Atlassian Blog

Team building, in prison

This month, 50 Atlassians participated in a rather unique team-building day.

We went to prison.

As part of taking the Pledge 1% pledge, Atlassian gives 1% of employee time to social causes. That translates into roughly 5 days each year that Atlassians use for all manner of social good – volunteering at a food bank, or at a public school in need of extra hands, or using our knowledge as programmers or SEO specialists to help build or refine a non-profit’s website.

The privilege to take time away from Atlassian, and use it to give back, is how 50 of us found ourselves on a bus to Valley State Prison, three hours east of San Francisco. The program was organized by Defy Ventures, a non-profit that believes in a better criminal justice system, in second chances, and in energizing the entrepreneurial spirit that’s common among the men and women incarcerated in America’s prisons. Defy is directly attacking the vicious recidivism rate that returns close to 75% of released prisoners back to the prison system. The recidivism rate of inmates that go through the Defy program is less than 5%.

We met 63 Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs) during our day in Valley State. Each of them had qualified for and committed to Defy’s “CEO of Your New Life” program, which among many things, included a Shark Tank-style competition where EITs pitched businesses they would build if and when they’re released. As volunteers, we formed the panels of judges that listened to their ideas, gave them feedback, and ultimately advanced the finalists. In addition, we met and spoke to each EIT, heard their stories, and celebrated their graduation. To qualify for the Defy program, each EIT completed coursework that earned them a Certificate in Career Readiness from the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University. It was the first time many of them had donned a cap and gown.

I hadn’t seen that many smiles in a long time.

Many wonderful posts have captured the experience of this day and the impact it has on participants so I won’t do that here. But read those. It’s worth it.

I did want to capture the ingredients that I believe made the day work, and why I believe those same ingredients also made the day a unique and powerful exercise in team-building.

We went into the day not really knowing what to expect. Building strength in our own teams certainly wasn’t what we anticipated. But that happened. 50 Atlassians left Valley State Prison with a stronger connection to each other, a kind of secret handshake learned through the eyes and voices and stories of the EITs we met during that long, incredible day. It may seem like an odd team-building day, but it’s one we’re grateful for and would encourage other teams to consider.

We plan to visit again, as a team.

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