Ashoka Fellow Mark Johnson founded his first venture while he was still in rehabilitation. He's not your typical social entrepreneur.

After a history of serious crime, homelessness and drug addiction, the founder of User Voice decided to turn his life around and is now a leading figure in criminal justice.

Be thick-skinned and believe in yourself

Mark is a serial entrepreneur. His first venture after leaving prison was a real success. In just four years, Mark's tree cutting venture was profitable and employing over 250 people. Everything was going great, Mark was not only off the street, he had also done really well in the business world – not bad for a man who admits his only "real" job was doing the night shifts at Morrisons.

But something wasn't sitting well with him – gaining his life back and "doing well" wasn't enough. Mark had what he calls his teachable moment, the moment he realised he liked “helping people more than he liked making money”.

Mark left the tree cutting business and founded User Voice, a charity that is led, and delivered by, ex-offenders. Through his personal experience, Mark realised that only offenders can stop re-offending. Today, he gives offenders a voice through his flagship ‘prison councils’. This is a highly cost-effective innovation which reduces a variety of poor outcomes within prisons, and builds personal responsibility – taking this responsibility is the first step to real rehabilitation.

But he hasn't rested there. Recently, Mark set up social venture CanDo Coffee, a series of mobile coffee vans throughout London, run by those who have experience of addiction, mental health problems and incarceration. He is taking people from the streets and starting them on their own entrepreneurial journey, just as he did.

When asked what it takes to be a social entrepreneur, Mark grins, "Be thick skinned. Be resilient. People will tell you no, will tell you that you're mad. But the belief you have in yourself and your desire to contribute will help you hold on.”

Watch the short film above and hear Mark talk more about taking the road less travelled, defying academia for a world of positive social impact.

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