07/12/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Taking a Risk on Employees Pays Off: 5 Ways to Think Outside the Box When Hiring


At Rubicon Bakery we help rebuild lives by employing, training and supporting people needing a second chance. What might surprise you is that we are a profitable business with a stable work force. Doing the right thing has for us, made business sense. It is a shame that more businesses don't recognize this opportunity.

Job applications, even for entry-level positions, usually require the applicant to provide information about past run-ins with the law. Many people have made bad life decisions that then set the course for the rest of their lives. Even when these folks are ready to turn their lives around, their past haunts them and prevents them from moving forward in a positive direction. Many of our employees tell me they applied for jobs only to be told, "You have a felony conviction in your past. We can't hire you."

The U.S. has the highest percentage of incarcerated people of any industrialized nation. Prisons are increasingly crowded and courts are mandating early release of "low-risk" inmates. In the best of circumstances, these people will hit the job market only to be told they are not hirable. A recent study in Contra Costa County, California, where our bakery is located, reports that 60% of the county's ex-prisoners still do not have a job a year after being released.

At Rubicon Bakery we don't dwell on a person's past. Rather, we ask, "Are you ready to work?" If the answer to that question is "yes", and we have a position, we will give that person the opportunity to prove themselves. If they are a good worker, they have a job with benefits.

Our bakery was founded as a job-training center by a local non-profit that helps people restart their lives. I bought the bakery nearly four years ago from the non-profit with the commitment to maintain the same social values. However, as a private enterprise, the bakery needs to be profitable financially as well as socially.

I started my career as an investment banker after earning an MBA from Wharton. But while that work was financially rewarding, it was not fulfilling. After owning several restaurants in California, the opportunity to purchase the bakery from the non-profit became available and I looked seriously at the prospect. The bakery was struggling to manage growth and had 14 part-time employees. I fell in love with the bakery's social mission and took a leap knowing little about the bakery business. We now have nearly 100 full-time employees. All of our employees receive health benefits, 3 weeks of paid vacation and sick time, a no-interest loan when needed, and a community that accepts them for who they are, despite past mistakes.

What I have learned from our experience:

1) Treat people with respect. It's the golden rule, and it applies to everyone.

2) Don't judge people by their past. Give people a second chance and they will surprise you.

3) Create a safe work environment. Many of our employees have had setbacks in their lives--homelessness, drug addiction, imprisonment. Together, they form a supportive community, and never judge one another.

4) Find partners. We work with a number of local programs that assist people who want to turn their lives around. These programs help us identify those who are really ready for a second chance. In our area, we work closely with Rubicon Programs, the original founder of the bakery and the Berkeley Bread Project as well as with the Alameda County Jail.

5) What seems small to you can make a big difference to someone else. Rubicon Bakery offers no-interest emergency loans starting at as little as $50 and up to $3,000. A few hundred dollars could help someone from winding up back on the street. I saw what happened to our employees when they were forced to borrow from a payday lender with interest rates up to 400% so I started our own interest-free loan program.