Work the Real Reward for Winners of Social Enterprise Awards

Winners of the 2019 Social Enterprise of the Year Awards at Aspire 2019 - (l-r) Paula Haines of Freedom a la Cart - Social Enterprise of the Year; Harley Blakeman of - Emerging Social Enterprise of the Year; Ramona Wheeler of Nature's Touch Landscaping & Lawn Care - Nonprofit Sustainability Award - Photo by Walker Evans

When and Nature’s Touch Landscaping & Lawn Care were named winners of The Metropreneur’s annual Social Enterprise of the Year Awards presented in partnership with SocialVentures at Aspire 2019, there were no red carpets, no smoke machines, gold statuettes, or long-winded, political speeches. For Ramona Wheeler of Nature’s Touch and Harley Blakeman of, the work is, in so many ways, the reward.

Blakeman’s won Emerging Social Enterprise of the Year at the fifth annual event, which was held at Roosevelt Coffeehouse and Long Street Studios, while Nature’s Touch won the Nonprofit Sustainability Award.

In some ways the award is both a beginning, and a culmination, for Blakeman. officially went live as a job-search platform in December 2018, but it represents an idea birthed in Blakeman of his own experience.

Blakeman, who grew up in Florida, got in trouble in his teens. Just three weeks after his 18th birthday, he was arrested for drug trafficking, then, while out on bail, was arrested for felony theft. He served 14 months in prison. 

Since then, he’s done all he can to flip the script. He got a restaurant job. Spent time at Columbus State before moving on to Ohio State, where he graduated from Fisher College of Business with honors. Earned his Six Sigma certification. He even wrote a book, which has sold 4,000 copies. But the good he’s done since his release from prison couldn’t help him outrun the need to check the felony box on employer applications.

Harely Blakeman accepting the Emerging Social Enterprise of the Year Award – photo by Walker Evans

He tells the story of a fall career fair he attended at OSU, just two months before graduating. He researched each of the 200 companies attending the job fair and applied for nearly 40 different positions. Every company to which he applied interviewed him. Then, 90% of the companies who interviewed him granted him a second-round interview. In those second-round interviews, Blakeman told the would-be employers his story. And just like that, the would-be employers became could-have-been employers. Every one of them said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Blakeman said the sobering experience was a pivot point for him, and not long afterward the idea for was born. He created a website profiling jobs from employers willing to hire ex-convicts – willing to give felons a second chance. 

The website is now working with employers in 35 different states, with more states and municipalities being added regularly. The tricky thing, Blakeman muses, is developing relationships with employers and helping them understand the value of second-chance employment. It is, he says, “the most critical thing we do.” And the message seems to be getting through. More and more employers are signing on to post jobs on Blakeman’s platform, and the second-chance employment approach is actually functioning as a brand differentiator.

Of course, there’s another audience has to reach, and that’s the formerly incarcerated themselves. Blakeman is working to let those in need of second-chance jobs know that is the go-to platform for people with a record. It is, after all, the kind of website Blakeman would have loved to have had access to himself not too long ago.

Ramona Wheeler accepting the Nonprofit Sustainability Award – photo by Walker Evans

For Ramona Wheeler, managing director at Nature’s Touch Landscaping & Lawn Care, a social enterprise founded in support of Alvis House, might have been a good solution for some of the people she and her team serve. Alvis is a a nonprofit human services agency that provides re-entry support, substance abuse treatment, and recovery housing to the formerly incarcerated, those with developmental disabilities, and those affected by substance abuse. 

But several men, who might otherwise have been looking for jobs on a website just like, had another idea. The Alvis clients, who were taking landscaping training classes at Columbus State, approached the leadership of Alvis and said they wanted to work together, as a group, to use their landscaping and lawn care skills. Alvis saw the potential for mutual benefit—providing jobs for the men and generating profit to funnel back to Alvis’ mission and services. And Nature’s Touch was born.

The business generally serves a new crew of five employees each year, providing jobs that pay nearly $12 an hour, plus overtime, training, workforce development, and a career pathways bootcamp. The goal for each crew member is to work with Alvis’ re-entry center for longer-term employment by the end of the lawn care season, which is typically in November each year.

Nature’s Touch clients include several Alvis House properties around Columbus, more than 50 residential customers citywide, and a number of smaller commercial properties. 

Wheeler says while the goal of Nature’s Touch, which is in its fourth year of operation, is to provide funding to Alvis House, the most important sustainability work the business does is supporting its clients and ensuring they “graduate” from the program to more permanent, longer-term employment.

Nature’s Touch is in the landscaping and lawn care business no doubt. But it’s also fair to argue they’re in the construction business as well, helping men rebuild their lives. 

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Founded in 2014, SocialVentures is a non-profit organization that advances remarkably good businesses—businesses that intentionally integrate social impact as a non-negotiable component of their business model. To contact SocialVentures, send an email to [email protected].