He spends part of his time doing workforce development for the nonprofit Greater Homewood Community Development Corporation, helping others – many of whom were recently released from jail – overcome obstacles that keep them from getting a job.
Maybe they need a driver’s license, and for that they need a new pair of glasses; Wilson can help. Maybe they need new clothes, or help getting their criminal records expunged, or need someone to lobby a potential employer for them; Wilson will do it.
“It’s tough work,” said Wilson, 36. “I have to beg [employers] to take a chance on these people.”
But he will also hire them himself.
Wilson, who spent years in prison after a murder conviction as a juvenile, is also an entrepreneurship fellow at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business and the founder of the Barclay Investment Corporation, a small contracting company that employs several ex-offenders.
Last month’s riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray made living conditions in Baltimore’s distressed neighborhoods national news.
They also spurred a broad consensus among civic and business leaders that the city’s high rates of incarceration have left thousands of city residents in a sort of limbo: unemployed and unemployable.
Communities United, a nonprofit that has pushed for the state to restore voting rights to those released from prison, estimates that at least 20,000 of Baltimore’s residents are ex-offenders.
‘I’ll do it myself’
Wilson and Greater Homewood certainly aren’t the only ones trying to address the ex-offender employment problem; following the riots, the NAACP’s Baltimore branch opened a clinic in Sandtown-Winchester where visitors could seek help getting their records expunged, and the nonprofit urban farm Strength to Love II is tended by two dozen ex-offenders, just to name two.
Wilson has some advantages others may not have. He knows firsthand about incarceration and the difficulties that follow release. He has a business background and entrepreneurial instincts. He’s resourceful, passionate and has a strong work ethic and the support of other social innovators in the city.
But what he doesn’t have yet is money. He struggles to maintain enough working capital to pay his crew and take on new work.
Wilson is using all his skills to attack the problem using a social enterprise that focuses more on community impact than on profit.
He said he started Barclay a little over a year ago out of frustration; he felt his work with Greater Homewood wasn’t doing enough.
“There were still so many other people, good people, that still can’t find work,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’ll do it myself.’”
Wilson has six full-time employees at Barclay, with another five that do part-time work. The business pulled in about $122,000 in annual revenue in 2014, and he’s looking to hire more workers.
Wilson says the more experienced workers are his “A” team; he can set them up doing carpentry or flooring work. The “B” team does cleaning work. The “C” team is made up of the new recruits, people who’ve just been released or whom Wilson just met.
He vets this group, making sure they’ll show up on time and take direction.
“I need to test people,” Wilson said. “I push people, ask people questions they can’t answer to see how they respond under pressure.”
A master plan
Wilson also brings that firm approach to his work at Greater Homewood, said Karen Stokes, the organization’s executive director. “He’s as tough with them as any employer is going to be,” she said.
That’s part of why she hired Wilson, shortly after he was released from prison after 16 years in 2012, Stokes said. He’s heard all the stories and excuses, and doesn’t let people roll over him, she said.
In 2014, Greater Homewood found jobs for more than 75 people, less than 10 percent of which paid only minimum wage, Wilson said.
Wilson’s entrepreneurial spirit is part of why he’s no longer in prison. He earned his GED and associate’s degree behind bars, and wrote up a master plan of his life’s goals, which helped persuade a judge to reconsider his life sentence, he said.
After his release, Wilson began studying business at the University of Baltimore but soon considered dropping out because he didn’t want to learn to work for someone else — he wanted to be a business owner. Faculty directed him to the entrepreneurship fellows program the school was developing, in which participants must launch their own business venture.
Wilson became part of its inaugural class in 2013,and soon launched Barclay Investment Corporation.
“What he’s doing is giving us hope,” said Kevin Reed, an ex-offender who has been out of prison for about a month. “He’s giving us a chance to [see] that what we think has to be, doesn’t always have to be.”
Reed was one of two men working for Wilson on a small job in early May. Barclay was hired by an artists’ collective in Station North to move several dozen boxes of books across town.
“Opportunities like this give us a different outlook,” said Reed, a Washington, D.C.-native who says he was incarcerated for 15 years on an attempted murder charge and knew Wilson in prison. “All we have is where we come from, and where we come from isn’t always the best.”
Tony Hartley, who met Wilson about six months ago while on a contracting job near Wilson’s home, said he spent about 20 years going in and out of jail on drug charges, but now has been out for five years.
“I like working with my hands,” Hartley said as he helped Wilson and Reed move the boxes of books. Many of the people Wilson encounters feel manual labor is beneath them and don’t want to work; Hartley disagrees. “You’ve got do to what you’ve got to do,” he said.
Wilson’s efforts have earned him the respect of other socially-conscious entrepreneurs in the region.
“It’s guys like Chris that are really inspiring,” said Wes Moore, author and founder of BridgeEdu, a program that helps city students through their first year of college, when dropping out is common. “He’s all about finding talent in places where we think there is none.”
Both Moore and Wilson say that in the post-Freddie Gray era, the city has a renewed chance to change its approach to issues such as employment and business development.
One problem that needs to be addressed is the local hiring requirement for city-subsidized developments, Wilson said. The law requires that 51 percent of the new jobs needed to finish such a project go to city residents, but not all projects need new hires in addition to their existing construction crews, he said.
“There need to be new incentives,” Wilson said. One example might be to give developers behind large projects tax breaks for partnering with small, local companies, he said.
Small businesses like Barclay also need more access to capital. “We need foundations and institutions to come in and guarantee loans,” Wilson said.
This is a difficulty Wilson knows all too well. Since some clients can take weeks to pay for Barclay’s services, he’s struggled to get working capital to pay his employees. “I can’t wait 60 days to get paid,” he said.
Wilson said Monday he’s had to turn down a few recent jobs because he doesn’t have the funds. Lenders tend not to like startups, so a small business’s first couple of years can be a “cold spot,” where capital and credit are hard to come by, he said. “That’s where I’m at now,” he said.
The job at Greater Homewood is also on shaky ground: The initial round of funding that has supported his work is set to run out this summer. Stokes says the organization is trying to raise more money to keep the program going.
The need won’t be going away any time soon. More than half of the prisoners released in Maryland each year return to West Baltimore neighborhoods, according to Communities United.
“He’s helping a lot of us out,” Hartley said. “It’s very important.”