Prison experience helps me lead my company through uncertainty of COVID-19
Traditional advice for CEOs no longer works. Business leaders need to look at the long game and prepare for action years down the road, just as I did while incarcerated.
In this time of upheaval, when the nation is dealing simultaneously with a COVID-19 crisis and a racial justice awakening, business leaders are trying to find the most effective ways to guide their organizations. The advice out there prescribes CEOs to “be strong, project understanding and command the situation.” But this strategy doesn’t always meet our reality.
What prepared me most was my years of incarceration.
I had an unconventional journey to CEO of YouthBuild USA, the nonprofit support center for 300 youth development programs across the globe. But my experience provided me with the mindset required to lead the institution.
I served 16 years in state prison for killing my girlfriend’s rapist when I was 20 years old. I used my time in Sing Sing Correctional Facility to accept responsibility for my actions, start to make amends and build an authentic life. I knew that I had to turn my horrible decision, with all the anger and anguish attached, into constructive action. I earned my undergraduate degree in behavioral science and my graduate degree in ministry. I was the first incarcerated person to take the LSAT, and was accepted into law school. I co-created two privately funded college programs in prison and taught as an adjunct professor.
I was able to survive my incarceration because I trained myself to think long-term. I was sentenced to 30 years and had to serve a minimum of 10 to be eligible for parole, with the conditional release years served set at 20. I created and maintained a mindset focused on those milestones — 10 years, then 20 — which gave me windows of opportunity to fill my time. I saw fellow incarcerated people put so much hope in their appeals or some miracle that would get them out early. Each time it didn’t come through, it broke their hearts and their minds. They turned to destructive behaviors to cope or experienced mental illness. So I decided to put all my energy into cultivating an authentic life while working within the restrictions imposed by my circumstances.
JUNETEENTH: YouthBuild USA.