He grew up in a suburb of Washington DC where homicide was a regular occurrence and gun violence was omnipresent. Poverty and drug addiction was a part of everyone’s life around him. Before the age of 16, he had buried five of his friends and at the age of 17, he was behind bars. But what happened next is nothing short of remarkable.
Meet Chris Wilson, once a nerdy teen who became a convict but never gave up on his dream to become an entrepreneur. Today, he is a social entrepreneur, storyteller, artist, social justice advocate, and an author.
Growing up amidst brutality
Chris grew up in a very violent and brutal environment. He would often step over dead bodies on the way to his grandfather’s house. His mother was dating a police officer who would rape and beat her because of which she fell into depression. That police officer would often stalk and terrorize the family. Out of fear, Chris started carrying a gun with him as a teenager.
On one night, while Chris was returning to his home, two men started threatening him. To protect himself, he used the gun that he was carrying. Because of the gunshot, one of the man died. The moment forever changed the course of Chris’ life. The same night, his father was killed brutally in front of his brothers.
At 17, Chris was charged, convicted, and sentenced to natural life in prison. His family and friends had turned their back on him. But there was something inside this young boy which was unbelievable.
“I knew I was a good person in my heart. I decided I wanted to prove everyone wrong and that I can turn my life around. So I went to my cell and I stayed in there for three days and I just wrote up my master plan,” he tells.
Making master plan
Chris would often recall what his grandfather once asked him, “Promise me you’ll turn your life around. You can do it. Promise me you’ll try.” Chris decided to become a better man.
It was only during those times of isolation that he decided to not just turn his life around, but also make a difference in the lives of people who face the same barriers he once did. He would sit in a dim lit cell and write up questions what he now calls his Master plan. Who do I want to be? What is this person going to look like? What is this person going to accomplish? What are people going to say about him? were the questions he would often ask himself.
“Everyone else thought I was crazy, but I chose to believe this master plan was what was going to set me free.”
Chasing dreams behind bars
While he was behind bars, Chris got his high school diploma and associate degrees. He started a book club and a new business, learned to read and write four different languages, and also graduated from all the vocational shops.
His fellow inmate Stephen Edwards, who dreamt of starting a software company became his best friend and although both of them were sentenced for life, they did not give up on their dreams and did everything to make it a reality.
The duo spent their time learning. They would pool in their resources to order the Wall Street Journal and popular science magazines and business news. Stephen made a basic resume in the computer lab of the prison and started researching for job opportunities. Both of them started a photography business together and started selling pictures of the prisoners with their loved ones. By the third year, the duo brought in $40,000 which kept on increasing.
Reconsideration of his sentence
When Chris’ judge Cathy Serrette was informed about his achievements, he decided to reconsider Chris’ life sentence and gave him a second chance. Cathey said, “Your accomplishments are nothing short of amazing, you put some pretty ambitious stuff on this plan. I’m going to be watching you.”
After 16 years, Chris’ sentence was reduced, making him eligible for release, and finally, after spending over half of his life in prison, he was set free. After coming out, Chris did not have anything. He was homeless and slept on his friend’s couches. However, to finish his master plan, he went to the University of Baltimore and to his surprise, he passed the entrance exam for graduation.
After graduating, Chris received a job offer with a starting salary of $42,000. And 30 days later, he received a raise, and seven months later, he was promoted to director of the program.
Dream of becoming an entrepreneur
Chris’ dream of becoming an entrepreneur did not fade away. After saving up money from his job, he founded House of DaVinci, a furniture restoration and upholstery business. A few months later, he started another business, Barclay Investment Corporation, a contracting firm.
He spends most of his time advocating for criminal justice reform and creating economic opportunities for disadvantaged populations through his company. “Barclay Investment Corporation is not a non profit, we intend to make money, but our overarching goal is to hire people right here in Baltimore, who have found themselves in situations that make it difficult to find a job, like being incarceration, undereducated, and impoverished,” he tells.
White House guest and recognition
Chris has been invited to the White House twice in recognition of his social impact. Through his companies and his role at Strong City Baltimore, he has helped 230 people get jobs. He estimates that 60 percent people are like him, just out of prison. He’s working on a book, and continues to grow his enterprise.
Chris’ friend Stephen was also released at 2014. He set up his software company and both of them still talk everyday.
Chris’ story is an example of grit and determination. It shows to what extent a person can go to chase his dreams. His journey sounds like a fiction but it showcases leadership, human relationships, and entrepreneurship. He sends a message for everyone, “Don’t let your pride prevent you from reaching out for help. You don’t have solutions for everything. You can’t do it all by yourself. So don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
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