Zero Six Eight designed to help former inmates get second chances
March 21, 2016 12:00 AM
From left, Donta Bell, Darrick Curington and Lee Brown of Homestead and carpenter Lou Mazzagetti work together on a modular home Friday at Work Pittsburgh’s site in the South Side.
Apprentices Donta Bell of Allentown, left, and Lee Brown of Homestead work on building a Minim modular home at Work Pittsburgh's site in the South Side in February.
From left: Lee Brown of Homestead, Nick Randall of Oakdale, Donta Bell of Allentown, and Darrick Curington of the North Side install a section of prefab wall on a Minim modular home at Work Pittsburgh's site in the South Side in February.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2014, Donta Bell was living in a halfway house and working as a pressure washer for PNC Park, a seasonal job. He had applied at fast food restaurants, groceries and warehouses, but every door closed because he had served seven years for possession with intent to sell illegal drugs.
One day last summer, Mike Van Ness from Zero Six Eight called him.
“I was headed back to the halfway house when he called to invite me for an interview,” said Mr. Bell, 29. “I did two interviews. The second was in front of all these people” — company allies and partners.
Zero Six Eight is a for-profit business incubator with a unique mission. To get in, you have to be an ex-offender or be willing to hire ex-offenders. Zero Six Eight derives its name from the last three digits of ID numbers that identify federal prisoners from the Pittsburgh area. The business is nurturing 10 young startup companies now, as well as its own modular-home building business, Work Pittsburgh. In all, they represent 40 jobs.
When Work Pittsburgh advertised work-training jobs last year, more than 200 people applied. Of 64 people called in for interviews, 12 were hired and 11 of them were ex-felons.
Daniel Bull founded Zero Six Eight after serving 21 months for mail fraud. He had diverted money that investors gave him to buy bonds to support his venture capital company. When he was released, he sought forgiveness and began making reparations. He said that almost all his victims forgave him, including his then ex-wife, who remarried him.
After founding Zero Six Eight, he hired operations, business development, communication and case managers. He said he had to let his operations chief go because he didn’t have the money to pay her. His position is unpaid; he earns his paycheck as a partner at Canonsburg-based Nello Construction, which supports Zero Six Eight with tools, contacts and insurance.
Because of Mr. Bull’s record, he cannot collect investors. A radio report about Zero Six Eight that referred to investors got him hauled into the Pennsylvania State Securities Commission, where he was grilled and underwent an audit.
“All of the businesses we work with are partners whose contributions include a portion of the payroll,” Mr. Bull said. He compared the arrangement to a cooperative. “We can never raise private capital, so we must adapt to survive.”
Last year, Zero Six Eight bought the old Berger Industrial Park on the South Side. It houses offices, incubators and Work Pittsburgh, whose employees earn prevailing wages and benefits as carpenter trainees. Employees who stay with the company for two years get a modular home as a perk.
Work Pittsburgh has contracts with several developers to build modular homes that are both high-end and affordable. A demonstration model inside the old warehouse is made of tongue-and-groove cedar siding and bamboo floors. With a sales price of $64,000, the house would make the company a profit, Mr. Bull said.
The warehouse is directly across the Monongahela River from the Allegheny County Jail. Mr. Bull said he wanted inmates to see opportunity from their windows.
Upon entering federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, he said, “I was nervous and scared about what people might do to me. I met this guy named Jimmy Sed [who is now an entrepreneur at Zero Six Eight]. He was serving 10 years. He said ‘You’re from Pittsburgh.’ and I said, ‘How do you know that?’ and he pointed at the number on my shirt.” The last three numbers on Mr. Sed’s shirt were 068, too, “so we formed an immediate bond.”
Several prisoners began drawing on Mr. Bull’s business background for help planning careers for when they got out.
“I was shocked at the waste of humanity and the amount of potential on the inside,” he said. “Incarceration doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas or can’t contribute. But getting a job is next to impossible within a year” of release. “What are you supposed to do” if no one will hire you or rent you an apartment? “You have to survive, but it is so hard to get that one shot.”
Darrick Curington, 38, served five years for possession of heroin with intent to deliver. When he got out in 2013, he applied at UPMC to work as a patient escort and in the cafeteria, “and they really liked me,” he said. “I was ready to get hired but my background came back. I had the door shut on employment multiple times, even at Pizza Hut.”
When he learned about Zero Six Eight, he applied and had three interviews before being hired. “We built this house,” he said, indicating the modular home on display at Work Pittsburgh. “We’re building the offices here. I work 7 to 3 so I can get my kids from daycare. I can pay my bills. I got my driver’s license back. I hope to get in the carpenter’s union.
“If there were a lot of programs like this, it would save a lot of people.”
Mr. Bell was still living at the halfway house, nearly overwhelmed by the frustration of being turned away from every apartment he tried to rent, when Work Pittsburgh hired him and he found a willing landlord — Pritchard Hill Capital, a real estate company now working with Zero Six Eight to build 16 modular homes on a site above Station Square.
Ben Mantica, Pritchard Hill’s founder, was willing to rent an apartment in Allentown to Mr. Bell and another apprentice.
“We’re excited to be part of this,” said Mr. Mantica, who himself is incubating small businesses, in food service, at Smallman Galley in the Strip. “We believe in what they are doing. My partners and I are ex-Navy. I did counter-piracy off Somalia, and I see the correlation — guys who were deprived of opportunities, when piracy was the only way to make money.”
“I feel so blessed,” Mr. Bell said, remembering the day he told his story to the audience at Zero Six Eight, the day he was hired. “I told them up front I was very nervous, but that I knew that being uncomfortable was a good thing. In the past, when I was comfortable, I was doing something wrong.”
“When he told us that,” Mr. Bull said, “I made a note: ‘We want this guy.’ ”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.