested within one year of being released. Upon further examination, nearly 87% of formerly-incarcerated Black Americans were arrested again nine years after being released. Clearly, something is askew and some form of rehabilitation restructuring is needed.
Eli and Ruben have a simple, yet incredibly impactful objective: they help formerly incarcerated individuals matchup with meaningful jobs that they’re proud to have. A large factor in breaking the cycle of recidivism is by finding gainful employment that keeps individuals from falling into old ways by being able to provide for themselves and their loved ones.
“We have a prison system that’s broken and the problem continues to get worse if it isn’t resolved,” says Eli, co-founder of The Way Out, “We need to continue providing supportive services, with something in place where people don’t have to come home unsure about their future, providing a way out that won’t land them in incarceration again.”
The Way Out has several partnerships that match Justice-Involved Job Seekers (JIJS) with qualified employers within the construction, hospitality, manufacturing, and non-profit sectors. In order to make the process smooth for both the employer and employee, they’ve developed a personalized assessment profile to help employers find qualified JIJS to fill these positions.
Within the first week of going live and launching their website, they received six applications for their assistance. Since working with them, all of the clients that followed up with our partners at Project Return Milwaukee have all had their needs met. This was a key moment for them as it proved that their services were not only valuable, but possible as well.
Furthermore, the two of them recently received word from a partner employer that a newly placed client had exceeded their expectations. This is a client that started off earning $9.25 per hour and being denied a management role because of his recent incarceration, to now averaging over $30 per hour.
The two share an immense passion for helping this at-risk population, “Bet on yourself, dream, plan, and execute. Dream about what you want to do, plan how you want to do it, then execute your plan. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Set realistic goals and you’ll get there,” is some of the most frequent advice that Ruben shares when meeting with JIJS.
Each year, less than 1% of venture capital funding is given to founders who are people of color. Combine this somber statistic with being convicted felons, and that percentage decreases even more drastically. Attempting to raise money is a draining process in itself, but it’s even more daunting when you’re the only non-white person in a room filled with white faces.
Both Eli and Ruben share their disappointment with the broken system, “Nobody looks like us that’s talking to us,” says Eli, “Right away, there’s that level of intimidation of even if I knew the right things to say, would they even listen because I look like this and they look like that and we’ve lived different lives?”
However, both Ruben and Eli realize that these might just be the stories they’re led to believe in a biased society and previous life experiences. “My biggest fear has always been questioning whether I’m in the right arena,” recalls Ruben, “then I remember that nobody else is going to speak on behalf of the people who have gone through what I have so I must advocate for them.”
Since launching The Way Out in December of 2019, the duo decided to launch a GoFundMe in early 2020 as a way of raising funds to pay for typical business expenses and growth efforts. After seeking $20,000 in funding, they’ve raised $1600 with the largest donations of $100 each coming from both of their mothers. “I suspect that this is a normal outcome for BIPOC startup founders who do not have the benefits of generational wealth to draw upon,” Eli elaborates. However, in early December 2020 they received a $1500 donation from American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. The two also had the opportunity to pitch their startup at the P5 Project & Milky Way Tech Hub Pitch Competition in November 2020. The Way Out team won the top prize and walked away with $10,000 to scale their business and cover general expenses.
Eli and Ruben are committed to scaling their business by helping as many people as possible throughout the process. Eventually, they’d like to be established in all 50 states with a variety of programs to assist formerly incarcerated individuals get on the right path for a meaningful life and career path. You can connect with Eli Rivera and Ruben Gaona on LinkedIn and learn more about The Way Out here.