Education options during and after incarceration have never been particularly extensive, despite the best intentions of educators. Emerge Career is working on changing that, and its early success in putting formerly incarcerated folks to work is attracting investment from both VCs and government programs.
It was only August when Emerge first appeared as it came out of Y Combinator's latest batch, and I covered its initial ambitions and approach then. The team previously worked on Ameelio, which upended years of bad and exploitative video calling services in prisons, but also made the problem of education clear to them.
Security and limited budgets at vocational and community colleges limit the amount of help they can actually offer people in the system, and courses from GEDs to trades often take a very "study by mail" approach during incarceration, or traditional brick and mortar one on release. Emerge changes that with modern video lectures and regular video call office hours with educators who specialize in the subject matter.
At first the subject was strictly getting a commercial driver's license, and that has helped numerous former inmates find jobs soon after release in a sector hurting for labor. Now Emerge is also planning to offer nursing assistant and welding courses — two other areas where a shortage of workers means employers may not think twice about hiring someone recently out of prison.
"Besides the clear labor shortage and high compensations, these are two professions that the justice-involved people we met in prisons and reentry centers across the country showed a lot of interest in," said Emerge's Gabe Saruhashi. "Trucking has been an exciting starting point, but we know many people cannot be away from home for prolonged periods of time, be it for personal reasons or reentry obligations. Ultimately, we want to offer training programs for individuals from all walks of life."
Co-founder Uzoma Orchingwa said the feedback from their first students has been very positive, highlighting the self-paced training (since it can be accessed piece by piece whenever is convenient), its speed (the aim is to go from zero to job in about two months) and the hands-on support they get from Emerge's career coaches.
Emerge reports that graduates from its program, who once averaged $13 an hour if they had a stable job, are pulling in an average of $78,000 now. It's hoped the new programs will broaden the appeal and let the company support more students and locations.
The company's pitch pulled in local officials, a good step if you're hoping to get into state-funded institutions, and now Emerge has landed a two-year, $845,000 contract (using American Rescue Plan funds) with the Connecticut Department of Labor. They also have several letters of intent, perhaps waiting on outcomes from the other programs.
This early success has also brought in investment: a $3.2 million seed round led by Alexis Ohanian's 776, with participation from the SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Y Combinator, Lenny Rachitsky and Michael Seibel.
The money will be used to hire engineers and start up the new welding and nursing programs, as well as expand to three more states. Saruhashi said their ambition is to make Emerge Career the first choice for anyone in the country who has a disadvantaged background to get a second chance in the modern workforce.