CEO has received a multi-year investment from Blue Meridian—a partnership of philanthropists seeking to transform the life trajectories of young people and families in poverty by investing in strategies that work.

Over the last 10 years, CEO has grown from a single location in New York City to 22 sites across eight states. Our growth has always focused on supporting people returning after incarceration to cities with a high need for reentry employment services. With more than 200,000 higher-risk individuals leaving prison in need of employment services each year, there is a fierce urgency to provide them with a pathway to economic mobility and opportunity. We believe that every individual who comes home wanting to work should have the means and support to both get a job and develop career capital.

CEO is currently half-way through a five-year strategic plan that would double the number of people we serve annually from 4,500 to 9,000. While this plan gives us a vision for the future, the Blue Meridian investment allows CEO to test its ability to create an ambitious new paradigm for scaling reentry employment; one that establishes statewide systems that can provide an enduring pathway to employment for a greater number of people after release. This work is being done through two pilot projects: the first led by a new state policy team and the second led by a social enterprise sales team (securing contracts for transitional jobs).

To paint a clearer pictures of what that looks like on the ground, CEO staff interviewed the leaders of our pilot project work—CEO’s Chief Strategy Officer and National Executive Director Samra Haider, Senior Director of State Policy Bill Heiser, and Director of Sales Strategy and Social Enterprise Jonathan Bonaiuto.

Thinking back on CEO’s growth journey, what set the stage for these two pilot projects?

Samra Haider: “When we began expanding, there was this period of proof of concept—proving that we could take what we created in New York and make it work elsewhere from an operational perspective. Then we began proving that, not only can we make this work, but that we can actually thrive in these new locations. People were interested in what we were doing because recidivism, reentry, and unemployment are such pressing issues at the local and national level; there are few, if any, solutions that could scale nationally like we can. But we continued to be confronted with barriers to growth that were keeping our expansion incremental; namely, the process of securing transitional work crews was unpredictable and time consuming. The burden of business development for these opportunities was also placed on program staff, most of whom are unfamiliar with more traditional sales strategies. And, while we were successful in braiding together different government funding streams, the strategies and tactics deployed varied jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction and therefore didn’t create many capacity efficiencies.

Why is it important to have state governments invest in CEO? What will that mean for people coming home from incarceration?

Bill Heiser: “The goal is to grow to a scale where we can have a demonstrable impact on what’s happening in a community. We’re trying to get support from the state so that we can ensure that the opportunities that CEO provides can be available to nearly everyone who needs them. Having this kind of statewide opportunity means that, for instance, no matter if an individual is released to Cleveland or Columbus or Cincinnati, they will have access to the same resources. For most states, the reentry employment services available in a community are based entirely on what happens to exist within that community. Often the state provides support for little pilot projects here and there but rarely has sought to an implement a specific employment support on a statewide scale. But, there are opportunities for states to do exactly this by creatively utilizing state and federal resources to support employment services. So we’re going directly to those state decision makers and laying out for them what it would take to serve 30 to 40 percent of the high-risk people coming home to their cities. It’s bolder than what we’ve done in the past, but that’s what makes CEO a great investment: we’re a thought leader. We’re testing a hypothesis that could change this space not just for CEO, but for the reentry employment field.”

What impact will this have on CEO’s participants? How is this pilot changing the way we secure work crews?

Jonathan Bonaiuto: “Our aim on the sales team is to help CEO gain more and a greater diversity of work crews throughout states and to secure them more efficiently, because we can only serve as many people as we can hire on our crews. Historically, we’ve had terrific relationships with public sector agencies, but we know there’s great potential in engaging more private companies in a variety of sectors--from hospitality to utility providers--to hire our crews. So far there’s been great early reception on these ideas, and the sales team is solely focused on spending time, energy, and resources on pursuing these leads. We’re always on the lookout for new partnerships, so we encourage anyone who is interested to reach out and learn more about the skills our participants bring to the table. We also want to make sure we’re giving our participants useful experience in the fields they actually want to work in long-term. So by securing opportunities for our work crews in construction or warehousing or light manufacturing, we’re giving participants a leg up in the workforce and better serving them.”

How will communities look different in the future when this new paradigm is successful?

Samra Haider:
“At CEO, we take the view that people coming home are part of a group of our society that experiences barriers to opportunity and has been stuck in cycles of poverty and incarceration. By CEO being in as many major U.S. cities as possible, we’ll be able to break those cycles. We’ll be helping to create more engines of growth for the economy and we’ll be making communities safer. That’s the value CEO is bringing.”