24 Aug 2017

Unlocking Potential

A California criminal justice startup is offering young offenders the option of education rather than incarceration
Re: Karen Alden (MBA 1988); Abbas Causer (MBA 2013); Ben Dubin (MBA 1997); Yvette Romero (MBA 2009); Christian Thwaites (MBA 1988)
by Ralph Ranalli


Photo by Adam Guggenheim

Most people have a conventional view of incarceration: People convicted of breaking the law are criminals, and criminals are locked up in big prisons with lots of other criminals.

Yet, even as a preteen, Jennifer Porter Anderson (MBA 2013) was convinced there could be a better, more compassionate path for criminal justice. A family dinner-table conversation about the concept of recidivism eventually led Anderson to pursue a business education, jobs working on private-sector approaches to the problem, and ultimately to found her own startup, the Reset Foundation.

Based in Berkeley, California, Reset is focused on a couple of basic truths about most people in prison, Anderson says. First, prisoners will get out someday. The majority of US inmates are serving sentences of eight years or less, and many will be released before serving their full terms. Another truth is that they return to prison. Studies by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics show that nearly seven out of 10 former inmates reoffend and return to prison within three years. The Reset Foundation tries to break that cycle by diverting people from the penal system to an educational setting more akin to a small college than a large penitentiary.

“If you boil Reset down to one idea, it is that environment is the most important thing,” Anderson observes. “Jails and prisons are dehumanizing, ugly, and dark. If you tried to imagine the worst place possible to put someone, that’s probably what you would come up with.”

Vocational and academic education programs in US correctional institutions have been around for more than a century. They have also achieved some success. In fact, a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that prison education helped reduce recidivism as much as 40 percent. But prisons are also violent, stress-filled places. Anderson was convinced that inmates would do even better in a setting designed more around unlocking their minds rather than locking up their bodies.

“If you have a bowl that is full of poison, you can’t just mix in some perfume,” she notes. “It’s still going to be toxic. You have to put [inmates] in an environment that’s helpful and loving. Then, when you add in education, they’re going to succeed.”

Anderson says that because prison life is largely about survival. Inmates learn to use manipulation and deceit to stay ahead, and they adopt an every-man-for-himself ethos in order to make it to the next day. That doesn’t translate to successful job performance in a business environment, however. From their first day in the program, Reset participants (or students, in Reset’s vocabulary) work in a collaborative environment to build strong, positive relationships, extend their education, and develop workplace skills. They also receive support in personal areas where they need it, such as mental health, addiction recovery, and parenting.

A Partnership Is Born

Anderson’s own path was shaped by her family environment. Growing up with a minister and political science professor for a father and an enthusiastic community volunteer for a mother, Anderson recalls that talk at the family dinner table often revolved around social problems such as the exploding US prison population, and how to fix them. After graduating from high school in Salt Lake City, she enrolled as a business student at nearby Brigham Young University, pursing a degree in organizational behavior. The original plan was to go into accountancy, but a finance internship was enough to convince her that just crunching numbers wasn’t for her. “I said, ‘Oh, I have to sit at a computer and look at numbers all day?’” Anderson recalls.

She switched her focus to social entrepreneurship, working as an associate and then a project manager at New Profit, Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit, venture philanthropy fund. While there, she helped create the Pathways Fund, a $50 million federal fund that invests in programs that merge education with workforce development and help low-income youth prepare for sustainable, productive careers.

After starting at HBS in 2011, Anderson interned at Next Street, a Roxbury-based merchant bank that works with businesses, nonprofits, and institutions to revitalize urban business sectors and communities.

It was also in 2011 that Anderson met Jane Mitchell, an educator who worked in correctional institutions, while visiting a mutual friend in New York City. Like Anderson, Mitchell was convinced that her work would be more effective if she could move it away from the atmosphere of constant stress and menace inside prisons. As the two talked, they realized that, not only did they share the same vision, but their skill sets complemented each other perfectly for creating what would become the Reset Foundation. Mitchell, as CEO, could be the programmatic visionary, while Anderson, as chief operating officer, would bring the administrative and fundraising muscle to make it work.

“I have known since I was 18 or 19 exactly what I was good at and exactly what I would do for rest of life,” Anderson says. “I am not a teacher. I’m not an attorney. But I can organize. I can raise money, fix your processes, and keep you on budget.”

After meeting Mitchell, Anderson refocused her second-year class schedule on education and nonprofit-sector courses that would help build the foundation. She also adopted the HBS method of taking a holistic view of an organization to better understand how it functions and grows. “For me there was something very important about being able to converse and analyze a situation from many angles––investor, manager, employee––to see a business from multiple viewpoints,” she says.

Anderson also found the HBS alumni network invaluable after she and Mitchell launched the foundation, including making connections to donors and to people who have become members of Reset’s advisory board.

“It’s definitely been a useful network, a way to find people who are interested in being good friends to the cause,” Anderson says. “One of our big donors was the mentor of an HBS acquaintance of mine. People respect the brand. That’s a totally unfair advantage in the world I’m in, but you use it and it opens a lot of doors.”

Community Partners

Reset has also received help from HBS Community Partners, which marshals the business expertise of HBS alumni to support nonprofit organizations. Five HBS grads––Karen Alden (MBA 1988), Abbas Causer (MBA 2013), Ben Dubin (MBA 1997), Yvette Romero (MBA 2009), and Christian Thwaites (MBA 1988)––participated in a four-month brainstorming and consulting project, through the HBS Association of Northern California, to help Reset create employer partnerships and engage corporate support.

Elaine MacDonald (MBA 1998), executive director of HBS Community Partners for Northern California, says the project benefitted both the volunteers and the foundation. “I’ve met some of the students Reset serves, and it is incredibly rewarding to meet the young men, who are energized to start anew if only someone would give them the opportunity,” MacDonald observes.

Reset started with 10 students in a daytime pilot program in San Francisco. Not all the students were from the court system; all were from low-income backgrounds. Anderson says their reading improved more than two grade levels over nine months, and they earned high school degree credits at twice the rate of typical high schoolers.

Reset’s first residential program facility, across the Bay in Berkeley, opened last year with five participants and a waiting list of 13. All of them are young men from low-income backgrounds who have been diverted from the court system, often as part of a plea agreement. Students live at the locked Reset facility for the duration of their sentence, but gradually earn movement privileges as they progress. Reset instructors give lessons in academics, career development, and developing healthy life and social skills. Their educational goals are individually tailored––some are working on skills such as reading, writing, and math; some work toward earning a GED; while others prepare for college. Students also have jobs at the facility and eventually move to external business internships as part of a path to full independence, a process that will take between one to two years for the majority.

Anderson, who, along with Mitchell, was named to the 2015 Forbes “30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs” list, says the program is in the process of expanding to a larger facility that can house as many as 20 students. After that, their next phase is to replicate the program in other cities––perhaps as many as three more over the next five years. To get there, Anderson is hoping to sell businesses and governments on the cost savings her program can provide. She says Reset is working to scale up toward a cost structure that is more affordable than prison {which in some states can cost more than $100,000 per year per inmate), with additional savings from shortened sentences and reduced recidivism.

“The idea now is to move beyond the demonstration phase, and not just to run one cool program in Berkeley,” Anderson says. “We need to have multiple sites, and to develop a network of campuses producing great results so that we can have more leverage in policy discussions.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2013, Section F
follow @jen_porter

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