Harvey George – A Second Chance Entrepreneur
On the day that Harvey was interviewed for this story, he suffered a heart attack and passed away. His death was a huge blow, not just to the community he served, but to all of our staff at the Rising Tide Capital office. Harvey was an exceptional community leader, entrepreneur, and human being who touched so many lives. We feel honored to be able to tell his story and recount some of his last words. We hope his life will inspire you as much as he inspired all of us.
-The RTC Staff
Harvey George – A Second Chance Entrepreneur
JERSEY CITY—Working out of a modest office in the heart of the Greenville section of Jersey City, Harvey George has become a symbol of second chances. For more than twenty years as president of the nonprofit organization Friends of the Lifers Youth Corp, Inc., George has helped over one hundred formerly incarcerated individuals secure housing and jobs.
In March 2012, George launched Reentry Advisors, a consulting business to help the formerly incarcerated and the organizations that support them. He also published a reentry manual this month, with step-by-step instructions for the formerly incarcerated looking to transition back into society.
“Everywhere I went, people would walk up to me and ask me how I do what I do? Now people just pay me to do what I’ve always been doing for free,” said George who is turning 67 in June. “By charging a small fee, I’m able to weed out who’s really serious about changing their life,” he added.
Writing about his new business endeavor in a blog entry dated March 26, George wrote:
“If you are going to go into business… you have to make a decision to be all in. All in for me means doing anything and everything you need to make your business work… We must be hungry if we want to win.”
For George, this hunger stems from a very personal encounter with the hardships of transitioning out of prison life. For 17 and half years, George was incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison until he was released early for exceptional behavior in 1991.
While residing in a halfway house where many of his co-residents were worried about their personal transitions, he started putting together ideas to create an organization that would support people like him, who were transitioning back into society.
“We recycle trash, why not given people a second chance?” George said. With that idea, a small budget and a lot of ambition, George founded Friends of the Lifers in 1992.
To sustain his nonprofit endeavor, George looked for work. However, that wasn’t always easy with a criminal record. When asked about his criminal record during one of his first job interviews, he admitted that he had been arrested.
“The man said I’d call you back…but after the interview, I realized that I had left my hat in the office. I went back in and saw my resume crumpled up,” recalled George, “From that day to this day, I’ve been teaching others that when you can’t find a job you have to create your own.”
And when you can’t rely on an entrepreneurial endeavor, find a way to supplement your income.
“I always tell people I work with, do what you got to do until you can do better,” said George, who lived that example. In the early days, he worked any job he could from the night shift at a gas station to cleaning out sewage pipes.
“While working [at the sewage plant], I would smell so bad that even after showering I could still smell the stench, but I enjoyed the work immensely,” said George who saw his monthly income more than double with the new job.
Over time, his life experiences influenced him to create programs through Friends of the Lifers which provided job opportunities from community gardening to car maintenance for the formerly incarcerated, while also providing them with support and training for their entrepreneurial endeavors.
By 2004, Friends of the Lifers was an established fixture on Martin Luther King Drive. That same year, George met Alfa Demmellash and her partner, Alex Forrester, who had just moved to Jersey City with the idea for an organization that could transform low-income communities by empowering local entrepreneurs.
“When I heard about their idea, I knew it would be great for this community,” recalled George.
The two opened the nonprofit Rising Tide Capital (RTC) on 348 Martin Luther King Drive, only a short drive down the street from George’s office. When they launched the Community Business Academy in 2006, George became one of the first students in the 11-week class. Although the course is geared towards for-profit entrepreneurs, George said the program helped immensely with his work at Friends of the Lifers.
“After taking the CBA, I’m able to do what I’m doing better,” said George, “I learned how to use social networks, market and drive traffic to my website. I saw a major increase in awareness, in large part because of the training that I got from RTC.”
He referred clients who dreamed of starting their own businesses to RTC, and most recently, launched his own consulting business with assistance from RTC.
“It helped knowing I always had a resource to go to,” said George, “I would never have stopped trying [to pursue my endeavors] but I may not have been as successful as quickly as I have been without RTC. Today I have a plan, as opposed to just working off the top of my head.”
Although George’s business endeavor is new, his commitment to making second chances possible for the formerly incarcerated has remained just as strong as it was when he first founded Friends of the Lifers in 1991.
“It is a huge milestone that 20 years later, Friends of the Lifers is still making our services available to the community. It hasn’t been a cake walk, but it’s been a blessing to serve,” said George.
“It’s been a journey, a good journey.”
To read Alfa Demmellash's tribute to Harvey George, click here.