A SECOND CHANCE TO SHINE
AUTHOR: Beatriz Valero de Urquía
In his journey from youth offender to press secretary for Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, Ashish Prashar is living proof that one’s past doesn’t have to define their future. Sharing his life experience, the now R/GA Global Chief Marketing Officer talks to Tech For Good about how open hiring practices can help companies unlock a new talent pool
What does it take to be a leader? Upon meeting Ashish Prashar, the answer seems to be hard work, determination, and the right amount of luck. After all, few could have guessed that the current Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA who has worked for Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and Boris Johnson was, once upon a time, a youth offender. “It’s no secret that I am formerly incarcerated,” Prashar says. “My life story has been quite radical, from being incarcerated to becoming a reporter, and then a press secretary for leading political figures like, sadly, Boris Johnson. It's not been a typical path to becoming a CMO. But, predominantly, my work has always been storytelling, and now I am bringing that energy to the corporate world.”
Currently, 70 million Americans have a criminal record, roughly the same number as the amount of US citizens that have completed a college degree. In the UK, there are currently about 560 children in police custody, 30% of which are from ethnic minorities - despite these ethnicities only making up 14% of the country’s population - according to data published by the Ministry of Justice. Prashar was once one of them, and he is now working to ensure that the tech sector gives the new generations the opportunities he was lucky enough to receive.
At the age of 17, Prashar was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiracy to steal from a London department store. It was his first offence and he pleaded guilty to the charge. As a result, Prashar was sent to Feltham, a youth offenders facility known for its year-on-year rises in the level of violence against children and staff. If he was able to study and move on from that lifestyle, he says, it’s because of the support his family provided him with.
“My aunt basically transformed my life,” Prashar says. “She fought the Justice Secretary to make sure I could take my A-levels in prison. She fought the warden to make sure to get the books because, even when I was granted permission to take my-A levels, the prison wouldn't let me have books. And then she got me out after a short amount of time.” But how does youth conviction lead to a successful career in digital marketing? For Prashar, it was through the press. A criminal record of any kind is often associated with higher unemployment rates. Currently, 64% of unemployed Americans in their 30s have been arrested, and 46% have a criminal conviction, according to RAND Corporation. For this reason, Prashar feels lucky to have met The Sun’s Andy Coulson in a book presentation shortly after his release. In that meeting, he was granted a second chance.
“I was thrown in front of him,” Prashar says. “He didn't ask what I did. He just wanted to know who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. He saw I had the energy to be part of his team. “I ended up being a press officer for people I didn’t agree with but, you have to understand, I had a criminal record. Andy was someone that didn’t care I had a record, someone who actually cared about my life. And then, I eventually acquired enough privilege to work for people I actually wanted to work for.” Since then, Prashar has had a very successful career in the political sphere. After working as a reporter for The Sun he began handling the communications for the UK’s Conservative Party, eventually becoming press secretary to the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Disenchanted with his birth country’s political climate, Prashar moved across the Atlantic, joining Barack Obama's first presidential run and more recently worked with the Democrats to mobilise the vote for President Joe Biden's 2020 campaign.
Although he still considers himself more a storyteller than a marketeer, Prashar has now shifted his focus to the corporate world and is helping private organisations promote more human-centric marketing campaigns and ways of working. For him, this starts with the establishment of hiring practices that look at people’s potential instead of their past. “Most people who leave prison just want to get on with their lives,” he says. “I just wanted to have a normal career. It was only between 2010 and 2012 that I felt this urge to do something to support formerly incarcerated people. “The change came when I went on a trip to Sierra Leone with Tony Blair. I was there to help build the healthcare programme and I got to see reconciliation council meetings, where former child soldiers would be re-healed into society. I saw a child sitting in front of two adults - he had taken the life of their children, and they adopted him. They said it was because they didn't want any more children to be lost to a war that ended 10 years ago. It was one of many stories, but it stuck out to me the most because it focused on healing, not punishment.”
When compared to the rehabilitation of child soldiers, incorporating youth offenders into the workforce might seem a simplertask, but it’s by no means an insignificant one. Prison reform and new hiring practices are fundamental for the future of business in the United States, and globally. In the midst of a global talent shortage, a third of the country’s population has a criminal record. A new Korn Ferry report finds that by 2030, more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled, resulting in a loss of $8.5 trillion in unrealised annual revenues. Therefore, rehabilitation and training programmes would see the growth of both the youth and the country as a whole. In 2012, Prashar chaired the former Mayor of London's Mentoring Initiative to help formerly incarcerated young people re-enter society. It didn’t meet much success, but that didn’t stop his momentum. Now, as Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA, Prashar is incorporating more inclusive hiring practices into the company, and inviting others to follow his lead.
If we are judging people on things like having a record, we are losing our society as we speak. Building a more human workforce means accepting individuals for who they are as a person: their past, present and potential future”
“The UK is building more prisons in a pandemic,” Prashar says. “To me, that seems like a colossal waste of money. If we are judging people on things like having a record, we are losing our society as we speak. Building a more human workforce means accepting individuals for who they are as a person: their past, present and potential future. We need to create an environment where more people can tell a story like mine and don’t feel judged. “At the moment, we're wasting potential that could be curing deadly viruses or solving your business's coding problems. One individual can transform the world around them. And when you think that one-third of America is impacted by this to some degree, that means you're holding your whole country back.” The world is changing and so are conversations about prison reform and hiring practices, particularly in the US. At all levels, companies across the country are increasingly concerned about the inclusivity of their workplaces and working towards creating more equitable and accessible environments.
With this goal in mind, Prashar has been working with organisations such as Verizon and JPMorgan Chase to pass a Clean Slate law. This piece of legislation would automatically clear a person’s conviction record once they become eligible, opening access to jobs and increasing their potential earnings by about 20%. “My good fortune is, sadly, incredibly rare,” Prashar says. “A conviction’s enduring collateral damage can be wide-ranging, permanently barring individuals from basic needs like employment and housing. We need to make sure no sentence is a life sentence in or out of prison.” In addition to changing government policy, private companies are also taking steps to make a change, such as the creation of the Second Chance Business Coalition, which allows businesses to develop and test new approaches to help support the hiring and advancement of people with criminal backgrounds. Accenture, CVS, Eaton, General Motors, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Walmart are all part of this organisation, and its membership keeps growing as the corporate world defines its new normal.
Prashar and R/GA are leading the way themselves when it comes to open hiring. The company is collaborating with expert organisations, such as Exodus Transitional Community and Getting Out and Staying Out - of which Prashar is a board member - to design the infrastructure to support a programme aimed at recruiting, developing, and promoting formerly incarcerated people. In Prashar’s view, it’s not enough to “ban the box” that asks people about their criminal convictions. In order to truly support the formerly incarcerated youth, companies would need to target and train them specifically. “Designing a more human future at R/GA had to start with our people,” he says. “I believe anywhere there are people, there is power. I don't think there's a way to escape talking about or considering politics or social justice in most business decisions anymore.
“It’s not enough to meet a numbers goal. We have a responsibility as individuals to use our privilege, whatever that might be, to advocate for people who are actively disenfranchised. We need to give formerly incarcerated people the space to thrive, the opportunity to create, and the tools to develop their potential. This is not preferential treatment; it’s equal treatment through the elimination of unnecessary systemic barriers. It's equity.” In this journey to a more equitable society, technology has already become a fundamental driver. R/GA itself has already achieved great success in leveraging technology to create social good with its Welcome.US project. After the US exit of Afghanistan, thousands of people needed asylum in the US, but they didn’t know how to request it. In addition, communities all across the country were coming together to help, but they needed a way to connect with the newly arrived refugees. In collaboration with the US State Department, leading refugee resettlement organisations, brand partners like Airbnb, and creative leaders, R/GA helped design and build an engaging web experience that made it easy to help refugees resettle, in just three weeks.
Designing a more human future at R/GA had to start with our people. I believe anywhere there are people, there is power. I don't think there's a way to escape talking about or considering politics or social justice in most business decisions anymore”
“It isn't often you get asked to serve in corporate America,” Prashar says. “It was a privilege to do that.” Technology has great potential for good, but if left unchecked, it can also widen inequalities by promoting biases towards women and people of colour. Recently, a Wiley report found that 68% of business leaders report a lack of diversity in their tech workforce. Although the transformation of business practices is a fundamental step to changing this, Prashar believes that it is these business leaders’ responsibility to ensure that they are taking the steps necessary to diversify their workforces and drive change. The alternative can lead to terrible consequences. “When you have bad leaders, the damage you do is irreparable,” Prashar says. “If you have bad leadership, people will not stay, people will not be loyal, people will not do their best work for you. Why should anyone listen to the government if the Prime Minister doesn’t follow its rules? As a former press Secretary for Johnson, I think he should resign.”
A leader’s success is dependent on that of their team. By letting go of prejudices, organisations can focus on what an applicant can bring to a company; their drive and potential, rather than their past. This is more important than ever in the technology world, where a lack of diversity in design teams has led to faulty facial recognition software and biased hiring algorithms. People are a company’s most important asset. In order to address the talent shortage and fully take advantage of the potential that formerly incarcerated people have, organisations need to change their hiring practices to avoid holding onto applicants’ past. And, eventually, society might also let go of the prison system as a whole.
“The trauma that the prison industry inflicts, the wealth it extracts, and the lives it destroys devalue our social fabric and hurt us all,” Prashar says. “We need to move away from a punitive punishment culture that is inadequate. There are other ways to solve crime in a community like they did in Sierra Leone. We lock our children up and expect better. They look at me and say: ‘Prison helped you’. Prison didn’t help me. People helped me; people changed my life.” It only took someone willing to give Prashar an opportunity to completely change his life. Every day, there are many more Prashars able to make a difference in the industry, if employers are brave enough to give them a second chance.