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Piper Kerman on employment barriers for ex-cons

December 3, 2014, 6:54 AM UTC

Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman refers to the year she spent in prison for a non-violent drug offense—she was convicted of carrying a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels—as her “crucible experience.” Kerman said what sticks with her the most was “the incredible ability of women to step up for each other, and to be resilient and to share their resiliency with other people.”

Speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit on Tuesday, Kerman said that 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States each year. “Employment is often the most significant challenge,” Kerman said, adding that a felony conviction is often a huge barrier to entry to the workforce.

Kerman admitted that she was fortunate enough to have a large network of friends who were there to help her with her re-entry to her regular life. “When I went home, I didn’t have a cent in the bank, I literally didn’t have any money, but what I did have was an incredible network of friends,” Kerman said. That network included a friend with a VOIP company who hired her for her first job after she got out. A week after her release, she started working in the marketing department.

“A job is an essential thing,” Kerman said, adding that the White House and business leaders are focusing on the issue of connecting this workforce to parts of the economy that need labor. Companies such as Home Depot (HD), Target (TGT) and Tim Hortons are removing felony conviction barriers to employment.

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