Blue Chickens and Sales Agents in Orange Prison Jumpsuits

It’s a privilege to be a woman, especially today because I think we’ve come to this point where we realize and embrace the power of our collective spirit.  I’ve spent my career focused on empowering women to succeed in careers they love and advance into c-suite positions and boardrooms. As a gender, I admire our strength, resilience and determination. And we’re supporting one another more than ever before to seize opportunities and break the glass ceiling. It’s emboldening. This collective spirit was never more evident to me than on a recent tour I took of a women’s prison facility in Arizona. Let me explain.

I attended the ASU W.P. Carey Economic Club luncheon in February and had the pleasure of hearing Televerde’s Chief Social Responsibility Officer, Michelle Cirocco, deliver the keynote. She shared how organizations can successfully combine profit and purpose for optimum business, social and economic impact using her company’s business model as a proven methodology for delivering these results (you can read a summary of her presentation here). Here’s how their model works: Since 1994, Televerde has been empowering the lives of incarcerated women by providing sales training, education and career opportunity while in prison and after release. Today, 70% of their workforce are inmates at the Department of Corrections in Arizona and Indiana. Through this business model, they’ve generated $8B in revenue for some of the most recognizable brands in the world: Microsoft, Dell, SAP, Adobe, etc. By the time Michelle wrapped up her speech, I had literally transformed into a Televerde advocate and I couldn’t wait to sit down with her and talk more.

Several conversations with Michelle and one week later, I’m touring Televerde’s prison-run operations at Perryville Correctional with Michelle and the Chief Marketing Officer of Survey Monkey Leela Srinivasan. This is my first visit to a prison and I can tell you this: it will not be my last. What I experienced on the inside was life changing and it hasn’t left me.

Walking into the Televerde call center is like being in any other Silicon Valley call center. The only difference is all the agents are women and they’re dressed in orange jumpsuits. Looking up and down the rows of brightly decorated cubicles, the women are wearing headsets, engaged in conversation and completely focused on the task at hand. I had the opportunity to listen to a few outbound calls and was blown away by their knowledge, retention and recall. They knew every detail about each customer they were calling and where they were in the buyer’s journey. I think this is why the calls have such a high success rate. The person on the other phone, who very often is a CIO or CTO, can’t help but engage because of the empathetic, nurturing and well-informed communication style of these women. The call transforms into two business professionals talking shop! It far surpassed anything I had expected.

I wanted to hire them all immediately myself. These are some of the most empowered people I’ve met in my career, and keep in mind my career spans more than 20 years working with companies across different industries and in all parts of the world. Without question, these women are some of the most motivated, competent and articulate people I’ve come across.

We eventually make our way into a conference room with about eight of the call center agents. We go around the table to introduce ourselves and then, without any hesitation, the women all take turns sharing their journeys of transformation. While their personal stories varied, there was one consistent theme that emerged: hope. Because of the opportunity they’ve been given in prison, they all believe now that a thriving future is possible. I observe also that they take full responsibility for the mistakes that led them to Perryville. I didn’t hear one excuse: it wasn’t my fault, I’m innocent, this isn’t fair. On the contrary, they own every action and are focused today on rebuilding their lives for themselves and their families. And it’s challenging.

I spoke with a woman named Chelsea. She hasn’t spent one full day with her son, who is now 5-years-old. You can imagine how challenging it is to build a strong relationship with only timed weekend visits and phone calls. Remember what I said at the start, though: women are very good at overcoming barriers and Chelsea is no stranger to this. In one of their conversations, her son started to talk about blue chickens, to which Chelsea replied, “Wow. I actually have blue chickens in my room.” This became the invisible thread that now binds them. Her son can’t wait to their next visit to hear updates on the blue chickens. Together, they’ve named them and each week he asks his mom to share stories about their habits and homelife. Chelsea said her first stop after her release is a chicken farm to buy…what else, a chicken. Her second stop is a store for blue pet dye!

It’s stories like this that speak to the resilience of these women on the inside. They’ve spent their lives trying to find stable footing in a society that has, for the most part, discarded them. I can’t help but shake my head at the irony of anyone having to come to prison to find their worth. But this is exactly what’s happening for these women, thanks to Televerde.

Before we ended our meeting, the women asked us to share a few professional tips. So, we did.

  • Read everything you can get your hands on. How successful your future is will depend greatly on how strong your desire is to know and to learn.
  • Start building your professional network now; be strategic and mindful about it. Women tend to not do this well. We work with our heads down. For women at Perryville, having the right networks in place will make reentry less scary and much easier.
  • Keep enhancing and evolving your communication skills. I think these women are nailing it now—no doubt. But they must continue to focus on it, so it remains a core strength.

Televerde is doing great work and I’m amazed that it started so long ago. For a company to have embraced this community back in the 1990s when most of the country were against them is remarkable. They’ve had 3,000 women go through their program, with just less than 5.5% recidivism rate. I’m inspired! I look forward to helping them achieve their goal of empowering 10,000 lives over the next decade.

While I recognize the national conversation on how we treat women and men with criminal backgrounds is evolving, the shame of incarceration endures, even after release. I’m hoping stories like the ones I’m sharing today begin to change the stereotypes (President of Conscious Capitalism Brian Mohr recently visited Televerde’s call center inside Perryville and authored a fantastic blog recounting his experience). I believe these women deserve a second chance to work, to live and to thrive in a country that accepts and supports them. I hope I’ve convinced you they do too.

Learn more about Melissa Lamson, CEO of Lamson Consulting. 

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