The inspiring story behind the organisation helping ex-offenders find work

Ex-offenders face a number of barriers when trying to find employment. Offploy is one organisation looking to fix that by working with employers to implement ex-offender employment programmes. Here's the story of how Offploy began, as shared with us by founder Jacob Hill two years ago...

When you think of the word entrepreneur what comes to mind? Success over adversity? School drop outs? Inventors of phones or vacuum cleaners? Perhaps a certain bearded individual who started this company?

What if I told you there was another category, one which society is currently underutilizing and, as a result of this, they are costing the government billions each year?

You may have guessed it, I am on about ex-offenders, our nation's shame, prisoners. They are some of the most entrepreneurial people I have ever met and I would like to tell you why our assumptions about some of these people are wrong.

At 14 years old, I started an underground sweet enterprise at my high school. The teachers had no clue that I was employing up to five kids at any one time, shifting sugary goods from a sophisticated network of lockers and a complex supply chain. As a weedy kid who would rather spend a weekend on my PS3 than entertaining the thought of the great outdoors, sports and natural sunlight – this was the first time I felt I was good at something and actually belonged.

By 19 I had started my first 'proper' company, The Lazy Camper, a complete camping package for music festivals – I even found an investor to put in £300,000. At 21, I was Yorkshire’s Young Entrepreneur of the year and employed a team of staff but I was completely broke and completely miserable.

I was in a large amount of debt and ultimately lost my company.

It was at this point, In August 2014, for no reason other than to pay back some of the money I owed and because I thought I was invincible (a trait many entrepreneurs carry, I think), that I chose to sell class A drugs at a music festival. I was arrested by under cover officers and left in the police cells for 18 hours as my parents, both respected ex-police officers, had their homes raided.

It goes with out saying, this was my lowest point in life. At this moment, I was faced with two paths ahead of me. I could either accept my fate, that I am going to prison and mope around the house for months in a Netflix coma, or I could make the most of the time I had left, prepare myself for prison and do all I could to turn my life around. I chose to sort myself out.

11 months of being on bail is a long time. During that time I read up on prison, sorted my finances out and actually ended up owing less than I thought. My company, The Lazy Camper, actually turned around thanks to the help of a trusted friend and the future looked extremely bright… that was of course until the judge sentenced me to time inside.

Read: Second chances are good for all of us

On the July 3rd 2015, I was taken down. I would serve nine and a half months inside and four and a half months on tag. After which another 14 months reporting to my probation officer and not leaving the country. You can probably work out which stage I am at now.

Now that you’ve got my life story, you’re probably wondering how this all ties back to Virgin?

I’d like to share with you how a nervous 19 year old from Yorkshire ended up with the backing and support of such a major organisation... even after he went to prison.

Before I was sent away, I had received a whole bundle of support from the team at Virgin Media Pioneers; I first got involved when I entered a competition to meet Richard in South Africa, I didn’t win but I persisted. Next up, Virgin wanted one of their pioneers to audition with any talent they have. After a family member taught me a trick with a two pence piece, I would often use it in bars after a few too many drinks, I never expected Virgin to actually use it and well…

It didn’t stop there either, after hearing about me through this opportunity, I was invited to enter the Pitch 2 Rich in 2013, now known as the famous #VOOM competition. I gained the highest number of votes and came runner up in the competition. This opened up a whole range of opportunities when The Lazy Camper started providing camping equipment to V festival. I was also introduced to an amazing network of other start up entrepreneurs and the team within Virgin to rely on and call on when I needed them. But I didn’t… I was just too proud and instead of asking for help at fear that everyone would think I was a failure, I made that life altering decision to break the law.

Never let pride get in the way of asking for help. You are only as good as the support network you build around yourself.

I deservedly went to prison, I was too embarrassed and ashamed to even reach out to Virgin. I would have gone my whole sentence wondering what could have been if I’d have just admitted I needed help when times got tough. I would have gone my whole sentence without reaching out to Virgin apologising for the damage I could have done to their brand. And yet, it was the team at Virgin Media Pioneers that were the first to write to me, extending their support and well wishes. Whilst they obviously do not condone what I did, they would never see one of their own left alone in such a situation. I am not employed by Virgin but it gives testament to their employment ethic and how they support all their team whether on their payroll or not.

Most days I would receive multiple items of mail whilst inside, my support network was strong. One day I only received one letter, I was disheartened, I thought 'why aren’t five people writing to me today?'. Upon reading the letter, in my 8 foot by 5 foot cell, on my single foam mattress, a grin formed from ear to ear. Richard Branson, a man who I only met twice prior, had taken the time to send me a personal note wishing me well and saying how sorry he was I found myself in this situation. It was at this moment that I realised my adversity had given me a voice and it had to be put to good use, not only to help myself, but these other lads around me too.

My release came six months later and walking out of that large sliding gate with my holdall in hand was one of the best feelings ever. I’ve summed up my offence and time inside here.

Now I have been home for 11 weeks, I have stayed true to myself and plans to support ex-offenders with a company I will be launching very soon. I approached an investor who has supported not only my reintergration back in to society but has also funded my passion for starting a company to help ex-offenders get back in to society. One of my proudest moments was paying tax and £3.95 towards my student loan on my first paycheck last week.

Virgin have also stayed true to their word, they invited me and my partner, Emily, down to the #VOOM Finale to meet with their team to discuss my future plans and how they may be able to support me as an entrepreneur and also as an individual. During my time in London, I was due to meet Richard at the event but time got away from him and I didn’t get the opportunity to see him when planned.

Obviously, I was gutted, who doesn’t want to meet and chat with their childhood hero? Then… as per the typical Virgin style, they made it work.

A car was arranged to drive us to meet Richard, later that afternoon. We chatted over a cup of tea for a bit about prison reform, my time inside, my new venture, the prison diary I have written and finally… my tag.

A condition of my release was that I was tagged to my parents house for four and a half months and on curfew from 7pm until 7am.  I think Richard had other thoughts though.

Before I get in trouble, I should tell you my tag was not tampered with in any way and reamined in tact on my ankle.

I left London that day more motivated than ever to rebuild and this is where I would love to take you on a journey with me.

As an ex-offender and an entrepreneur starting up in a completely new industry, I am bound to face a wide range of triumphs and challenges. I will be sharing this journey, warts and all, here on this blog and I would love it if you joined me, gave me your thoughts on my decisions and more importantly realise how this all applies to you and the struggles every start-up faces.

I came from a brilliant background, I didn’t ask for help when I should have, I have built a business once and lost it practically overnight. I have been to prison and to most people I probably don’t deserve a second chance. However, I am starting again and If I can do it, you can too.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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