By Amy Feldman (March 27, 2019)
This full feature article ran as the daily cover story for Forbes.com and its accompanying social media channels (including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) on March 27, 2019. To read the full article on Forbes’ website, and to view the accompanying videos, please click here.
Darrell Jobe had a rough start in life. Raised in Richmond, California, Jobe dropped out of school in eighth grade, joined a gang, and was in and out of juvenile detention as a teenager. At age 14 he was incarcerated for stealing cars, he says, and later did time for possession of a stolen gun. By 23, he promised himself that he would turn his life around and be a better father to his kids than his absentee dad had been for him.
“I remember my gang days, and being in shootouts, and in and out of juvenile hall,” he says. “This is who you are, but you don’t want to be this person.”
Companies are generally loath to hire former prisoners and gang members, and Jobe struggled to find a job. Eventually, he made his way to the packaging industry, helped by the father of a friend, a willingness to take a lengthy personality test, and his own persistence. Then, in 2015, Jobe, now 39, founded his own business, Vericool, to make sustainable, environmentally friendly packaging that can replace Styrofoam and other expanded polystyrene foam packaging for shipments that need to stay cool.
Playing off increased awareness of how hazardous expanded polystyrene foam is for the environment at a time when more and more locales are banning it, Vericool is growing fast. The Livermore, California, company (which has raised $10 million from investors that include the venture capital arm of Europe’s packaging giant BillerudKorsnas) expects $10 million in revenue this year, up from $2 million last year. It now has a backlog of committed orders of just over $40 million to customers that include JustFoodForDogs, a homemade dog meal startup, and Raw Living Spirulina, a distributor of the blue-green algae, plus some larger pharmaceutical companies that he declines to discuss. But the company has been scrambling to crank up its manufacturing capacity to meet demand. “It’s been overwhelming,” Jobe says. “No one needs to be sold that petroleum products need to be replaced.”
It’s not easy to make an environmentally friendly insulated cooler at a viable price point, and Jobe tried a variety of materials, including starch, coconut husks, bamboo and hay, before settling on postconsumer plant fiber that is recyclable or compostable. A self-taught engineer, he filed 30 patent applications on his creations, five of which have been awarded. “I build everything in my head. If I wrote it down, that would mess me up,” he says. A 12-inch square cube of his material costs less than $5, making it roughly comparable to the cost of an expanded polystyrene foam version of the same size, he says.
In building the company, Jobe is determined to give second chances to former prisoners. He figures that roughly one quarter of the company’s 45 employees have served time. They not only get a chance to work, but also can get ownership in the company through Vericool’s employee stock-option plan. “It was years I didn’t work because of my record, but Darrell gave us a second chance,” says Kyil Parker, a Vericool production operator who had previously been incarcerated.
Employers’ wariness has made it tough for former drug dealers or gang members to find jobs, which in turn increases the likelihood they’ll be rearrested and return to prison. A study by the Prison Policy Initiative last year estimated that more than 27% of the country’s more than 5 million formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. In an effort to combat recidivism, an increasing number of states—including California—have barred employers from asking about criminal records in job applications, a policy known as “ban the box.”
For Jobe, who mentors kids in juvenile detention, this is personal. “I was once one of those guys. I was given an opportunity, and I ran with it,” he says. “Your future shouldn’t be based on your past.”