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By Erica Sweeney
September 25, 2017
The founders of Seattle-based Square Peg Development have built their business on second chances. They provide marginalized people with the tools to succeed in construction and beyond.
When Amy and Brady King founded their construction company in 2014, like many other construction companies nationwide, they struggled to find skilled workers. So, they took a chance on a few job applicants with criminal backgrounds.
Square Peg Development has evolved into a social enterprise. Construction remains at the heart, but the company is driven by a mission to create social change through improving opportunities for people released from prison or drug rehabilitation programs, the homeless, and children aging out of foster care.
“We actually just set out to start a construction company,” Amy King says. “It was not necessarily our intention to do what we're doing now. We definitely kind of happened upon this community; it was not intentional. And now we very intentionally hire individuals released from prison who are looking for opportunity.”
After initially hiring six workers with criminal backgrounds, King says they learned about the employees’ struggle to re-enter society and saw an area where they could make a difference.
“As we got to know them and heard their stories, we just literally fell in love with them, and now, they're part of our family,” she says, explaining that five of the six are still with the company.
“We all need a place to belong, to find our identity and to feel that we're a part of something. All of this came about by learning what their needs were and what they were already doing in order to survive. We realized we could participate more and provide more opportunities and open more doors.”
Building a Social Enterprise
With a vision to transform communities through building quality spaces and productive people, Square Peg Development is a social enterprise, and the majority of its profits go toward its established mission.
“Being a social enterprise basically means that Square Peg is a for-profit business that's doing good in the world,” she says. “It’s a designation that helps us really define who we are. We're not just a company that's out to make money. We're trying to provide opportunities for people in our community as well.”
Square Peg has five entities. Square Peg Construction focuses on residential and commercial construction and builder services. Square Peg Fabrication works in custom design, welding, and manufacturing, and Square Peg Dirt Works handles demolition, excavation, and utilities. Two others—Pallet and Weld—are specifically mission-driven.
Pallet designs and builds safe shelters for homeless and disaster relief scenarios. It is structured as a social purpose corporation, allowing it to be profitable and to be able to designate where the profits go. It makes it a kind of for-profit, nonprofit hybrid, King explains.
The city of Tacoma, Washington, has recently purchased several Pallet units for its response to homelessness. King says the company plans to market Pallet’s usefulness in disaster relief, such as for the recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Weld is the group’s nonprofit, which provides supportive services to employees and others who are coming out of prison, addiction recovery, homelessness, and foster care. Weld provides housing, community supports, employment opportunities, training, and many other services.
About half of Weld’s participants are Square Peg employees, but King says it is not a requirement to participate in the program. So far, about 80 people have gone through the program and work in the construction company, and the retention rate is high: only 12 per cent have re-offended and returned to prison.
After being incarcerated, many people face extensive barriers to re-enter society, specifically housing and employment. Recidivism in the U.S. is high. More than 40 per cent are re-arrested within a year of release, and nearly 80 per cent are re-arrested within five years.
Meaningful employment can greatly reduce the rate of recidivism, but many employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds. King says part of her company’s mission is to change that mindset.
“If you think about it from not just the societal impact but also from an economical impact, if we continue to punish these people over and over again, we're also punishing ourselves as a society,” she explains. “They can't become effective members of society. They can't become taxpayers; they can't become consumers; they can't become family members and good parents if they don't have, first and foremost, a job.
“What we do as a society, generally speaking, to individuals who have a criminal background is wrong. We just we continue to punish them indefinitely for having made a bad choice or for having done something wrong. They can't get a job with their past. They can't get an apartment because there's a criminal background check. They often are cut off from their family or home community. So, it’s really just a recipe for re-offense.”
Through education and advocacy, King says she encourages employers to hire second-chance individuals. And there is a strong business case for hiring these groups.
In her experience, second-chance employees are hardworking, productive, and loyal because they are grateful for the employment opportunities. If you invest in them, they will often invest in you and stick around long-term.
Many tax incentives also exist for companies hiring people who have barriers to employment. For example, the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit gives companies back a portion of the wages paid to these individuals.
Having a strong mission also promotes an inspiring work environment and helps with general recruitment. King says being a part of a mission-driven company is something that all Square Peg employees appreciate.
“Doing something meaningful as a part of your work always makes things more appealing,” she suggests. “Right now, all of our employees—even our employees who have previously been incarcerated—really love the fact that they're part of something that's helping society and that has a social purpose. It is more than just going to a job and getting a paycheck every day.”
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