Ahwatukee businesswoman Michelle Cirocco is one of 43 women named by Conscious Company Media as a 2020 World-Changing Woman in Conscious Business, an annual award launched three years ago to recognize female business leaders creating positive social change. This year’s awardees come from six countries and 12 U.S. states.
Cirocco is the chief social responsibility officer of Televerde, a Phoenix-based sales and marketing company that employs incarcerated women to sell multimillion-dollar hardware and software systems for clients like Microsoft, Honeywell, Adobe, SAP and Dell. Five of its eight call centers are staffed by women in Arizona and Indiana prisons, and the company is opening centers in Florida and the United Kingdom later this year.
Once released from prison, most of the women land permanent jobs at Televerde or other companies, and nearly half of the employees at Televerde’s headquarters come from the Perryville facility in Goodyear. Cirocco, herself, is one of these women. She worked at the Perryville call center 22 years ago while serving a six-year prison term and was offered an account executive position upon her release in 2002.
“At first, it was just a job – a way to make money and take care of my kids,” Cirocco said. “But along the way, I recognized I wanted to help the company grow so more women could have the same opportunity as me. So, I continued my career path and was promoted to director of sales, vice president of customer success, chief marketing officer, then chief social responsibility officer.” Cirocco also earned an MBA from ASU, organized a TEDx talk and serves on several advisory boards.
Cirocco said that while many companies employ the formerly incarcerated, Televerde is the top employer in the country – more than 3,000 women have worked for the company since its founding 25 years ago – and the only one offering highly marketable skills. “The women who come out and work for us are in every level of our organization, including 30% of the leadership team. A six-figure salary is not uncommon.”
Tucson resident Margaret Maloney is another “graduate” of Televerde’s Perryville call center, where she worked for more than four years.
“It was during my second prison sentence that I realized nothing was going to change if I didn’t change,” she said. “Prior to working at Televerde, I had jobs but never really a career. I definitely left with a better understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing and where I could go with those skills. When I was released, I had this great skill set. I had spent years doing complex lead generation for some of the largest technology companies in the world, supporting some of their highest paid sales executives.”
Maloney lives in Tucson and works remotely as the director of demand generation for Chicago Green Insulation.
Televerde was started by a volunteer prison minister who saw an opportunity to help prepare inmates for the workforce. Through its nonprofit Arouet Foundation, the company offers inmates courses in family reunification, self-confidence, job preparation and budgeting, and, after release, job placement services, scholarships and ongoing training. The average Televerde hire leaves prison with $15,000 in savings, which many use to pay off child support to retain custody of their children.
“This has a generational impact,” Cirocco said. “Women are able to reunite with their children, become financially independent and stay out of prison so their children don’t end up in places like foster care or prison themselves.”
A January 2020 study by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute found that children of Arizona Televerde program participants are 11 times less likely to be incarcerated and 11 times more likely to graduate high school than dependent children of other incarcerated mothers.
“My children were three and six-years-old when I got arrested,” Cirocco said. “But – my oldest son did 14 years in the Navy, started his own business and is married to a woman who is also career Navy. My younger son went to Northern Arizona University, is a sales rep for a software company and is married to a Phoenix police officer. When I was growing up, going to college was not a thing. My son was the first kid in four generations of my family as well as my husband’s family to graduate high school and go onto college. So we had a completely different family situation than it would have looked like had my life not gone the way that it had.”
The Seidman study found that Televerde’s second chance hiring not only benefits individuals and families but also taxpayers. The recidivism rate of Televerde’s Arizona employees is 5% compared to the state average of 40%, saving Arizona between $6.1 million and $9.5 million annually. These women have a 94% employment rate after five years in contrast to the national average of 55%. Arizona saves a total of $13.3 million a year from the women not reoffending, having gainful employment, not using welfare programs and keeping their children out of foster care. Their salaries are nearly four times higher than the national average, and they contribute approximately $26.9 million in personal income taxes over their post-release lifetime.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 95% of state prison inmates will be eventually released. “All of these people need a job,” Cirocco said. “If we relegate people to low-wage, low-skill jobs, they won’t be able to take care of themselves or their families. But when you give somebody a real second chance, they will be dedicated, loyal, engaged workers. One study showed that formerly incarcerated people have 13% higher retention rates.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any other country and imprisons about 1% of its population. This comes with a price tag of $182 billion a year in addition to social costs. Cirocco hopes Televerde will inspire more companies to try second chance hiring to help alleviate this.
“If we’re going to incarcerate people for things they’ve done wrong, then we have to treat them as humans and give them the tools and education to come out better than when they went in,” Cirocco stated. “Everybody is better than the worst mistake they made on the worst day of their life. Discarding people based on that is a waste of human potential.”