Over the past year, the fight for racial justice has emerged at the forefront of America’s national conversation, highlighting the urgent need for both the public and private sector to re-evaluate their efforts to address inequality and expand opportunity for justice-impacted people. Writing checks for worthy causes is incredibly important, but more and more companies have come to realize that systemic change requires a meaningful cultural shift.
In 2018, Slack worked with The Last Mile, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and FREEAMERICA to launch Next Chapter, a program that could accelerate this shift and have a lasting impact—on Slack’s internal culture, on the larger business community and on helping the population of formerly incarcerated individuals find skilled long-term employment. A six-month apprenticeship program, Next Chapter was designed to shift perceptions and bring this population into highly skilled engineering roles.
Today, we are announcing seven new member companies joining Next Chapter, including Affirm, Checkr, GoodRx, American Family Insurance and Lob. They join existing members Dropbox, Zoom and Square for a total of 11 companies in Next Chapter’s third cohort.
“I’m so proud of the work our employees have done over the last several years to create an environment that is genuinely inclusive of formerly incarcerated people,” says Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield. “That’s not immediately as natural as one might think. Even those of us who believe that ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ in the abstract can develop reservations when confronted with the prospect of working directly with people who have spent time in prison.
“Setting aside those fears is possible only if you are able to open your mind and your heart to engage directly with these new colleagues as whole, complete human beings. The work employees are doing across all 11 companies is what helps create lasting cultural change. And by creating opportunities for the apprentices to fully use their gifts and do amazing work, we all benefit from incredible engineering talent.”
Twenty-one apprentices will start the program this year, receiving financial support, professional and technical mentorship, and re-entry services. Next Chapter will also continue to operate in the fully remote model necessitated by the global pandemic, which has allowed apprentices from across the country to participate in the program without relocating to the site of their host company.
11 companies, a singular opportunity
Too often, we see justice-involved individuals automatically limited to low-paying jobs with little opportunity for long-term career advancement. Moreover, research shows that a lack of stable employment drastically increases the likelihood that an individual will return to jail or prison, making joblessness a leading predictor of recidivism. This counterproductive cycle of release and poverty hurts everyone, including re-entering individuals, employers and taxpayers.
By creating an opportunity in tech and beyond, Next Chapter can help end the cycle of generational poverty that often affects justice-involved individuals, and can provide an opportunity for wealth creation that makes a tangible impact on their families and communities.
“Systems and opportunities are not equitable, especially in tech, and every company can play a role in creating fair access,” says Christina Louie Dyer, Head of Social Impact at Lob. “Joining Next Chapter in our Series C stage is helping Lob extend our values into a foundation of equitable practices that can scale as we grow. We’re excited to welcome new talent into our company through this partnership.”
Partner companies range in size from 150 employees at Lob to 12,000 employees at American Family Insurance, a Madison, Wisconsin, company that marks Next Chapter’s first foray into the non-tech world.
“Our partnership with Next Chapter will help create a pathway for people with criminal records to not only gain meaningful employment at American Family Insurance, but to grow their careers at our company,” says Nyra Jordan, Director of Social Impact Investment at American Family Insurance. “As we continue to support people who are justice involved, both in their careers and their communities, collaborations with organizations like Next Chapter will be key.”
Creating opportunity and community
All of the apprentices in Next Chapter’s 2020 cohort at Slack and Zoom are now working full-time at their respective companies, while apprentices at Dropbox and Square have successfully completed the Hack Reactor curriculum and are in the midst of their apprenticeship. Slack’s inaugural cohort of three apprentices continue to be full-time engineers at Slack and have all received promotions during their tenure.
As Next Chapter has grown, the community of apprentices has as well. Former apprentices, now full-time engineers, offer mentorship and support to the new apprentices who follow, and they all maintain an active Slack workspace where former and present apprentices can share experiences and offer advice.
One former apprentice, now a full-time Slack engineer, Sumit Lal, shares his experience:
“When I was in San Quentin, I dreamed of being an engineer. Seeing Lino [Ornelas, once an apprentice as Slack and now also a full-time software engineer] go through Next Chapter and get hired at Slack gave me hope. Shortly after my acceptance into Next Chapter and being selected as an apprentice for Slack, I knew that I was coming into a workplace where other apprentices were able to thrive. They belonged here, and they made me feel like I did too. Nonetheless, there was a huge learning curve when I joined. Lino was more than willing to answer my questions whenever I reached out to him and really helped bring out the best engineer in me.”
Transforming corporate culture
Cultural change at participating organizations is an essential part of the Next Chapter program and a crucial ingredient to the program’s success. In addition to taking advantage of resources, including dedicated training for managers, office hours for employees and org-wide roundtables, each new member organization is required to hold an all-hands meeting with their employees where the Next Chapter team underscores what this program can accomplish, why it matters and what it will require of the entire organization.
These efforts to shift perceptions and ensure that each company is prepared to create a supportive, welcoming environment benefit not only Next Chapter’s apprentices, but each company as a whole. Companies receive the talented engineers they need, employees have an opportunity to get close to justice reform in a way they likely have never previously experienced, and apprentices are positioned to thrive and do their best work.
After three years, the impact of Next Chapter is clear: Participating companies are gaining engaged, committed employees, and the people being served by this program are getting a real chance at a future they at one time could not have envisioned for themselves.
If you are reading this and wondering how your company can get involved, please find more information on Next Chapter’s blueprint for action in our August 2018, November 2019 and July 2020 blog posts, or reach out to Slack for Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.