Local businessman Will Avila could not believe it when he heard that his business, Clean Decisions, had been selected as a participant in Unlocked Futures. The company, started in 2014, employs returning citizens to provide cleaning, event and landscaping services and has a sister not-for-profit called Changing Perceptions which provides support and community to those making the transition from incarceration.
The Unlocked Futures program is an 18-month business accelerator backed by musician John Legend who selected eight entrepreneurs affected by the prison system. Each winner received a $50,000 operational grant and a spot in the 18-month training and mentorship program.
“I still was in shock,” Avila said of the moment he received a call inviting him to meet with John Legend, whose Free America campaign collaborated with New Prophet and Bank of America to create Unlocked Futures. “I don’t know how that happened.”
I Knew in My Heart… I’d Die in Prison
Raised in Brightwood, Avila said that he only saw one way through life growing up. In his youth Avila saw his brother and cousin enter the system, the latter serving a life sentence.
“I already had instilled in me that I was going to be incarcerated,” he said. Lacking family support, he said that at the age of 14, “I knew in my heart that going down the streets, I’d die in prison.”
Avila was incarcerated as an adult at the age 16. After eleven years in and out of the federal prison system Avila emerged determined to stay out. He said it only took four days to run out of money, and finding work was difficult. He applied for 22 jobs and was rejected for all of them before deciding to act on his plan to start his own business and employ himself.
At a poetry reading during a year of homelessness that followed his release, Avila met Graham McLaughlin. McLaughlin helped him get together the start-up funds to found Clean Decisions in October 2014. Avila founded the not-for-profit Changing Perceptions a year later.
The business employs 15 returning citizens to provide cleaning, event and landscaping services. They have cleaned industrial kitchens for businesses throughout the District, done work at events for Events DC, staffed two Clean Teams and are responsible for erecting and dismantling the pedestrian barricades every weekend for the Georgetown BID.
In 2015, Rob Cronin joined the team to develop the landscaping arm of the company. A 25-year resident of Capitol Hill, Cronin said that the company is able to provide personalized services and attention to the smaller yards of the neighborhood.
The not-for-profit arm, Changing Perceptions, provides support and training to returning citizens, including access to therapy and mediation services, community support and events such as pancake breakfasts and guest speakers. In partnership with the Department of Small and Local Business Development, the program has incubated eleven new businesses and provided jobs to 43 individuals, in addition to training in transitional skills and the promotion of entrepreneurial efforts.
‘We Know How to Hustle’
The Unlocked Futures Progra helps start-up companies in two ways. First, it provides an 18-month executive coaching program, which includes training on how to run a business.
Rob Cronin said that the training program helps fill in some critical gaps for the company. “We know how to do good, quality work and get good jobs. That doesn’t mean we know how to do a W2 or a W9 [form] or manage QuickBooks or all of the administrative back end that’s necessary.”
The other part of the program is an operational grant from Bank of America. The funds are dedicated to building business operations as the company sees fit. “The $50K really helps,” Avila said, but adds that the program has given him and the company a boost in confidence.
“Just having Bank of America back you up, newprofit.org and Free America with John Legend back you up,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
A ‘Breakout Year’
2018 is a ‘breakout year’ for Clean Decisions, said Cronin. “So much of what Clean Decisions has been doing has been based on hustle, and now it’s poised to become a stable business,” Cronin said, pointing to returning customers and crew and new, solid contracts.
Clean Decision was awarded a contract last December through the Launch Pad Initiative with the District Department of General Services (DGS). The company competed against six other business to win the contract for comprehensive green cleaning and related comprehensive maintenance for Barry Farm Recreation Center (1230 Sumner Rd. SE), where DGS spokeswoman Joia Nuri said Clean Decisions provides “the highest quality of janitorial services.”
“In the beginning, we experienced some minor challenges,” added DGS Building Services Supervisor, Ronny Lowe. “After I provided clearer instruction on the work process, Clean Decisions’ work is so good Barry Farms Recreation Center is one of the cleanest buildings in the District.”
Cronin said that the DGS contract is one piece of Clean Decisions’ move to becoming a long-term stable employer for returning District citizens. “[W]hen people are not just getting paid by the hour, but can be hired based on salary,” Cronin said, “that’s when you’re making a difference in creating jobs and opportunity for people that don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
‘It Was Pretty Much Everything’
Avila emphasizes the mission of both his company and the sister not-for-profit, measuring the company’s success not just by the growth in business but in the impact on people’s lives. Carlos Tyler is an example of both. Hiring Tyler as an administrative assistant was part of Clean Decision’s move into the next phase.
Tyler was a juvenile when he was first placed in the system at 16. Released at 18, he was out for a total of two weeks before he was re-arrested, landing in prison for another six years.
Tyler was assigned to do an apprenticeship following his release that included on-the-job training with Clean Decisions. “From there, the relationship was solid,” Tyler said. He went on to do many jobs with the company and has now been affiliated with the organization for nearly two years.
As part of the clean-up team for a ‘Drink the District’ event, Tyler was paired with a quiet, unassuming man. As they worked, Tyler’s partner asked him questions about his future, including where he saw himself in five years. “I remember thinking to myself, I wonder what the heck this dude was locked up for? What could he possibly have done?” It was only later that evening that Tyler learned that the man was Graham McLaughlin, who had helped Avila found the company.
The two built a relationship and Tyler was offered a position as a navigator, or mentor, with Changing Perceptions. He went on to an apprenticeship with the Council for Youth Justice, learning software programs like QuickBooks before he started looking for administrative work. McLaughlin suggested Tyler for the administrative opportunity with Clean Decisions.
He says the effect of the organization and the communities it has built on his life has been “pretty much everything,” emphasizing the last word. “For me to transition from prison into society and be immediately welcomed by this group with acknowledgment of all that I’ve been through –it was basically a lifeline.”
“I really don’t know what path or track I’d be on had I not had this relationship. So in short, it was everything. Yep.”
Avila is grateful to the Hill community for their support and for spreading the message of hope for the future. He said the message is “you can make a clean decision today and change the way people perceive you.”
“Do the right thing. Choose the positive path.”
Learn more about Clean Decisions or get a job estimate at cleandecisions.com by calling 202-903-4332 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org Follow the company and their sister not-for-profit Changing Perceptions on Twitter @cleandecisions @ChangingDC