America is the land of second chances

Published in UT San Diego, April 13, 2015

Second chances.

Politics, finance, marriage, careers. America thinks of itself as the land of redemption, rebirth and reinvention.

As regular readers know, I have spoken several times about entrepreneurship to inmates at the Miramar Brig. This adventure started two years ago when Marshea, the fiancée of one of the soldiers interned there, contacted me, and said that her fiancé, Sgt. Paul Quevedo, read our column and wanted to invite me to speak as part of the re-entry program. Of course, I said “yes” — how could I turn down a captive audience?

Well, Quevedo was released in March and was leaving to go back to Chicago to attend DePaul University to get his degree under the GI Bill. He plans to study real estate and finance. He was leaving town in 48 hours (I think the phrase is “blowing this pop stand”), and so Barbara and I took Marshea and him to a nice lunch the day before he left.

Here is his story. Paul grew up in Chicago near Roberto Clemente Academy (the tough side of Chicago) and decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to be a Marine. He had to wait until graduating from high school at 17. He did his combat training in San Diego, where he learned to fix helicopters. He had an initial six-year tour of duty, including time in Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea, and he married a Japanese woman. He re-enlisted and served part of his second tour in Iraq but did not participate in combat there.

And then he got divorced and made the classic bad decision to both use drugs and sell them. His ex-wife was angry and turned him in to his commanding officer and he ended up in the brig — for 3 ½ years. His day job there was cutting hair. He was the brig barber of Seville, but when he wasn’t trimming, he was reading books — lots of books. His favorite was “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill.

At lunch, we were struck by his honesty and humility. He admits all his bad choices, and I am sure he will never make them again. He met Marshea in 2010, and they plan to get married in Chicago next year. She works for a large retailer, and during their time together, before the brig, they started a hip clothing line. The stirrings of entrepreneurship.

Here are Quevedo’s own words: “It’s a time to search yourself and see what’s bothering you, your insecurities, why you feel the way you do about certain things, don’t waste time, even though they are controlling you.” He said he was up for parole a year ago, but the “paperwork got fouled up and they never saw the report about my being admitted to college and the letters of recommendation.” And so he had to serve an extra nine months.

Quevedo is stoic about some of the injustices and deeply resolved to make a successful life. I am humbled by what he has had to overcome, and I find myself being hugely aware and grateful for the privileges I had early on in my own life. We all know the phrase, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

In one of my current companies, we are facing an interesting second-chance issue. A former employee who was fired for a major drug abuse has asked to come back. He has completed treatment and is repentant. He promises to never make that mistake again. He has skills that we can use, and after some serious discussion and very strong limitations, we agreed to rehire him on a trial basis. But it was not a slam-dunk decision — there was serious debate.

I think of my own life. I have been given second chances. And what I can tell you is that some of them were gifts — it was not that I had an absolute right to a second chance. Grace and forgiveness. After all, this is just after the Easter and Passover season.

Rule No. 397

Count your blessings. Then count them again.

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