Q&A with Jodi Anderson Jr., Director of Technological Innovation Cornell University School CJEI on Launching Restorative Record

Jodi Anderson Jr. is the Director of Technological Innovation at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations’ Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative (CJEI), where he is responsible for spearheading the development and deployment of technology solutions that will enable justice-involved individuals to access employment and career development opportunities. He is also a researcher at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning where he manages cohorts of early stage entrepreneurs to build digital solutions for disadvantaged learning communities.

Jodi is an alumnus of the Cornell Prison Education Program and holds both a bachelor’s degree in Political Economy & Development and a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. He is the co-founder of PipeDreamers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit bringing computer science, design, and technology curriculum to incarcerated and justice-impacted youth in California and New York. Jodi is also the co-founder of Rézme, an economic and social mobility application for justice-impacted citizens. Jodi sits on the boards of T.A.P., Working Fields, Persevere, and is on the advisory committee for JFF’s Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work.

In this latest story, Jodi discusses his background that inspired the creation of the Restorative Record technology solution and how the CJEI team worked with software developers at Gigster to bring it to life.

Q: What is Restorative Record and its transformative role in enabling job access for justice-impacted candidates?

Jodi: The Restorative Record project is a technology-enabled solution that can help mitigate the collateral consequences of background checks as a screening device to provide better job opportunities for the justice-impacted community. This project is designed to help organizations transform their hiring process by enabling justice-involved job candidates to create non-traditional candidate profiles. It highlights core competencies and evidence-based domains of employment and reentry success such as positive community experiences, micro-credentials related to supplemental education and skills training, pursuit of leisure and hobbies, mentoring, participation in substance abuse programs, health care services, mental health counseling, and more.

It was launched during Second Chance Month in April by Cornell ILR’s Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative (CJEI) with support from Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing and the Center for Applied Research on Work’s Yang-Tan WorkABILITY Incubator.

Our partner and full-service software development company, Gigster, developed the enterprise-grade application and integrated the tool into Cornell University’s existing hiring systems. When you think about the scope of the problem we’re tackling, developing a solution that is built for scale is something that Gigster architected from the onset.

By emphasizing evidence-based restorative factors that are better predictors of employability, Restorative Record can help employers make more informed and fair hiring decisions, maintain compliance with fair chance hiring initiatives, and increase their yield on offers to potential candidates. The digital solution helps contextualize applicants’ personal narratives to upend negative assumptions about candidates lacking formal job histories, education, training, digital presence, and other career capital.

Q: How did you get started in developing this solution?

Jodi: This project was originally conceived by my personal experience with the challenges of post-prison job life as an alumnus of the Cornell Prison Education Program.

After my release, I transferred to Stanford University on a full academic scholarship and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Economy and Development. As an undergrad, I joined several early-stage startups in Silicon Valley and continued to gain experience and credentials, but my criminal record made it hard to gain traditional, full-time employment. Each time I reached the final interview stage I was rejected due to background checks.

Eventually, an interview with Reddit provided an opportunity for me to share my life story, educational journey, and rehabilitation efforts. As a mature startup heading towards an IPO, Reddit’s senior leadership recognized the value of my experiences and took a chance on me.

This experience motivated me to research how technology could alleviate the adverse effects of background checks conducted by third-party screening companies. While enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Education at Stanford University, I joined the Stanford Accelerator for Learning to initiate the development of justice technology solutions urgently needed in criminal justice reform.

I reconnected with Cornell and their Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative and received funding for Restorative Record. From there I aimed to create a digital hiring tool that provided justice-involved job candidates an operationalized way to share rehabilitative efforts. When Cornell decided to integrate the solution across the entire University, I reached out to Gigster to bring enterprise development experience.

Q: How many potential job candidates are impacted in the US by current background checks used by companies to determine employment?

Jodi: There are currently over 70 million Americans with criminal records. Every year another 650,000 people are released from US State and Federal prisons. The Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) has forthcoming research showing that “People with a criminal record face significant ‘demand-side’ employment barriers affecting not only employment outcomes overall, but also job search strategies and patterns among individuals impacted by the justice system.”

As noted in the forthcoming research, the majority (92%) of employers perform background checks through third-party services and 71.3% use third-party HR management systems but only 50% perform individualized assessments to determine if a candidate’s criminal record is relevant to the job duties. The most alarming part is that as much as 50% of Federal RAP sheets contain errors.

Despite this, 25% of employers don’t verify the information in criminal background reports. When using external Credit Reporting Agencies, 81.2% of employers say the CRA simply makes a recommendation without providing additional information or context.

Q: What was the process like to bring this solution to market?

Jodi: Bringing the Restorative Record solution to market was a complex but incredibly rewarding process. Initially, the platform was envisioned as a more straightforward, user-facing product. However, as we explored the scope and impact it could have, it became clear that we needed to develop something more robust—an enterprise-grade solution capable of integrating across extensive systems like those at Cornell University.

When we started, the project was spearheaded by a small team of three. The early version, while functional, lacked the necessary features and security measures for enterprise-level deployment. We quickly realized that the scope of integrating the application across all seven schools at Cornell University, affecting the Workday HR system that manages over 18,000 employees, was beyond our initial capabilities. We needed a significantly expanded team to bring this vision to life.

To address these challenges, we partnered with Gigster, known for its expertise in enterprise software development. Gigster’s ability to quickly assemble teams with specific skills made them the ideal partner for this project. They brought not only the technical expertise but also the project management and documentation capabilities necessary for such a large-scale integration.

Gigster worked closely with the Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative (CJEI) team and engaged with multiple stakeholders at Cornell – including IT departments, legal teams, and HR – to ensure the solution met all institutional requirements. The collaboration was intensive and involved aligning with numerous protocols, ensuring data security, and seamlessly integrating with existing systems like Workday.

The development process was structured around weekly sprints, allowing us to adapt rapidly and efficiently to feedback and emerging needs. Within just two months, Gigster and our team developed a beta version of Restorative Record. This phase was crucial in testing the functionality and impact of the solution within the controlled environments of Cornell’s varied administrative and educational settings.

The advantage of working with a company like Gigster was evident in how they managed the project’s scale and complexity. They provided comprehensive documentation, a full team suited for each task, and a robust technical architecture that met the rigorous demands of a large institution like Cornell. Every potential roadblock was addressed proactively, ensuring that there were no issues we couldn’t overcome together.

Q: What recommendations do you have for entrepreneurs inspired to build technology for social innovation and impact?  

Jodi: For entrepreneurs – especially early-stage startup founders – aiming to develop technology for social impact, start with a well-researched and clearly defined early version of your product. This initial prototype or alpha allows you to connect your development process closely with ongoing research, ensuring that the solution you’re creating is optimally aligned with the intended outcomes. Of course, this doesn’t take away from the flexibility to pivot if you discover new challenges or opportunities.

From the outset, design your architecture with scalability in mind, considering potential dependencies that may emerge as you gain momentum and forge new partnerships. An effective strategy is to co-build this early version with an initial partner who represents your ideal customer profile or end user. This collaboration provides insights into the requirements and challenges of deploying your solution more broadly within the ecosystem.

Additionally, surround yourself with innovative, action-oriented team members who can drive the project forward, adapt to feedback in real-time, and execute swiftly. This approach not only enhances the development process but also significantly boosts the potential for your technology to achieve sustainable, scalable impact.

The launch of Restorative Record was not just about implementing a new HR tool but about setting a precedent for how institutions can support fair chance hiring and make a substantial impact on the community. As we look to the future, our goal is to refine and expand this solution, replicating its success in other organizations and industries, thereby broadening the impact on justice-involved individuals seeking meaningful employment opportunities. This journey from concept to market within a single fiscal quarter underscores the importance of scalable, secure, and collaborative technology solutions in addressing social challenges, and it sets a new standard for how universities, large organizations, and even entrepreneurs can contribute to societal progress.