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Hiring Success

Breaking past barriers: Finding work post-incarceration

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Breaking Past Barriers, was a revelatory discussion at this year’s Hiring Success conference in San Francisco during a roundtable hosted by Shelley Winner and Dana Stevenson. 

Shelley and Dana profoundly recounted how they have individually overcome one of the most pernicious barriers to employment in the modern era, despite the repeated attempts at local, state, and national reform: finding a meaningful job post-incarceration.

Gathered at the conference table was a collection of individuals from a diverse set of organizations and businesses, including representatives from Goodwill, tech executives, government officials from the City of San Francisco and Alameda County, as well as a CSR from Checkr—just to name a few. There were more people seated around the table than the perimeter allowed, owing to the poignancy and purpose of the session.

Shelley Winner

My name is Shelley and I currently am employed at a top tech company, but my life wasn’t always so great. I grew up with a father who was in and out of the prison system, in addition to suffering from drug addiction. I grew up in an environment where drug users and dealers were running in and out of my childhood home, with one harrowing event including a drug purchaser from my father stealing my prom dress. I began on a path in life that led to my arrest while I was pregnant with my eventual son. 

Fortunately, I took my rehabilitation efforts in prison seriously – seeing it as my paramount opportunity to take responsibility for my past actions and renew my commitment to not only bettering my own life but the future life of my child. After my release I entered a halfway house and was able to join a program called Code Tenderloin that helps formerly incarcerated break into tech companies.

I’ve always had a passion for tech so this was the perfect opportunity for me to get my foot in the door at an amazing company. While climbing through the application stages, I found the perfect opportunity at my current employer; I was near the finish line of signing an offer letter, and then my background check came back, at which point my prospective employer then sent me a letter informing me, due to my past incarceration, they would not be able to hire me.

Nonetheless, I recalled that the company in question had emailed me at one point information regarding the City of San Francisco’s Fair Chance Ordinance, which bars employers from discriminating based upon prior criminal record if the candidate has taken documented steps of rehabilitation, which I indeed had! After three months of phone calls with the rep at Fair Chance Ordinance and the HR Team at the company, I was then asked to re-apply to the position, which, drum roll please…I got!

Two promotions and many business trips later (my two former managers were the aforementioned employees from a top tech company present at the roundtable!), I hope my story resonates with anyone who is struggling because of their record and gives them hope. 

Dana Stevenson

My name is Dana, I am a beloved Smartian, a junior customer support representative aiding candidates using SmartRecruiters’ platform to find the jobs of their dreams. My life story is one of triumph through tragedy.

As I personally relayed, my initial years as a youth were joyous times, playing sports with his larger-than-normal nuclear family. I am one of twelve, born Michigan and raised in Oakland where I began to experience life-changing hardships.

Devastatingly, my mother passed away when I was six years old. Soon after my father, a Staff Sgt. in the United States Air Force serving twenty-one years, and a college graduate was overcome with issues of addiction. After a series of even more trying personal experiences, I found myself on a destructive path that eventually led to drug addiction, violence, homelessness, and soon after a prison term started in 1994 of twenty-five years to life. Starting at Pelican Bay State Prison level IV and ending at Solano Prison level II.

I had my epiphany in 2001 when I lost my father to severe diabetes. I began participating in self-help groups such as, and not limited to, Conflict Resolution, Alternative to Violence, Victim Awareness, Houses of Healing, and deep therapy sessions with a therapist that have transformed and reshaped my life.

I began learning the power of forgiveness, not just forgiving others but to forgive myself for the trouble and hurt I caused to others. I have taken responsibility for my actions and I am  accountable for them, but also, I now understand how the events of my childhood had harmed my personal development. I know I can’t make up, or give back, what I’ve taken from society but I am doing my best to make my amends whenever and wherever I can by being of service to others; I am on a path to give back to society I am a Peer Navigator to the recently released that have truly rehabilitated and seek a new life.

Fast forward to March 22, 2019, my release from prison, I started working for Center for Employment Opportunities and Ford Go-Bike. In July I was invited to a SmartRecruiters’ Reverse Recruiting gathering in San Francisco.

There I met Roy Baladi who asked a question, “What did I bring from my past experiences that can benefit the companies represented here?” I raised my hand, stood and spoke, “Customer Service” spoken with modest confidence.

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that was realized as perfect for me considering the events and circumstances of my life; a job at SmartRecruiters as a junior customer support representative where the quotidian, yet fulfilling tasks are designed to help job seekers realize the fullest of their own potential through the SmartRecruiters platform. I’d like to thank Jerome Ternynck, Kevin Kincaid, Roy Baladi, and the SmartRecruiters family for accepting me into their family.


Dana and Shelley are shining examples that if we hire past our common barriers and search for talent beyond our misconceptions and preconceptions, we can not only help break down decades-long forms of discrimination in society, we can also power business growth from contributors previously purposefully or unknowingly unseen by hiring teams! Their stories exemplify that breaking down barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated can be a successful, winning formula for transforming the workplace and the world simultaneously!

Dana Stevenson

Dana Stevenson is a junior customer support representative at SmartRecruiters.

Shelley Winner

Shelley Winner is a surface specialist at a multi-national tech company.