From Cellblock To C-Suite: Two Televerde Execs On Turning Mistakes Into Milestones

‘You can choose to judge and define that person to their past or you can choose to accept, empathize and seek to understand,' says Michelle Cirocco, chief social responsibility for Televerde.

"Imagine the worst part of your life and having that always define you," said Michelle Cirocco.

“When you hear somebody else's story, you have a choice,” said Cirocco, chief social responsibility officer for Phoenix-based business and consulting firm Televerde. “You can choose to judge and define that person to their past or you can choose to accept, empathize and seek to understand.”

Cirocco and Alicia Rasta, vice president and head of global sales for Televerde, spoke at CRN parent company The Channel Company’s Women of the Channel West event in Palm Springs, Calif., this week about their darkest moments and how they climbed out of them to both thrive in successful careers.

Cirocco grew up wanting to be a model like Christie Brinkley or Brooke Shields, but life had other plans.

“I dropped out of school, I married my high school sweetheart, became a bartender and had a couple of kids by the time I was 22,” she said. “I realized I wanted more out of life than what my current situation was going to offer. With a deep desire for upward mobility and a misguided entrepreneurial spirit, I got really good at making really bad decisions.”

Her life then started to look “a little bit like an episode of Breaking Bad.”

And then, the day her life changed forever, she stood in front of a judge and was told she was getting the maximum sentence of seven years in an Arizona state prison. Once in prison, she met a counselor who encouraged her to use the time in prison to better herself, which she credits as the best piece of advice ever given to her.

“I didn't have to worry about what people thought about me,” she said. “I had lost everything, my family, my children, my freedom, my self-respect. But I suddenly felt empowered to get it all back.

“I didn't know where to start but I embarked on a journey,” she added. “I picked myself up, I pulled myself together and I knew I had a lot of work to do. I had to get right physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. And oh, by the way, I had to figure out what I was going to do for a living.”

But as a convicted felon with no skills or education she knew her chances of landing a job were slim.

That’s when she heard of Televerde, which helps provide job training to incarcerated women.

“Rumor had it that if you were really good at it, you could get a job at the corporate office when you got out. I thought that was my golden ticket,” she said. “So when the chance came, I applied and I was hired as an inside sales rep to generate leads for big technology companies like SAP and IBM.”

The CEO of the company took notice of her, encouraged her and believed in her, “and that gave me confidence I needed to believe in myself. To believe that I was good enough, smart enough and capable enough of having a better and successful life.”

Three weeks after being released from prison, she started her career as a sales executive at Televerde and thought everything was perfect, but soon realized that it wasn’t. She would attend executive meetings with technology companies but never felt like she fit in. She felt like an imposter.

To have a seat at the table and to have that feeling of fitting in, she knew she had to go back to school. She finished her bachelor’s degree and then applied to an MBA program. When she opened her acceptance letter to grad school she thought, “How could this be possible? Girls like me don’t go to places like that?”

“But I did, and it was worth it,” she said. “It turned out that education was my great equalizer.”

Pretty soon, almost 15 years to the day of her arrest date, she was promoted to vice president of client success at Televerde. A few years later, she was promoted to chief marketing officer, “making the ultimate journey from cellblock to C-suite.”

As CMO, she knew she had to tell Televerde’s story but realized she also had to share her own.

“For 15 years I had been discouraged from sharing my story,” she said. “I was told it would undermine my credibility as a businessperson. That made me feel like I should be ashamed, like it was my dirty little secret.”

Under a new CEO, she was offered the role of chief social responsibility officer to be the voice of the company and a subject matter expert on community-related items such as business, politics, government and criminal justice.

‘I Was Now A Statistic’

Alicia Rasta grew up in Ohio and had plans to go to college. Her mom didn’t approve of her going out with her boyfriend and said, “If you leave, do not come back.”

Rasta packed up her stuff and moved two hours away, “I was convinced I was going to be that strong, independent woman she always wanted me to be.”

Not long after, she met a guy and got pregnant. After weighing her options, she decided to raise the baby.

“I was now a statistic,” she said. “I was going to be a teen mom.”

After an emergency C-section, her doctor prescribed her Oxycontin which was new to the market at the time and believed to be non-addictive. She quickly became addicted and moved to another state to give herself a fighting chance to get clean. She soon found out it was even easier to get the drug in her new town.

Almost immediately she was seeing multiple doctors to write her prescriptions. Within two years, she was arrested and sentenced to two-and-a-half years.

“Unlike Michelle, I did not make the most of my time,” she said. “When I got there I was assigned to work in the kitchen and focused on how [to] fit in with distinguished people that I didn't know versus how to prepare for when I go home and be successful. I was so embarrassed [because] now I was a felon.”

She did, however, get her GED.

“The good thing in all of this is I’ve been trying so hard to get off these pills,” she said. “I had no choice and was very confident in my success after I went home.”

Unfortunately, she found her way back to opiates and was rearrested three years later, looking at a six-and-a-half-year sentence. Three weeks into her sentence, her mother died. Through a friend, she had heard about Televerde and decided to give it a try, diving into its four-week training course.

“For the first time in a long time, it was like my mind was awakening,” she said. “I was learning for the first time since I was in school and I was loving it.”

Joblessness Leads To Recidivism

Through Cirocco’s work, she found that there has been a 700 percent increase in women incarceration since 1980, 60 percent of the women in prison are under the age of 18 and 81,000 incarcerated women are released annually.

More so, 82 percent of people return to prison within eight years. Joblessness and low income are the number one predictors for recidivism.

“Televerde had the answer, the secret sauce,” Cirocco said. “When you provide people with jobs, training and education while they're incarcerated and a real opportunity after their release, that you empower them, fulfill their full potential so they can have a career, take care of themselves and take care of their children, [they] stay out of prison forever.”

She’s now also the CEO of the Televerde Organization, a nonprofit that provides women with personal and professional development programs necessary for them to transition out of prison, reunite with their children and successfully join an advanced global workforce.

And sharing her story has been lifesaving, “because I realized that when I found the courage to be vulnerable, authentic and own my truth, I empowered others to do the same. When we share our stories of failure and shame, we remove the breadth of fear and shame and we empower others to do the same. We break down the stigmas and enable other people to overcome their own past and their own fear.”

Sally Wagner, senior partner development manager at cloud brokerage firm Jenne, thinks Cirocco and Rasta’s talk was “fabulous because they're recognizing that people can make a change.”

“Everybody has potential if they're just given the opportunity,” she told CRN. “Even if somebody hasn't [walked] in those kinds of shoes, we all know that ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

Pictured (l-r) Alicia Rasta and Michelle Cirocco