How a CEO Prison Book Club Is Changing Hearts & Minds
Joining Televerde was the single best thing I’ve done professionally for two reasons: 1) Their business model. This is a company born in purpose in 1994, long before the word “purpose” was on any company’s radar. And it has continued to empower, support and invest in one of the most disempowered communities in the world: female prisoners. Powerfully transformative, to say the least. 2) Through Televerde, I’ve come to know business leaders who are truly invested in something more than profit. They want to make the world better, and that is incredibly motivating. One such leader is Pulse Secure CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna.
Sudhakar’s company is a Televerde customer and he is a public champion of the Televerde model. He’s given media interviews that speak to our business and purpose, filmed testimonials that talk about the strength of our partnership and, most recently, joined our Televerde panel for the 2019 Conscious Capitalism Conference. To actually get to know someone who operates his company as a force for good and applies the “Golden Rule” to every area of his life changes you. He makes me want to be better and that inspires me to wake up every morning and do the work that I do.
Three years ago, Sudhakar began a book club with our ladies at Perryville Correctional who manage his Pulse Secure account. Each quarter, he chooses a book, ships 30 copies to the prison and then flies out at the end of the quarter to discuss it. To see someone of his stature actually carve out time to spend with our ladies is incredibly impactful. He’s literally bringing this bright, magnificent light into the business word, which is too often stereotyped as cold, greedy and very dog eat dog. More than that, he’s bringing dignity to life behind bars…one book at a time.
When I had the privilege to meet Sudhakar this past April, I peppered him with questions about his book club and what it’s come to mean to him since launching it 11 quarters ago. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
What was your intention with the book club?
I really wanted to find a way to thank the ladies who support my company, Pulse Secure. I thought the greatest gift we can give someone is the gift of learning … of reading. And this is a gift that can be passed on to others as well. So that’s how it began. It is my way of giving back to them.
How do you choose the book?
I’m a voracious reader and share many of the books that I’ve enjoyed over the years, which span all genres. I choose books that I think will enlighten and help prepare the women for when they graduate Perryville and reenter the workforce on the outside. I gravitate towards texts that uplift the soul and are optimistic because it gives the women hope for the futures they are working so hard to build. I also select books that provide the framework for better understanding ourselves and improving. And, of course, I select books that enable us to do our jobs better.
What was your first pick?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I thought the theme about finding your own destiny would especially resonate with the ladies and it did.
How do the women react each month?
They have an incredible thirst for knowledge and they devour the books. I’ve never seen such massive enthusiasm for reading. Outside of my wife who is a strong reader, I don’t know anyone else who appreciates reading and approaches it with the passion they do. They write notes in the margins; they create questions for me; they make me think every time. I genuinely enjoy our club meetings. It’s a quarterly highlight for me.
How have you benefited?
People mistakenly think this book club only gives to the ladies at Perryville but that’s not the case. I am learning from them every meeting because of the questions they ask and the perspectives they share.
I got such a kick over our last book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance: Angela Duckworth. One of the ladies told me she was super mad after she read it. When I asked her why, she explained that had she read it when she was younger she would have made different choices. This was especially revealing to me in the sense of how visceral her reaction was and how articulate she was in expressing her sorrow and disappointment. I am always moved by how these women take ownership for their actions and how determined they are to become better, learn and grow. They don’t let one set of circumstances define them. I enjoy our interactions: learning how they think, their influences and how their influences impact them. All these learnings help me grow and become better personally and professionally.
Has there been a moment from the club that has blown you away?
There are so many that come to mind but the one that stands out is also the most poignant and it began with a question. One of the ladies asked me how I would view her if she applied to Pulse Secure as a candidate following her release from prison. I replied: You may have committed a felony for which you are serving time but I do not consider you a felon. You did an act but that does not define who you are.
Her question made me realize the fears these women have about being able to succeed following their release. What labels and barriers will they face? These are legitimate concerns. It’s important for their stories to be heard so we can end the stigma associated with individuals with criminal backgrounds and give qualified women and men a second chance in the workforce.
All of these women continue to have a profound personal impact on my life. As I said, on the surface this book club may appear as though I am doing them a favor. But the reality is, they are doing me a favor.