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Friend A Felon App Helps Once-Incarcerated People Find Jobs And Housing

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When he was 18 years old, Sterling Braden was convicted of a felony—improperly discharging a firearm—and spent three months in a Cuyahoga County jail. After that, Braden, now 30, attended college. But he hadn’t indicated on his application that he had a record—and when the school found out, they kicked him out of the dorm. He could move back home in Cleveland, but that meant close to a four-hour drive each way.

He ended up settling again in Cleveland, but things weren’t any easier. Braden applied for jobs, but inevitably got turned down because of his record.

That difficult experience had an eventual silver lining. In 2021, Braden ended up creating Friend a Felon, an app that helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs and housing in places that don’t exclude ex-offenders. He’s now rolling out a web version, making it easier for employers to use it. And next year, he plans to add capabilities that can take care of a lot of the paperwork.

Research shows that having a stable job typically reduces recidivism. “Felons are the hardest working people in America because we don’t get opportunities,” Bradon says. “If you give them a good opportunity and a decent wage they will stay at that job forever.”

Cleveland also is the home of a coordinated effort to boost opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. through the Cuyahoga County Office of Re-Entry, which links up organizations aimed at supporting successful reintegration.

Pandemic Breakthrough

Braden got his idea for his app a few years after moving back to Cleveland. With no business experience, he spent $95 on an online site for freelancers for a business plan and then approached every software development company in Cleveland he could find. A lot of them got back, but their fees were much more than he could afford.

Then the pandemic hit. “Everybody was talking about going on YouTube and learning how to do stuff,” he says. Braden, who had a knack for computers, decided he would learn how to build an app on his own. “I’d watch someone on a video, press pause, and do some more work on the app,” he says. In March 2021, he developed his first version. It allowed users to input their felony convictions and any restrictions, such as probation, placed on them, plus information like whether they owned a car.

Finding Employers

To find potential employers, Braden started out by researching thousands of companies, he says. “It took a long time to get the guts to actually call them,” he says.

But while many people found his mission interesting—calls often lasted 30 or 40 minutes, he says—they typically told him they didn’t hire applicants with criminal records. More recently, he adopted a new, more efficient strategy for finding companies via social media. Braden doesn’t want to describe the approach in detail, because he considers it to be his competitive advantage.

Learning about Business

Once he built the app, however, Braden faced a problem: his complete lack of business or sales experience. “I just thought people would flock to it,” he says. That’s partly because, after he started posting news about it on his Instagram account, some bloggers and rappers reposted the content on their own social media. But no sales resulted.

Still, Braden got some local news coverage. Then he heard from gener8tor, a Madison, Wisc.-based VC firm and accelerator, about its social impact program. After finishing the first three-month accelerator, he was invited to join the next level of the program, where he was matched with more mentors and met with VCs. During that time, Braden, who initially formed his venture as a nonprofit, started a separate for-profit.

He also got a $25,000 convertible note from the Miami University Social Impact Fund, a seed-stage fund run by undergraduates. Around the same time, he started working with JumpStart, a nonprofit that works with entrepreneurs.

As for his business model, Braden charges by company size—a $300 monthly subscription for unlimited use for small companies, $500 for medium-sized businesses and $800 for large companies. He developed that structure by using ChatGPT. In fact, he uses it for many purposes, such as putting together interview questions. He’s also building AI into his app. “It’s helped us immensely,” he says.

The app has about 13,400 formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies on its platform and has connected more than 3,900 people with resources like jobs, housing and financial assistance.

Braden is aware that many people involved in justice issues won’t use the word “felon,” feeling that it’s demeaning. In fact, he recently turned down a funding offer when the potential buyer insisted he change the name of the app. “I’ve never had a problem with somebody calling me a felon if they’re giving me an opportunity,” he says.

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