Harley Blakeman gives a talk at a Driven Foundation conference in February 2018. Credit: Courtesy of Harley Blakeman

By the time Harley Tanner Blakeman was 18 years old, he was a convicted drug dealer. He spent his 19th birthday incarcerated in the Treutlen Probation Detention Center in Soperton, Georgia, known only by a prison number he no longer remembers.

For many, the experience would have been the start of a lifetime of crime.

For Blakeman, it was the beginning of a new life, one where he would strive to use his hardships to help others who face similar challenges.

Blakeman will bring his message of redemption to Ohio State on Saturday as part of the TEDxOhioStateUniversity conference, showing how he has used self-confidence — sometimes to a fault — to make his progression from drug dealer to a 2017 Ohio State graduate, published author, speaker and CEO of Honest Jobs, a company that helps ex-convicts find employment.

“I want to have an enormous impact,” Blakeman said. “I want to be the person who changes the narrative around [the likelihood of people] going back to prison in America.”

Born in Dallas, Blakeman moved to Keystone Heights, Florida, when he was 8. He said he had a fairly normal childhood until his parents divorced when he was 14 — he decided to live with his father.

Soon, life as he knew it fell apart.

His father died in a motorcycle accident when Blakeman was 15, sending him and his older brother Greg to live with their mother, who suffered from alcohol and drug addiction.

Blakeman stayed at his friends’ houses, sleeping in a different place almost every night and living what he called a “backpack lifestyle.”

To cope, he turned to drugs — first Xanax and then Roxicodone, an opioid.

Blakeman started dealing drugs and dropped out of high school at 16. When he noticed Roxicodone pills were sold three times as more in Georgia than in Florida, Blakeman started dealing them between the two states.

In March 2010, the Georgia police pulled him over for no signal on a right turn. They found 800 pills and half a pound of marijuana in his car. He was found violating the conditions of his bail by traveling between Georgia and Florida and charged with shoplifting and theft along the way.

The judge sent him to a detention center in Soperton. Blakeman describes it as a work camp that looked like an elementary school.

But Blakeman now considers himself lucky. He met people in Soperton who encouraged him to read the Bible and other books, get his GED, work out and come up with a plan to get into college once he was released.

On March 12, 2012, after 14 months of incarceration, his aunt and grandmother came to pick him up and brought him to Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where he lived in his aunt’s basement. He worked as a dishwasher at a Japanese steakhouse and got his own apartment within two months and car the following year.

But he knew he wanted more and felt he deserved more.

“One day I was working, looking at this stainless steel wall, and I was like, ‘There’s gotta be more than this. I’m working … just to pay bills. I’m smarter than this,’” he said.

There is a consistent theme in Blakeman’s life: acknowledging his challenges but displaying an extraordinary — even abrasive — self-confidence that he will persevere.

“I’ve been blessed like most people aren’t,” he said.

Blakeman applied to Columbus State Community College. After a special meeting required for applicants with criminal records, he was accepted. He got straight A’s for two semesters.

After a year, he applied to transfer to Ohio State and was admitted in 2013.

Blakeman said his motivation to go to college was “to prove everything wrong: the system, the fact that I didn’t have money [or] parents, the fact that I went to prison, the fact that I was a high school dropout, all of it.”

To pay for college, he worked whenever he wasn’t in class — usually 30 hours a week on top of his 16-18 credit hours a semester — while he pursued his degree in operations management in the Fisher College of Business.

In April 2017, he self-published his book, “GRIT: How to Get a Job and Build a Career with a Criminal Record.” A month later, he graduated with honors and a 3.6 GPA.

“It was surreal … the best day of my life. I felt like I had really done something,” he said.

Ahead of his graduation, Blakeman was job hunting, but knew he was at a disadvantage because he would have to tell prospective employers about his past. Of the 38 companies with which he interviewed, only two were willing to give him a chance.

A manufacturing company offered him a position for $65,000 a year that Blakeman accepted.

But he always set higher goals for himself.

Because he wanted to surmount his past mistakes and run his own business, Blakeman created an online learning platform to help ex-convicts. A monthly subscription gave users access to videos with advice on how to get a job or get into college.

At a Rev1 Ventures workshop, a Columbus-based venture capital company, he met Josh Watters, a web brand strategist, who wanted to help him in any way he could.

“He had built a social enterprise … and I fell in love with his idea,” Watters said.

Blakeman quit his job in June 2018.

In October, he launched an online job board where companies could pay to publish job opportunities open to people with criminal records. The up-to-$9,000 tax credit incentive for each hire of formerly incarcerated individuals promised by the IRS would play in his favor.

Honest Jobs was born.

So far, the company has two paying customers and has helped 50 people find a job. Because his company has yet to make a profit, he lives by paying credit cards with other credit cards.

Once again, Blakeman refuses to be dissuaded by challenges and decidedly believes he will prevail.

“I kind of put myself in a situation where my only option is to win,” he said.

Blakeman, now 27, is focused on getting more customers and isn’t afraid to annoy people while he does it. He reaches out to CEOs by “spamming” them on LinkedIn with popular memes that he modified to promote Honest Jobs.

He has faith the company will soon gain traction because he believes everything he does will be successful.

“I know that I’m gonna be filthy rich … Everyone will use this site,” he said.

Last November, Blakeman applied as a speaker candidate to the TEDx conference at Ohio State and was one of 13 selected out of 130 applicants. He was trained regularly by Olivia Haimerl, a first-year in security and intelligence and a TEDx speaker coach.

“The impact of his story is inspiring to others, and that makes him a good speaker,” she said.

Despite the rehearsals, Blakeman is still nervous to be in front of the biggest crowd he has ever talked to.

He hopes — and almost expects — the video to go viral, with how much he believes in his story and himself.

“I’ll start the talk by saying, ‘When you look at me, what do you see? Male? White? College graduate? Good credit?’” he said. “‘What you don’t see is that I’m a convicted felon.’”