Educational options during and after incarceration have never been particularly extensive, despite the best intentions of educators. Career Origin is working to change that, and its early success in getting previously incarcerated people into work is attracting investment from both VCs and government programs.
It wasn’t until August when Emerge first appeared when it came out of Y Combinator’s latest batch, and I then discussed its initial ambitions and approach. The team previously worked on Ameelio, which turned years of poor and exploitative video calling services in prisons upside down, but also made the education problem clear to them.
Security and limited budgets at vocational and community schools limit the amount of help they can provide to people in the system, and courses from GEDs to transactions often have a very “study by mail” approach during incarceration, or traditional physical on release. Emerge is changing that with modern video lectures and regular office hours for video calls with lecturers who specialize in the subject.
Initially, the subject was strictly to obtain a commercial driver’s license, which has resulted in many former inmates finding employment in an industry where it is difficult to work soon after their release. Now, Emerge also plans to offer nursing assistant and welding courses — two other areas where a shortage of workers means employers don’t have to think twice about hiring someone who’s recently got out of prison.
“In addition to the obvious labor shortage and high compensation, these are two professions that the inmates we met in prisons and return centers across the country showed great interest,” said Emerge’s Gabe Saruhashi. “Freight transport was an exciting starting point, but we know that many people cannot be away from home for extended periods of time, be it for personal reasons or due to return obligations. Ultimately, we want to offer training programs for people from all walks of life.”
Co-founder Uzoma Orchingwa said the feedback from their first students has been very positive, emphasizing self-paced training (as each is accessible whenever it suits), speed (the goal is to zero to work in about two months) and the practical support they receive from Emerge’s career coaches.
Emerge reports that graduates of the program, who once averaged $13 an hour if they had stable jobs, now average $78,000. It is hoped that the new programs will increase its appeal and allow the company to support more students and locations.
The company’s pitch attracted local officials, a good move if you’re hoping to get into state-funded institutions, and now Emerge has landed a two-year $845,000 contract (using American Rescue Plan funds) with the Connecticut Department or Labour. They also have different letters of intent, perhaps pending the results of the other programs.
This early success has also brought investment: a $3.2 million starting round led by Alexis Ohanian’s 776, with participation from the SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Y Combinator, Lenny Rachitsky and Michael Seibel.
The money will be used to hire engineers, start the new welding and nursing programs and expand to three more states. Saruhashi said their ambition is to make Emerge Career the first choice for anyone in the country from disadvantaged backgrounds to have a second chance in the modern workforce.