By many standards, the story of Harley Blakeman would be considered a successful one. After graduating from Fisher in 2017 with a specialization in operations, Blakeman has gone on to launch Just Corrections LLC, an organization dedicated to helping criminals reenter society and find careers. His self-published book, Grit: How to Get a Job and Build a Career with a Criminal Record, has sold over 1000 copies in the six months since its release. More recently, Blakeman landed a full-time job with Owens Corning—a Fortune 500 company—and even got married two months ago.
However, no story would be complete without its beginning. In Blakeman’s case, the story of his entrepreneurial career did not start in a tiny Harvard dorm room or a sweltering Palo Alto garage. It started seven years ago in a Georgia prison cell, where a 19-year-old Blakeman was serving a 14-month sentence for drug trafficking and abuse.
A Florida native, Blakeman lived a normal life with his parents and older brother.That all changed with the divorce of his parents and the death of his father when he was 14. Soon enough, the Blakeman brothers found themselves couchsurfing as their home life began to deteriorate. By the time he was 17, Blakeman had dropped out of high school and turned to a new activity altogether: using and selling prescription pills.
“I was hanging out with completely different people [than before] because I did not have any positive influences in my life,” Blakeman recalls. “I did not have anyone to tell me what was right or wrong.”
Police eventually caught wind of Blakeman’s drug enterprise, and arrested him in Georgia. For his crimes—including drug abuse, drug trafficking and theft— he was sentenced to 14 months of incarceration, nine years of probation and 400 hours of community service.
During his sentence, Blakeman earned his GED and worked to overcome his drug addiction. He also made contact with his aunt and grandmother in Ohio, who offered Blakeman a place to live while he sought to readjust to society.
“Helping me ‘get started’ basically meant that they were really strict on me,” Blakeman laughs. “Now, looking back on it, that was the greatest gift ever.”
Blakeman spent the next few years working as a cook, washing dishes and mowing lawns in order to live on his own. During that time, a college education was nothing more than an afterthought. However, attaining a degree quickly became a focus as Blakeman began entertaining the idea of entrepreneurship and building a business.
“I could not just start my own business because I had no money and no real business knowledge,” Blakeman says. “I applied to Columbus State Community College on a whim, not knowing if I would get in, but they ended up accepting me.”
After two semesters at Columbus State, Blakeman set his sights on applying to the Fisher College of Business at OSU. Despite his doubts, he was accepted and enrolled.
Blakeman proved to be a model student at Fisher, eventually graduating with a 3.8 GPA. He was selected to be a part of the Dean’s Leadership Academy and the Fisher Leadership Initiative, the latter of which gave him the inspiration to begin drafting his book and lay the groundwork for his company.
“My job with the Fisher Leadership Initiative was to help create an entrepreneurship course for the Ohio Department of Corrections, which was perfect for me because of my background,” Blakeman says. “At the same time, I started writing my book because so many things had come true for me that seemed impossible.”
That book soon became Grit: How to Get a Job and Build a Career with a Criminal Record. Blakeman collaborated with a few Fisher students and alumni to design and edit the book. Despite initial talks with publishing companies, he elected to self-publish the book to preserve its message and spread it quickly.
“I wanted to write about something I know I can speak on. I did not want to sound like someone who was just trying to get attention or trying to make money. I wanted to actually help people,” Blakeman says. “There was not much of a lengthy creation process [writing the book] because it was just my story.”
Since its release in March of this year, Grit became Blakeman’s traveling companion as he visited prisons and shared his story. With Just Corrections, he hopes to emphasize the value of education and hard work in overcoming criminal history. The organization offers multi-week courses on business concepts and materials designed to equip inmates with the knowledge and drive to find success outside of prison.
“There are a lot of people in prisons with no hope and do not believe a career is possible, but I hope to reach out to them [with Just Corrections],” Blakeman says.
Although Grit and Just Corrections were two of his main goals up to this point, Blakeman does not consider his work to be finished. He started a full-time position as a production coordinator at Owens Corning. Over the course of the next few years, he plans to expand upon Grit and write more guides designed to help former and current inmates. He is even considering the idea of going back to school and earning his MBA.
“On the business side, I want to keep things organic. I am going to continue doing speaking engagements, hosting workshops and selling books.” Blakeman says. “There are a lot of dreams I want to make come true.”
Regardless of his future plans, however, Blakeman is adamant about staying true to his past and helping those with similar backgrounds overcome their mistakes as he has.
“There is a common idea that people with criminal records cannot get a job or are always going to have really bad jobs. That is what society believes and that is also what individuals in prison believe and they tell each other that while they are incarcerated,” he says. “I do not believe that. There are a lot of 18 and 19-year-old kids in jail, like I was, who just need a little hope and guidance.”