I had an experience last week that is quite unlike any other experience I’ve ever had. Let me tell you about it. As president of the Arizona Chapter of Conscious Capitalism, my goal is to help elevate humanity through business and we partner with companies that are actively committed to making this possible. Recently, Televerde appeared on my radar. It’s a high-tech demand generation company based in Phoenix, Arizona. What makes it unique is its business model: 70% of their workforce are inmates at the Arizona Department of Corrections in Perryville and the Indiana Department of Correction at Rockville. Do I have your attention now?
I visited the Perryville operations on Friday knowing in advance how the inmates supported its business, yet nothing prepared me for what I actually experienced. The best way I can describe it is this:
Televerde is the best example of capitalism that I’ve seen. It’s what capitalism can aspire to do and be. The company is the ultimate example of business as a force for good.
Entering a Prison-Run Call Center
I’ve been to jail before.
When the newly-elected sheriff of Maricopa County Paul Penzone enlisted community leaders to help him with a culture transformation project, I was fortunate to be a part. We visited a men’s jail to understand a “day in the life of a detention officer.” I’m not above saying the experience was nerve-wracking (or that I needed a shirt change afterwards). It was scary because throughout my life I’ve unconsciously subscribed to an ugly narrative about the incarcerated, which made being in their surroundings a place I didn’t want to be.
You would think going to a women’s prison would be slightly less intimidating, but it wasn’t. The entire process is designed to make you anxious: security check points, metal detectors, pat downs and then hearing the loud prison door automatically close behind you as you take your first step into the prison yard. The reality of where you are hits you hard.
As I walked to one of the four Televerde call centers, which are spread out over 640 acres of vast and open land on which the prison is situated, I observed women in orange jumpsuits doing sit ups, chatting in groups, reading books. They were doing all the things you and I would do to enjoy a nice day in a park. I let out a sigh of relief and began to feel a bit more comfortable in my new surroundings.
Walking into the call center, however, is when things changed dramatically.
Welcome to San Pedro
When I walked into the San Pedro call center, several inmates came over to greet me–smiling and presumably happy I was there. There was a flurry of activity and about 50 women working feverously at their individual desk cubicles, which were adorned with calendars, personal photos, positive affirmations, recognition certificates, stuffed animals and logos of the companies with whom they partner. Except for the sea of orange, it was just like any other call center you’d visit.
My first 1:1 exchange was with a woman named Alisha. Alisha is warm, charismatic and wicked smart. She has a deeper understanding of technology than anyone I have ever come in contact with. It reminded me of a recent Demand Gen Report story I read about the model where the reporter wrote, “I’d challenge any sales and marketing executive to visit and have a conversation about the day-to-day approach and strategies of demand generation with the women inside Perryville.” That challenge was not written for effect, I can assure you. These women would impress the most recognizable leaders in tech (I’m looking at you, Elon.)
Alisha played a recording for me of a recent outbound lead generation call she had with a Chief Information Officer of a large healthcare institution. The call starts typically: the CIO is audibly annoyed the call got through to him. Alisha begins her pitch: she talks about his infrastructure and is conversant in storage systems and data. She literally knows all the ins and outs of his world in a way that I think surprises him. The call transforms into a spirited conversation between two business professionals and closes with Alisha scoring an appointment. The irony? The CIO had no idea he just spent 20 minutes on the phone with a woman who sits in an Arizona state prison.
As I talked with groups of women at San Pedro and a second call center, Citrus, I realize that Alisha isn’t an anomaly. This is how they all are. Through education, job training and career opportunity, they’ve been able to find their worth, tap into their potential and rewrite their futures. And they want you to know—the Televerde boot camp isn’t easy. Many of the women shared stories that they left crying and defeated because of how intense the process is. Convinced they couldn’t live up to Televerde’s very high standards for success, they considered quitting. What made them rise up? The women who had gone through it. The culture at these prison-run call centers is a sisterhood. They don’t compete; they support each other. When someone gets a big win, they celebrate. When someone hits a brick wall, they swoop in to provide a fix.
Google spent two years studying teams and identified the following five traits needed for teams to thrive: dependability; structure and clarity; meaning, impact; and psychological safety. All five are evident in Perryville and the result is an environment where these Televerde women feel worthy, protected, backed and valued. Believe me, companies would pay millions of dollars to replicate this type of dynamic, learning and supportive culture. I defy anyone to find an outsourcing organization that has a team of professionals this knowledgeable, this committed, and this engaged. You won’t.
On my way out of the prison complex, it hit me. The only difference between these remarkable women and me is a bit of good luck. We all make bad choices. They were caught and suffered far different consequences. They deserve a do-over and Televerde is giving them one.
Working with Prisons Since 1994
Televerde began in 1994 as an innovator in demand generation, but with a model that supported female prison inmates, success didn’t come easy. The CEO at the time, Jim Hooker, believed so strongly that business had a responsibility to make the world better, he didn’t relent. If a customer didn’t want to do business with Televerde, he zeroed in on customers that did. He lived this credo until his retirement in 2018.
Because the national conversation around how we address social issues like mass incarceration, drug addiction and recidivism has changed so dramatically over the last decade, the headwinds Televerde faced are now tailwinds. I believe Televerde has a story that needs to be told.
In his book, How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class, author John Hope Bryant outlines an idea for revitalizing the American dream by investing in disadvantaged communities through education and opportunity. The incarcerated in our country is one such population waiting for the chance—the opportunity—the investment to find and fulfill their human potential. And what Televerde proves is that when they’re given the chance, they take it and they don’t let go.
Friday was one of the most impactful days of my life and I left there believing this: Televerde is conscious capitalism at its finest. There are no tradeoffs; there is no zero-sum game. Everyone is winning. And this is exactly how it should be.
CONSCIOUS CAPITALISM IS HOSTING ITS ANNUAL CONFERENCE APR. 23-25 IN PHOENIX AND WE’RE PROUD TO HAVE TELEVERDE AS A HOST COMPANY OF THE EVENT. I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US AND LEARN MORE ABOUT TELEVERDE AND HOW OTHER COMPANIES ARE DRIVING BUSINESS AS THE GREATEST FORCE FOR GOOD TO ELEVATE HUMANITY FOR GENERATIONS TO COME. REGISTER HERE USING THE CODE TELEVERDE19.