Blessed to Be a Blessing

By Kelsey McFaul    

How a maximum security prison becomes the site for economic, social, and spiritual capital creation

A farm kid raised in Kansas, Pete Ochs grew up planting crops, setting irrigation lines, and bringing in the harvest. Like most farmers and business entrepreneurs, he has self-reliance in his DNA.

What is God’s intent for business? Does He have one? Can business go beyond “making money for God” to being a force for good in society? Does it, and specifically Christian business, have an obligation to be socially responsible?

These questions get almost any entrepreneur, person of faith, or political idealist a little fired up. Some might see business as a necessary evil whose resources and profits should be redirected toward helping the poor, assuaging exploited workers, or revitalizing a plundered environment. Others might dismiss social responsibility as anti-capitalist, arguing that business’ only priority is to maximize profits and let social benefits trickle down to bosses, employees, and families.

But what if there’s an alternative that leverages business as a powerful means for adding value to the lives of others?

“We see ourselves as an impact investment company,” Pete Ochs says of Capital III, “that’s measuring impact in economic, social, and spiritual capital as part of this triple bottom line.”

Impact investing is an emerging concept among mission-driven organizations like Capital III that seeks to generate measurable and beneficial social impact alongside a financial return. Often, these hybrid charity-profit models are thriving in the places you’d least expect.

Take the U.S. criminal justice system. With only five percent of the world’s population, America imprisons 25 percent of the world’s inmates at a cost of more than $80 billion a year.

The system is broken, and yet right in the midst of it is Pete and his manufacturing company, Seat King*.

“We lease about 50,000 square feet and employ about 160 inmates a day inside the maximum and medium security Hutchinson Correctional Facility.”

They’re making electrical harnesses and upholstered industrial seating of the kind used on riding lawn mowers.

“If an inmate works for the state of Kansas they’ll make about 50 cents a day. If they work for us in our private industry inside the prison, they’ll make between 80 and 100 dollars per day.”

This goes a long way toward paying for child support, the 17 cent/minute phone calls home, and legal fees. Other inmates are saving for their release, or donating charitably to funds for victims’ families.

“It’s amazing to see the generosity of inmates who have very little but are very generous. When you have nothing, it’s almost easier because you realize the need in a greater way than those with many material blessings.”

If they stay in the Hutchinson area, Seat King is committed to continue inmates’ employment after their release. If they choose to move, Pete mobilizes his personal network of business connections to help them find work elsewhere.

For former inmates, that’s a dynamic connection between economic and social capital. Nationwide, those released from prison have a 50 percent chance of ending up back behind bars; in Kansas, it’s 35 percent. For those employed by a private investment company like Seat King, the rate of recidivism drops below 10 percent.

“We give them a job and in one sense we lead with economic capital. But we also come alongside them to build relationships…to help them along their journey to be a better participant in this thing we call society.”

This includes classes on being a father, personal finance, and leadership, and the slow growth of self-worth, hope, and plans for the future.

“They work diligently to live out social capital in their lives, whether it’s becoming more disciplined financially, more disciplined or loving in their relationships, more forgiving.”

In this way, business can activate the blessing of economic capital to add value to the temporal lives of its customers, employees, and neighbors.

But Pete knows that economic and even social flourishing aren’t the highest and best things God has in store for human beings. He desires us to flourish for eternity, and it is this work, business working with the Holy Spirit to see people restored to relationship with the One who made them, that Pete considers the creation of spiritual capital.

“We’ve had over 50 inmates come to Christ, and a number of our civilian employees as well. And we’ve had large numbers of our employees over the last several years begin to live differently. They truly understand what social and spiritual capital are.”

The impact of spiritual capital creation extends further still. With the help of Seat King, Hutchinson Correctional Facility has become a satellite location for The Urban Ministry Institute, a three-year seminary program transforming inmates into respected elders, mentors, and role models in a vibrant prison church. These seminarians are planting discipleship groups in every cellblock and work with inmates struggling with mental health and behavior issues.

In one of most hopeless places in America, cycles of violence, addiction, and lack of opportunity tell inmates they don’t deserve jobs, friends, family, or second chances. And yet here comes Pete—blessed so that he can be a blessing.

“I went into the prison thinking I would change them, but in the end, they’re the ones that changed me.”

*Seat King has a sister company, Electrex. The former makes upholstered industrial seating like lawnmower chairs, the latter electrical harnesses. Both are manufacturing businesses, run by the same management team, and employing a combination of inmate and civilian workers. For convenience in storytelling, both are referred to here as Seat King.

Kelsey McFaul    

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