The Unlocked Futures Cohort: Social Entrepreneurs Impacting Criminal Justice Reform

Photo Credit: Lexie Moreland

Photo Credit: Lexie Moreland

By Sana Johnson, 2017-2018 Work First Fellow


On Wednesday, November 15th, I had the honor of joining the Unlocked Futures 2017-2018 cohort in celebration of their entrepreneurial successes and work on criminal justice reform. Unlocked Futures is an initiative started by New Profit, a national nonprofit venture philanthropy fund, and FREEAMERICA, a campaign initiated to change the national conversation about America’s criminal justice system. The initiative was launched in May 2017 with support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. 


The Unlocked Futures initiative aims to create positive change in the criminal justice reform movement. In its first iteration, the program has provided one-time unrestricted grants to eight social entrepreneurs who operate mission-driven organizations. Each organization is run by formerly incarcerated individuals. The cohort also receives strategic support and training from New Profit and their partners.


The event included staff from New Profit offices nationwide, representatives from their partner organizations, and individuals from mission-aligned nonprofits throughout New York. The Work First Foundation was invited largely because of our criminal justice work in Baltimore, Maryland. Our two programs in Baltimore, the Ex-Offender Reentry Employment (BERE) Program and the Baltimore Bail Diversion Program, both operate with the fundamental belief that justice-involved individuals deserve second chances. 


After a period of mingling with the Unlocked Futures cohort and others, three cohort members joined Tulaine Montgomery, Managing Partner at New Profit, for a panel discussion. Guests heard from Will Avila, Founder & CEO of Clean Decisions; Marcus Bullock, Founder & CEO of Flikshop; and Topeka Sam, Founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries.


Montgomery asked each panelist to introduce themselves and their businesses. This impressive group of entrepreneurs has founded companies that help those with criminal backgrounds find employment, connect currently incarcerated individuals to their families, and provide resources to help disenfranchised women transition back into society. They shared with us their motivation for starting their businesses, and how they used their experiences with the criminal justice system to develop innovative solutions to problems other justice-involved individuals may face. Through their partnership with FREEAMERICA, the cohort members also have a platform to advocate for criminal justice reform policies. They take full advantage of this national stage by pushing for holistic reentry services and increased access to economic opportunity for those with criminal backgrounds.


This event gave me the chance to see how another organization works to bridge the gap between policy and practice, something that Work First Fellows try to do through our research and direct work with individuals receiving public assistance. The Unlocked Futures cohort demonstrates the approach to policy change that the Work First Foundation champions as well: those closest to the issue are likely closest to the solution.