Harley Blakeman's journey from prison to tech startup CEO

Joel Oliphint
joliphint@columbusalive.com
Harley Blakeman, founder and CEO of Honest Jobs

Harley Blakeman has never been afraid of risk. Back in 2010, when Blakeman was 18, he knew trafficking drugs from Florida to Georgia was a risky endeavor. But he was making good money. He thought he was on the path to becoming a millionaire. Instead, that year he ended up in a Georgia jail for two months, and then prison for a year.

“Before I was incarcerated, I had been a homeless teen for a couple of years. I was abusing drugs and alcohol really badly before I was locked up,” said Blakeman, who lost his father at 15; his mother came in and out of his life. “When I got locked up, I was sober for the first time in a couple of years. I looked around … and was able to see the path I was headed down.”

Blakeman has family in Central Ohio — two aunts and a grandmother — and while he was in prison, they started sending him books. “I was a high school dropout, so I didn't like to read, but this was the first time where I didn't have anything to distract me,” he said. “I read a book or two and realized I really enjoyed reading. Then I read 50 or 60 books, mostly on business and personal development, and it opened my mind that I'm not an idiot. So I got my GED while I was in prison.”

When Blakeman got out of prison, he had a couple of things going for him: He had a place to stay, and it was far from the people and places associated with his past. One of his aunts, a schoolteacher, let him live in her family’s basement, and she also helped him get a job working in the kitchen of a Japanese steakhouse. Still, amid that fortunate situation, Blakeman had trouble adjusting to his new existence.

“I had a lot of anxiety because my life was changing so much. I was going from hanging out with drug dealers and doing whatever I wanted to do, to being with this family of people who are educated: they speak well; they don't cuss; they pay their bills on time; they work hard,” he said. “They gave me a list of rules, which gave me anxiety because for the last five years of my life, I had no rules. I did whatever I wanted. Even in prison, there's structure, but you still kind of get to do what you want.”

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Blakeman spent most of his time working at the restaurant to save money for an apartment, a car and community college. After a year at Columbus State, Blakeman transferred to Ohio State, and during his senior year he began his job search, attending career fairs and interviewing with dozens of companies. Sometimes the interviews went really well, but over and over again he got rejected for the same reason: his prison record. Even though he had served his time and turned his life around, no company would hire someone with a felony record.

Eventually, about four months after graduation, Blakeman got a manufacturing job in Newark, and over about a year and a half he worked his way up to supervisor. The pay wasn’t bad, but the night shifts and long hours were brutal. And the plight of his post-prison life kept nagging at him. He knew other people were having an even more difficult time with re-entry, trying desperately to get new jobs and careers instead of falling back into situations that could again lead them to prison.

It was time for Blakeman to take a risk again, but this time, his lack of fear would lead him down the path of an entrepreneur. “One day, in late 2018, I decided I'm going to take out my 401k, and I'm going to use that money to start a company where I help people get back to work,” said Blakeman, who initially created an online platform to help people coming out of prison learn how to rebuild their credit, get into college and get back into the workforce. That idea stalled after Blakeman couldn’t figure out how to grow the company. He ran out of money and had to get another job in Pataskala.

But Blakeman hadn’t given up yet. He stayed up late at night hatching a new idea: Honest Jobs, a job marketplace for people with criminal records. Another local entrepreneur, Claire Coder of Aunt Flow, introduced him to an investor who put $100,000 into the company and enabled Blakeman to officially launch Honest Jobs last year.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing, especially during a pandemic. (Blakeman said the company had government contracts lined up, but those fell through once COVID began shutting things down.) But through “sheer willpower,” a couple of loans and some new contracts, Blakeman and his team have kept Honest Jobs afloat. Another recent development put more wind in its sails: Earlier this month, Honest Jobs was one of 11 companies (from an application pool of hundreds) chosen to participate in the Techstars Workforce Development Accelerator.

The opportunity includes a cash investment, but even more important to Blakeman is the business accelerator’s three-month mentorship program. On the day I spoke to Blakeman by phone in mid-November, he’d already been on Zoom calls for six hours. “Right now we're doing this thing called Mentor Madness, where we do a 20-minute Zoom call with 14 people every day for 15 days straight,” he said.

Blakeman acknowledged the stress of the startup life, but he’s motivated by his mission, and he’s hoping that local and state governments, not just companies, will see the benefit of Honest Jobs and the good it can do for previously incarcerated populations. He said the protests over the spring and summer in response to the death of George Floyd also served as a wake-up call for the business and tech sectors.

“Our criminal justice system is broken. … Poor communities and communities of color are over-policed, and they're over-punished. Most of the prison population is people of color,” Blakeman said. “Every company is trying to prove to the world that they care about the Black and brown community right now. More and more companies are saying, ‘We understand that they are over-incarcerated and over-policed, and we stand with them rather than against them.'”

Still, there’s a long way to go for people with criminal records. “It's a slow development. [Most] companies haven't implemented an effective way to practice what they preach,” Blakeman said. He’s hoping Honest Jobs can help them do just that.