Crossroads Solar is a company with a mission – to help save the environment and offer second chances. As it likes to say, it hires “otherwise good people” who’ve “made colossal mistakes.”
It all began about five years ago with Patrick Regan, a former political science and peace studies professor at Notre Dame University. Regan was teaching at the Westville Correctional Facility as part of the Moreau College Initiative that is operated by Notre Dame and Holy Cross College and offers courses that can lead to a college degree.
As his Crossroads Solar partner, Marty Whalen, a former office technology company executive who also taught as part of the Moreau College Initiative, tells it, “Somebody in the class said that ‘the problem is your people won’t hire people like me. And that got him (Regan) thinking about injustices and how he could make a difference.”
Sourcing equipment in China
The idea was a no-brainer for Regan, an academic expert on the politics of climate change. He and Whalen discussed his idea of starting a solar panel business for a year. To understand how solar panels are constructed, Regan made one himself then went to China to check out manufacturing equipment. He found what they needed at a company in Wuhan.
Crossroads Solar was launched in early 2019, and Whalen and Regan enlisted the help of Notre Dame students to get it going.
“Our contracts to buy the equipment from Wuhan were negotiated by third-year law students working at the Notre Dame Law School free clinic,” Whalen says. “The Chinese company was supposed to send over three or four engineers to get the equipment set up and calibrated. But of course, because of Covid, there was no travel then. So we got Notre Dame engineering students to be interns that summer. And with help from WeChat and a lot of discussions with the company in China we got it up and running.”
They wanted a 21st century business model to employ formerly incarcerated people and thought that the domestic production of solar panels would be a good business.
People, planet and profits
Crossroads Solar incorporated as a for-profit business, but the guiding philosophy goes beyond mere profits. “We like to say we’re for more than profit. We’re a Triple P business, people, planet and profits, in that order,” says Whalen.
“We also wanted to use it as a testing ground to see if incarcerated people make good employees, and whether they can do jobs that are technically advanced jobs,” Whalen says. “And we found they can.”
They were fortunate that a former student in the Moreau College Initiative had an engineering degree from Purdue University and an MBA. “He’s the plant manager and has been fantastic at recruiting, training and motivating our workforce. It’s his day-to-day responsibility to make the business viable,” says Whalen.
Setting up shop in Vested Interest business incubator
The company set up shop in a 100-year-old dry cleaning facility that has been transformed into a small business incubator known as Vested Interest. Crossroads has already expanded and now rents 15,000 square feet of space.
They want to make 25,000 panels per year and could be doing that now, except for supply chain issues, especially transportation. At one point the tariff on the solar panel frames they were buying was 150 percent more than the cost of the frames themselves.
“It’s been a tough road,” Whalen says.
“The good news is that we have strong demand for our products,” he adds. “Customers love our story and love what we’re doing, but demand a quality product. When we make sales calls we take an employee along with Pat (Regan). We want to make sure our employees understand the whole business and are integral in all phases of it.
The company sells to installers rather than direct to consumers and tries to source as much as they can from the U.S. Some things, like solar cells aren’t made in this country, however.
Crossroads Solar has worked with the Indiana Dept. of Corrections, the local HIRE (Hoosier Initiative for Reentry) organization and local chambers of commerce to make people aware that it’s hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. It has also reached out to Goodwill and a work release program.
“Most of our employees have found us by word of mouth, though,” says Whalen. “People come in. “They’re sheepish and say “I’ve got a felony on my record,’ and we say, ‘You’re in the right place.’”
Once hired, Crossroads Solar trains employees on job skills and such life skills as learning how to show up on time, not talking on a cell phone while working and giving a basic day’s effort, according to Whalen. One employee didn’t even realize he had to call in when he was sick, because he had no work history.
The company currently has 10 to 12 employees but hopes to increase that number and the number of shifts to meet the demands of the RV industry, which is heavily concentrated in neighboring Elkhart, Ind.
Crossroads Solar also wants to offer job training and has established a partnership with an organization in Indiana to do that. In addition, it works with the regional director of the Indiana Small Business Development Center and received a grant to help with training from the Indiana Career Ready Program. It also is tapping into Industry Labs at Notre Dame, which will help the company establish apprenticeships, and offer opportunities to develop technical skills and gain certifications. Among other plans is to include life skills training in subjects like personal finance on company time.
In the long-term, Regan and Whalen want to create an employee-owned business. “Pat is 64 and I’m 61, so wouldn’t it be great if we could get it cranked up enough that employees could really run it,” Whalen says.
Advice for those considering second chance hiring
Whalen has some words for other employers who refuse to consider hiring individuals who were formerly incarcerated.
“You overlook a segment of the population and very good workers at your own peril. These are people who’ve paid their debts and want to be functioning members of society. And if you give them the necessary training and resources not only do they want to be part of regular society, but they’ll thrive in it.”