South Bend’s Crossroads Solar employs only former felons to manufacture solar panels
Though many businesses start with a lifelong dream, Crossroads Solar is not that company. Co-founder Patrick Regan said he never thought he’d be making solar panels.
“I mean, I’m an academic, not a businessperson,” he said.
Regan used to be a professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he researched different aspects of climate change and how they impact societies.
He said that work left him wanting to do more, to have a more direct impact on the world. So he asked himself ––
“What business could I create that would have the longest window of the future? That would survive me and go on? And it became clear that it was solar,” Regan said.
So, he quit Notre Dame in 2019, bought a bunch of materials and built a couple of solar panels on his own.
“I used things like a heat gun – like a hair dryer – and a ShopVac with a little hose on it to make the laminator,” Regan said. “I was pretty confident after two panels at home that there’s no rocket science in this.”
Still, there’s a big difference between tooling around in your basement and full-scale product manufacturing. To flesh out the business side of things, Regan teamed up with Marty Whalen, a longtime business owner he met at Notre Dame.
“My first impression was that this was something we had to do,” Whalen said.
Whalen’s enthusiasm was partly tied to Crossroads’ ability to provide green infrastructure for the region. But he said it was mostly related to the company’s social mission, which goes beyond reducing the impact of climate change.
“We exist not necessarily to make panels,” Whalen said. “We exist to employ formerly incarcerated people.”
Regan and Whalen are the only Crossroads employees who aren’t convicted felons. They both taught at the Westville Correctional Facility as part of the Moreau College Initiative, a collaboration between Notre Dame and Holy Cross College that allows inmates to work toward an associate’s degree.
“We both realized that we educated men out there and then they still had a really tough road to get back into the mainstream of society,” Whalen said.
Regan wanted Crossroads to be a path back into society for men like the ones they taught. He said he was adamant that all Crossroads employees should be former felons, despite suggestions to hire a hybrid workforce.
“If I put a bunch of perfect people in a room and put some non-perfect people in a room, you’re going to gravitate toward the perfect people as the explanation for the outcome,” Regan said. “Under these conditions, you can’t make that choice. The people who made it right, the people who made it successful, the people who grew the company, were all imperfect people.”
Noel Townsend was one of Regan’s students at Westville Prison. He’s now the plant manager at Crossroads Solar, helping direct production and workflow on the factory floor.
Townsend said meaningful employment can often be “the key to success” for formerly incarcerated people. He said a job can provide some much-needed stability and – even more importantly – a regular income.
“When you take care of having a steady income that is secure and sufficient, it takes away some possible, maybe, temptation to seek other avenues to gain money,” Townsend said. “And, you know, sometimes those may not be legal.”
He said a company like Crossroads can also help relieve the stress of looking for a job post-incarceration.
“You’re not gonna go through an interview process and everything is going good, and then you have to explain your past and then it just immediately turns for the worst,” Townsend said.
Regan said his goal is to one day transition Crossroads to an employee-owned model. In five to 10 years, he’d like to see their solar panels coming out of a proper two or three-shift factory.
But for now, they’re focused on getting started. Regan said the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled production several times, with supply chain issues keeping the company from getting the materials and equipment it needs.
Once production gets going, though, Regan said he thinks socially conscious homeowners, businesses and churches in the area will be drawn to the company and its mission.
“If you’re putting up solar panels, it’s because there’s some level of concern for the gravity of climate change on our planet,” he said. “And if you buy your panels from Crossroads Solar, you’re also acknowledging that there’s some level of concern for how we think of ex-felons reintegrating into our society.”
Whalen said that mission – keeping formerly incarcerated people employed and out of prison – not only benefits former felons, but also the local tax base and the “social fabric of the community” as a whole.
“There’s just a host of good things when you think of the ripple effect of a gainfully employed person compared to somebody who maybe is incarcerated and their family is suffering because of it,” Whalen said.
The Indiana Small Business Development Center named Crossroads Solar its Community Impact Small Business of the Year at a ceremony Monday. The award “recognizes a small business that strengthens communities and makes positive contributions to the economic growth of the Hoosier state.”
Contact Gemma at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.
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