Sean Hosman of Vant4ge: “Surround Yourself with Smart People”

Your team will make or break you. I want to work with people who are smart, experienced, and ready to make a difference; and that’s who I hired when I started each of these three companies. When you have high expectations and people who are eager to meet those expectations, they don’t mess around. A […]

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Your team will make or break you. I want to work with people who are smart, experienced, and ready to make a difference; and that’s who I hired when I started each of these three companies. When you have high expectations and people who are eager to meet those expectations, they don’t mess around. A big part of this is encouraging people to generate ideas, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out or perfect just yet. A positive environment will encourage great ideas to thrive. In the end, you get a team that’s unstoppable.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course, many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Hosman.

As a justice-impacted serial entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience in the correctional industry, Vant4ge founder and CEO Sean Hosman has a unique perspective on both business and second chances. Using technology to drive criminal justice reform is one of his many passions. In 1998, he founded Vant4ge, a human services and predictive analytics technology company that has revolutionized correctional care and case management. He is also the co-founder of Persevere, a non-profit that teaches justice-involved individuals to code behind prison bars, and Banyan Labs, a technology development company that hires Persevere graduates.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

My mom was a single mom. I was raised by her and my grandmother. Because my mom was single and a young mother, we didn’t have a lot of resources. I remember sitting in a welfare office with her for hours at a time waiting for food stamps.

Watching my mom struggle and doing the best that she could gave me a lot of empathy for people like my mom. I felt disempowered on my mom’s behalf because it was so hard for her to chart her own course. Depending on other people robs you of your own ability to control your time, and your time is one of your most important assets.

I was also very strongly influenced by my mother’s political involvement. Her circle of friends was very focused on their community in the 60s and 70s. They protested the Vietnam war, and they cared very much about equality. Growing up I was working on political campaigns and fundraisers, and listening to a fairly progressive group of people talking about the importance of the social contract. I learned that some people have struggles and need support and care.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Well, I don’t know if “interesting” is the right word for this story, but it’s definitely the most impactful.

Just as my career was becoming the most successful it had ever been, I unfortunately became an alcoholic and a drug addict. Between 2010 and 2012, I was arrested 12 times. Once I got clean and sober in July 2012, I had a decision to make: would I be able to be effective as a leader of my company, and as an advocate for improving the criminal justice system? I decided that I could — and that I could do even more. I stuck with my purpose and my mission, and have since grown several companies in this space, and developed a new focus for working directly with those impacted by the criminal justice system. These companies are working to bring them real hope, valuable skills, and meaningful opportunity, and helping them change their lives.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

There are so many, and I’m afraid to start listing them because it would take up the rest of the interview! I have amazing mentors, colleagues, clients, and staff. My family has been one of the most impactful forces for good in my life, and I owe them a lot for my success.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This quote is a long one, but worth it! For context, it’s from Father Gregory Boyle, a man who had devoted himself to serving and ministering in one of the most difficult areas in our country. He’s done amazing work and has helped so many people, including helping hardcore gang members find a way out so they can pursue meaningful lives. I admire his outlook and his life’s work, and I think this quote really demonstrates the compassion that everyone should have for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

“No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The number one trait for me is grit. For example, it might be easy for some people who have publicly battled addiction and had their mugshot plastered online to give up, but I couldn’t do it. This cause is too important, and I wasn’t about to let it go.

The next trait is being adaptable. When COVID-19 hit, a lot of things turned upside down. We had to worry about the safety of employees and Persevere students, while also making sure that we were able to continue to help the people who needed it most. So we made it work; we started our employees working from home. We started teaching Persevere students through live video conferencing — which was the first-ever event for many correctional facilities.

And the last trait, if you can call it a trait, is that I really believe in what I’m doing. When you are genuine, it comes through in everything you do. The people you hire can feel it, the clients you work with can see it, and people can share your vision. Back when I was working at a law firm helping banks make more money, I was good at my job — but I didn’t believe in it. Who would? That’s why it never would have worked for me in the long term.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?

We want to help undo some of the grievous injustices in the criminal justice system. In the past, some laws were created out of fear. At the time, these were thought to be “tough on crime” laws, but they have resulted in unintended consequences, such as tearing families apart and decimating Black and brown communities. Technology, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics should be used to reduce mass incarceration. We are working to eradicate the pervasive racial inequalities throughout the criminal justice system, from pretrial, sentencing, reentry, and community supervision.

How do you think your technology can address this?

We offer high-tech case management services that allow corrections agencies to more easily connect justice-impacted individuals with the resources they need to become rehabilitated. This includes things like addiction treatment, family reunification classes, and programs to help them better adjust to a life outside of crime. Our software uses artificial intelligence to help aid case managers in their decision-making processes so they can make the right choices every time. So our software both recommends programs and then connects people with the right providers for those programs.

We also address harsh sentencing of low-level crimes with technology that assesses, manages, and classifies individuals after arrest, and even intervenes with evidence-based programs and services. Specifically, Vant4ge has built a performance based on algorithms and sciences that can save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, while keeping the community safe, and also offering hope of rehabilitation. We want to connect these justice-impacted individuals with the services that they need to improve their behavior and their socio-economic status. In the end, this goes beyond helping individuals and actually helps restore entire communities.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

At the start of my career, I was a lawyer at a law firm that focused mainly on representing banks and insurance companies — not exactly saving the world. I quickly became disillusioned with the practice of law, and started realizing that I wanted to create things, like companies, products, and services that were innovative and produced value for society.

I found criminal justice through an opportunity from my mentor. He showed me there was great potential with this technology, and from there I found my purpose and my passion. I was struck by the criminal justice system’s inability to improve human behavior, and I wanted to change that. I was successful at it for years before I became justice-impacted myself. After that, I became galvanized to help the people who are justice impacted and don’t have the same resources that I do. That’s why I started the nonprofit Persevere, so that individuals behind bars can have the opportunity to build a career with new coding skills. And then I started Banyan Labs so I could give those Persevere students a job as soon as they are released. So with Vant4ge we’re improving systems, and with Persevere and Banyan Labs we are changing lives on an individual level.

How do you think this might change the world?

So in my industry, we talk a lot about something called “recidivism.” This is a word that basically means the tendency of a justice-impacted individual to commit another crime and end up back in the system. Recidivism is unfortunately very common, and that’s because many people are released from prison without actually receiving an education or resources that would allow them to change their lives. When you connect people to the right resources and actually give them a chance to succeed and live their lives outside of criminal activities, this not only reduces recidivism, it rebuilds families and fosters stronger communities. It can absolutely change the world.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

If you rely too heavily on technology to make policy that impacts people’s lives, you could miss that human element. That’s the extreme of artificial intelligence: not being able to account for the real-life impacts. That’s why we don’t offer AI that runs the whole show; there is always a human element to case management, a team of people who can look at the AI-fueled decision making, take that into account, but then also make a judgment call themselves.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”?

  1. Make a Measurable Difference

It’s easy to say that you want to save the world and then just start throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Of course, it’s going to make all the difference in the world to have a strong plan, and I think the biggest part of that is to have measurable outcomes in mind. This way you can really see when you’re making a difference and learn what works and what doesn’t. For us, these are things like lower recidivism rates and taxpayer dollars saved.

2. Surround Yourself with Smart People

Your team will make or break you. I want to work with people who are smart, experienced, and ready to make a difference; and that’s who I hired when I started each of these three companies. When you have high expectations and people who are eager to meet those expectations, they don’t mess around. A big part of this is encouraging people to generate ideas, even if they aren’t fully fleshed out or perfect just yet. A positive environment will encourage great ideas to thrive. In the end, you get a team that’s unstoppable.

3. Embrace Relentless Innovation

You have to be able to adapt to change, and even anticipate it. That’s what we’re doing with the Evolve platform. Right now, a lot of jurisdictions are relying on the old methods of staying in touch with subjects in the community. So when someone is on parole, their case manager has to meet with them, in person, on a regular basis. Now this formerly incarcerated individual is in a tough spot: they may have limited access to transportation, they may have little to no child care options, they may have a really demanding, unpredictable job. And they still have to go see that case manager in person a couple of times a month, and maybe they have to drive an hour away to do it. Evolve makes it easy to use video check-ins instead, from any internet-connected device. Those are the solutions you develop when you embrace innovation.

4. Know That Some People Don’t Want Change

No matter how you’re trying to make a positive change in the world, there are always going to be people who are invested in keeping things exactly the way that they are. Maybe they have a financial interest in the status quo, or maybe they just haven’t come around to your way of thinking yet. In corrections, there are still plenty of people who think that incarceration should just be about punishment and not rehabilitation. Not everyone is going to be a cheerleader for the things that we’re trying to do, but I don’t let that discourage me.

5. Don’t Forget Why You’re Doing This

When you’re on a long road (and changing the world is always going to be a long road), you have to remember to stop every now and then to reflect on how far you’ve come. You have to remind your team that they’re doing a great job and congratulate them on everything they’ve accomplished. In my case it helps that a lot of the people who work for me are justice impacted, so I get to see the results of our work in their lives and careers. I like to speak to my employees individually, check in on them, and make sure they’re getting everything they need to excel at their jobs.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would say look for the area where there is the greatest need, and where you have the biggest opportunity to make a difference. There are a million ways to make the world a better place — things are far from perfect — but you need to find the place where you personally can make that impact.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet with Father Gregory Boyle, because we share so many of the same values and we’re both working to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who deserve a chance to have a healthy, safe, productive life. On a personal level, I would love to get to know him better.

But it’s so hard to choose just one person to have lunch with because there are so many opportunities to advance the movement of criminal justice reform. In that arena, I’d also love to meet Barack and Michelle Obama, because I really respect them both and they have such an enormous influence on public opinion. There’s also Jay-Z, who has been doing great work on raising money and bringing attention to criminal justice reform issues.

If I was going to spend an hour with someone, I would want that hour to contribute to the criminal justice reform movement. I would want to find someone with the most influence, who would share the values and objectives of that movement, and who would be able to push that movement forward.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out our websites, Vant4ge.com, PersevereNow.org, and BanyanLabs.io to see the great work we’re doing to help make the world a better place for justice-impacted people. You can also follow Vant4ge on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

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