WASHINGTON - Grammy Award-winning artist John Legend is sharing some love in D.C. He is helping provide $50,000 grants and other support to former convicts turned entrepreneurs.
Legend is lending his support to eight people who are working to start a new chapter in their lives. Three of the eight recipients are from the D.C. area.
This has turned into a domino effect because the work they are doing are helping others who have served time and who are trying to successfully return to society as well.
The musician sat down with the ex-offenders promising to back their startups in a program he has called Unlocked Futures.
"I went through 22 job applications and got rejected 22 times," Will Avila told Legend.
Born and raised in Washington D.C., Avila was in and out of jail from the age of 16 to 27. But the last time was a turning point for him. He said after so many rejections from job applications, "I find myself in a decision point in my life where it was like - should I go back to the negativity and go back to the negative peers or should I go and make a clean decision to stay sober, to stay out of the negative environment."
Clean Decisions is what he named his company, which was founded in 2013. Their services run the gamut.
"We started off as a commercial kitchen cleaning company," said Avila. "Then we started doing landscaping."
We caught up with Avila and an employee carrying out his moving services in Northwest D.C. He also provides setup and cleanup for events.
"Taste of DC is one of the big ones," he said. "We also work for Events DC."
Currently, Avila employs 15 full-time workers - all ex-offenders who have served their time and are now returning citizens.
Andre Thomas said Clean Decision has changed his life after getting out of jail. The business makes it a priority to pay a living wage higher than minimum wage.
"Living in Washington D.C. is hard so doing minimum wage, you will still be like, 'Dang, I need more and I need to do this' and you might go back to your old ways," said Thomas.
Avila is providing a new beginning for his workers.
"They always say this is probably not going to be what you want to do in life," Thomas said. "You probably want to have your own business, but we can start you off and show you how it's done and you can go from there."
Avila also runs a non-profit called Changing Perceptions to pair returning citizens with mentors and help them become entrepreneurs themselves. He has helped create 11 businesses and more than 40 new jobs. It has all helped catch Legend's eye.
"There are so many hustlers in prison," said Avila. "They already were entrepreneurs."
Legend told the group that for personal reasons, he is partnering with an organization called New Profit and Bank of America to back companies like Clean Decisions that are ready to grow and make a difference with the criminal justice system.
"He started discussing his family and his reasons why he wants to stop the mass incarcerations," said Avila.
Avila said he will use the $50,000 grant to expand and buy some new trucks he desperately needs. He feels honored, blessed and grateful to be accepted.
"I was like this is it," Avila said. "This is what we have been working for three years. This is what we have been struggling with - waking up at 6 a.m., going to sleep at 3 a.m. cleaning the kitchen. My deepest fear was the community and society rejecting us as returning citizens, people who had been incarcerated. But for somebody like John Legend and all the support he has given us, this opens the door."
"It's clear that we got a long way to go, but with people like you working tirelessly to change the system and the narrative, I'm optimistic," Legend told the eight entrepreneurs.
Avila also talked about the impact that this has had on young people in the community - seeing adults working hard and not continuing down the wrong path.
The other two local companies Legend is helping is a non-profit called Mission Launch and Flikshop, the latter which allows family members to send digital post cards to inmates.