#CCIspotlight: Kristen Daniel, Pentorship

Meet this week’s #CCIsuperstar, Kristen Daniel, founder and CEO of Pentorship. Pentorship designs customized products and services to facilitate quality learning experiences for returning citizens to compete in current labor markets. Pentorship helps agencies and organizations successfully implement 21st-century skills training programs in challenging settings where learners may vary in academic & career experience. Kristen is a current Fellow in the 2017 Civic Women's Fellowship. 

Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?

The idea began when I was living and teaching in South Korea--during this time, one of my friends from high school was arrested on a drug charge. By the time I returned to the United States and started graduate school, he was beginning with the prison system - these two experiences were so parallel.

During this time, he wrote me a letter and asked if I could look at his dorm mate’s business plan. His letter sparked a thought about how cool it could be to work with people who are incarcerated and help them prepare for their return home. I went to La Fonda on Ponce de Leon and on a paper napkin I kept writing, “pen pal business mentorship entrepreneurship” in different configurations, until I got the word Pentorship. That’s how it all started.

I’m originally from Lithonia, a city on the outskirts of Atlanta. My parents (the city mouse and the country mouse) are from Jersey City and Atlanta. I did my undergraduate studies at Florida A&M in business administration and Spanish, and went to grad school at Georgia Tech. Between undergraduate and graduate school I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, Richmond, Virginia, Iquique, Chile and Seoul, South Korea.

What we do today at Pentorship is very different from how we started. The first half of my career focused on B2B Sales and teaching English as a second language (ESL). Journeying with the Pentorship led me and challenged me to develop skills in web design, project management, and instructional design.

Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?

When I started Pentorship I had a very cause-based mindset. In the beginning, we focused only on reducing recidivism. Very soon after we started, I began traveling and teaching in prisons, working with volunteers and going to conferences. What I quickly learned is that recidivism is the end result of multiple systemic issues. Over time, we learned that we have to keep searching for solutions to systemic problems instead of focusing solely on the final step - recidivism.

We’re in the second pivot of Pentorship’s existence. I’ve learned over the past few years that education designed for people in prisons is not tailored to their needs. Companies and organizations haven’t thought critically about how to deliver education to this large, diverse group of adult learners.

Right now, we have a system where someone spends five years in prison and the first thing that is available to them when they’re released is job training.

The problem with this type of training is that it focuses only on the end game - employment, because this is supposedly what makes people valuable as adults… but it ignores personal development. Many low wage workers or individuals from the same economic background experience a similar phenomenon: even if they haven’t been to prison, they are from a population that have only received job training, but have not received social and emotional education… they haven’t been given the opportunity for personal development. Pentorship’s evolution happened because we learned that educational experiences aren’t being designed for an entire group of people in this country, including people who are formerly incarcerated.

While I think this is just a policy issue, it also has a lot to do with education. Pentorship doesn’t aim to serve individuals. Our services are targeted towards other organizations and businesses. This is our contribution to systemic change. We build for the system so that we can change the system’s behavior, rather than developing programs that have a minimal opportunity to help long term.

We are at the dawn of a new economic era. At this point in our history, what will keep people going back into the system (i.e. recidivism), or entering the system... is not being prepared for the new economy.

You can change drug sentencing laws, but there may be some other thing that becomes a crime. The business and education sectors need to create products or services that enhance a person’s potential to thrive outside of the prison system so they don’t have to enter the system in the first place. That is what Pentorship is all about.

How has CCI supported you in your work?

There is no other CCI in Atlanta. It’s a very special place and it’s interesting to watch it evolve. We will really know what CCI means to the city coming out of the mayoral race, which is going to be a turning point for the city and CCI, in terms of its role in history.

Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?

My advice for up and coming entrepreneurs: Don't be too distracted by the noise around social enterprise. Solve a problem. The most important tools you need are self-awareness and empathy.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today?

The housing crisis. And part B of that is transportation. I’ve been here a long time, and my family has been here even longer. Atlanta is a town-city. Townspeople have run this city traditionally. Atlanta was never intended to be what it is (the state capital) because Savannah was supposed to be the New York of Georgia. This is why we have a prison in Atlanta.

The townspeople mindset is that they try to model after other cities how they want to supply the support, which is typically needed in the inner city.

But the people who need help are spread all around the city. You can’t view the people living inside the perimeter as the only people who need help, because Atlanta is uniquely spread out geographically. There are so many people in the surrounding areas who are suffering and need support or training so their income can increase for them to afford housing.

Construction companies are building a lot of new housing, but they’re building to meet the demand from new residents relocating from other cities to work here. We’ve got to continue to help the existing residents develop into the talent pool to that aligns with those opportunities.

Thank you, Kristen, for sharing your story with us! We're honored that you're a part of the CCI family, and thrilled to watch your work continue. 

Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.

The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week from now until the end of the year. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.