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Aaron Smith is the founder of the company Escaping the Odds. He is a native of the South Side of Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Columbia College Chicago, and it wasn’t long after that he began his journey within the criminal justice system. In 2009, he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for distribution of heroin and fentanyl resulting in death. Smith knew that he had the soul of an entrepreneur; his drug operation sold over $15,000 per day, but as he likes to say, “I was selling the wrong product, so I had to switch hustles.” In December 2019, Smith launched the Escaping the Odds podcast to build his social capital and tell amazing stories of redemption through business. Smith won the 2021 Media for a Just Society Award in the podcast/radio category.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 00:01
Finding drivers in unusual places. New technology for truck cabs. And affairs of state. Pull up a chair and join us as the editors of DC Velocity discuss these stories, as well as news and supply chain trends, on this week's Logistics Matters podcast.
Hi, I'm David Maloney. I'm the group editorial director at DC Velocity. Welcome.
Logistics Matters is sponsored by TGW. TGW is a leading global systems integrator for automated warehouse solutions. They're a one-stop provider, designing, manufacturing, implementing, and maintaining end-to-end fulfillment solutions for URBN, Gap, Jasco, TVH, and more. Distribution network management is becoming all the more challenging. Master the unpredictable with TGW, a leading global systems integrator. Visit tgw-group.com for more information.
As usual, our DC Velocity senior editors Ben Ames and Victoria Kickham will be along to provide their insights into the top stories of this week. But to begin today: It's been difficult for many years to find supply chain workers, and in particular, the many drivers needed for our nation's over-the-road trucks. But now, we meet a man who's working to train drivers who have had somewhat different life experiences and backgrounds. To tell more, here's Victoria with today's guest. Victoria.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 01:28
Our guest today is Aaron Smith, founder of the media company Escaping the Odds, which is an organization that helps formerly incarcerated people and others make a fresh start as entrepreneurs. Welcome, Aaron.
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 01:40
Thank you for having me, Victoria.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 01:42
Pleasure. So, I just want to start by asking you: tell us a little bit about your organization, you know, what is Escaping the Odds, and why did you start it?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 01:50
Yes, Escaping the Odds Media is based out of Chicago, Illinois, Initially, we started off with a podcast. I think that was the quickest and most cost-efficient way to kind of get out what we were wanting to do, and, because I myself was formerly incarcerated, I wanted to change the narrative and actually get stories out there from an unlikely source, where men and women who were formerly incarcerated can have a platform where they can kind of talk about the experience incarcerated, but also what led to their entrepreneurial dreams being, their being able to actually start those businesses. And so, that's where it started, and just kind of spawned off into trucking and transportation as well, just provide the first start for men and women in that arena as well.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 02:38
Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about, too. I know there's a heavy focus on trucking, transportation, logistics. So, can you talk a little bit about that? You know, how did you become interested in the field. and in supply chain, and why do you continue to sort of focus on that?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 02:55
Yeah, kind of way back, while I was kind of going through my adjudication with my criminal case, I had to get a job. I was on bond, and I started working for one of the largest 3PLs in the country—probably the world. And so I learned the trucking industry from that perspective, from a brokerage perspective, and once I was released, I had to get a job again, and so I figured, hey, I know that I have experience working in dispatch brokerage arena, I'll get a job doing that. But my end goal was to actually start my own transportation company, and also offer opportunities for men and women who are not only just formerly incarcerated, but as a whole, to get their start in the trucking or logistics industry as well, and so that's what I've been doing.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 03:43
I've looked at your website, and you talk a lot about switching the hustle, going from what you were doing before you were incarcerated to different career. Why is switching the hustle to logistics and transportation, you know, a good option for people looking to make a fresh start? What's so attractive about it? Sorry, go ahead.
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 04:03
No, no problem. Believe it or not, trucking, just that sector alone, is probably one of the most popular positions. If you took a poll of the men and women who are incarcerated — especially men — that's probably a number-two, or even number-one, position or industry that people want to kind of, kind of dive into, and it's because of two things. First and foremost, the money is comparable to maybe some of the money that they were making with illicit activities. But then even also that freedom. You know, you don't have to go work for a company — although you can, make a nice living — but you also can be an owner-operator. And that's what I've been seeing with a lot of my colleagues and people that I was incarcerated with, you know, they get released and they get their CDL or a non-CDL kind of a license, and it began their journey, so to speak, into the trucking industry. And so for those two reasons, is very appealing to this population.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 04:56
That makes sense. So, one of your primary offerings through Escaping the Odds is a box-truck driving class. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 05:06
Yes, yes, I partnered up with a company called Stretch money, stretched out money, and they were like banking for formerly incarcerated, but they wanted to kind of pivot a little bit and start offering courses that were really popular with this particular population, people who were formerly incarcerated, or individuals just wanted to kind of do something different with their lives. And I knew that trucking was an industry that wasn't going anywhere, and again, it's very popular with this particular population. So, I also partnered up with another gentleman, Ed Hennings, who also had a trucking company, box trucks, where you didn't have to have a commercial drivers license. That's like a lower barrier to enter the market, and we knew that there was a lot of capacity for that kind of freight, mainly last-mile delivery stuff, and so we want to create a course where we can teach a person to go from A to Z on how to be an owner-operator without having a commercial drivers license, and we did so. So Escaping the Odds Media is the producer of that content.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 06:08
And how many, roughly, you know, how many people have been through the box truck course?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 06:13
Since our inception, I would say, we started back in, I want to say March or April, I will say thus far, have probably had about 50 students come through the program.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 06:27
And again, you say this is sort of a way to, I mean, it's costly to get your CDL, right? We write about that quite a bit. So this is a way that you don't have to do that, and it's I'm guessing it's more affordable than going that route — taking your class.
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 06:41
Absolutely. The course is, I believe it's priced now at [$]349, and it's a kind of a program where it's on demand, and so it's just not like you could take it in six weeks; you can take it and get it done over the weekend. So, it's very, you know, flexible for the working person.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 07:03
Yeah. You mentioned you're partnering with a finance group. I think you have some other supply chain partners as well, or are trying to build relationships with others. Can you describe some of those?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 07:12
Yes, that's one of the things that we are really wanting to do just to kind of kind of attach ourselves and even kind of the whole community of, like, logistics industry, kind of have to land that credibility as well, so they can see that, okay, this particular population, you know, we're, we're here, too, right? We're able to kind of get the job done, so to speak. And so one company that we partner with OTR Solutions, and they're based out of Atlanta, and we have a scholarship program that we're doing with their, with their company. So that's been, that's been going well.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 07:51
What are your, you know, your ultimate goals, with the program, with all of what you're doing? And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about, you know, why the broader industry should be kind of paying attention to efforts like yours. We write often about the need for truck drivers, also the need for people throughout logistics. So, I guess, what would you, what's your ultimate goal?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 08:11
The ultimate goal for Escaping the Odds is, specifically within trucking, is to kind of be that conduit, if you will, for men and women who's been justice-impacted, but they have a desire to step into this new arena. I'm able to kind of do the handoff, so to speak, but also just be able to provide like re-entry services, because it's more than just getting a job, right? There's a lot of things that a person who's reintegrat[ing] back into society may have to kind of get adjusted to. And so just being able to be that handoff to some of these companies, and even also continuing our training and partnering with more and more logistics companies like to OTS Solutions of the world, just to again, bring that credibility to what we're doing.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 09:02
And where can anyone interested in your work, where can they find you?
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 09:07
Well, yeah, the Escaping the Odds podcast is on escapingtheodds.com, or YouTube, Instagram, anywhere. Also, I failed to mention another podcast that I'm producing called The Urban Trucker, and that's pretty much telling the stories of people of all backgrounds, mainly women and — men and women — of color in logistics industry [stories?.]. It's a great, a great concept for something different.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 09:35
Terrific. So escapingtheodds.com, and they can look for The Urban Trucker. Aaron, thank you so much for being here today. We really thank you for sharing sharing your perspective.
Aaron Smith, Founder, Escaping the Odds 09:45
Oh, thank you. I appreciate your time, Victoria.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 09:48
Thank you, and we wish you the best of luck. Back to you, Dave.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 09:52
Now let's take a look at some of the other supply chain news from the week. We just talked about truck drivers, and Ben, you reported this week on some new technology for them to use in truck cabs. Can you share some details?
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 10:04
Yeah, I'm glad to. The trucking sector, for a lot of reasons, is in something of a downturn nowadays. It's always been a cyclical industry, but there are a lot of reasons with the economy and inflation and interest and post pandemic, and all kinds of reasons that it's slowing down right now. It's also been hard to buy new vehicles lately, because of supply chain delays, and of course, there are shortages in semiconductors. But still, some new trucks are hitting the market, and this week, I saw some interesting details about one of those latest purchases. This was a delivery of eight new Cascadia tractors — those are big Class 8 tractors from Freightliner — they were bought by a company called Bettaway Supply Chain Services. That's a New Jersey pallet-network operator that distributes pallets nationwide. Bettaway operates a fleet of 150 tractors and some 900 trailers, so those eight new trucks were not that big a deal just in their quantity, but the interesting part to me was that they had Freightliner's integrated driver safety and assist system. What that is, is a collection of tools that keep the truck and the driver safe. So, there are eight or 10 of them. There's active speed intervention; side guard alerts; active brake assist with pedestrian detection; a brake hold mode. There's adaptive cruise control. There's active lane-keeping assist, and there's electronic steering assist. So, a whole package.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 11:40
Yeah, well, those are some impressive driving technologies, but a lot of those are already available on passenger cars, too, right?
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 11:47
Good point. Yeah. The answer's yes. If you drive a late-model car built built in a recent year, you may actually have many of these yourself already. But Bettaway president John Vaccaro said that they've not been available in commercial trucks until now. So, as Vaccaro said, Class 8 trucks are finally catching up to the technology in the world's best automobiles. From Bettaway's perspective, the company bought these extra features — it's an add-on to the basic model of the truck — because it's looking for a jump in road safety for the company's drivers, of course. But also, it's going to cut down their commercial insurance premiums, since it costs less to have insurance for a car or a truck that uses all these accident-avoidance technologies. But looking at the industry a little more broadly, during 2022, last year, we saw a series of kind of stumbles by some of these companies that are trying to build self-driving cars and trucks. Lots of reasons, some of those economic turbulence variables that we talked about earlier. But we saw some of those companies, even though maybe they weren't moving as quickly as possible to create these, you know, fully self-driving cars, they've been recouping the cost of their research by rolling some of those same technologies and features into dashboard suites that help human drivers stay safe instead of replacing human drivers, and so that's all the sort of lane assist and pedestrian detection and active speed intervention, all these kinds of things. So, it's interesting. They're using some of the same technologies for kind of a different application. It doesn't mean that self-driving trucks will never get here. And for sure, some companies are still running, right now, trials and pilot programs with self-driving trucks. But it's interesting seeing those technologies find some new homes.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 13:38
Right, it is interesting, and it's good to see that those technologies are being adapted for driver-assist type of use, and hopefully we'll get a lot of the bugs out before we see autonomous trucks down the road. We'll keep track of those advancements.
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 13:52
Yep, we sure will.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 13:53
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 13:54
Yep, glad to.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 13:56
And Victoria, you participated this week in the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors conference. Did you hear from any interesting speakers?
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 14:04
Yes, Dave, I did. Yeah, so the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors held its annual Executive Summit this week. The event is held this time each year in Washington, D.C. I didn't actually make it to D.C. for the event, but I was able to sit in on some of the sessions online, thanks to live-stream access. Just a little background: This event brings together business owners and executives from the distribution industry to talk about economic trends and challenges, supply chain issues, and also the U.S. political landscape and its effects on business. NAW always has some very high-level speakers in attendance, and this year was no different. The list included former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 14:46
What did you learn?
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 14:49
Well, as I said, I wasn't there in person and couldn't attend everything online, but it was interesting to get Secretary Pompeo's insights. His Global Outlook 2023 was a highlight of day one of the conference on Wednesday. He talked about his experience in business and supply chain, actually. He ran an aircraft-parts manufacturing company in Wichita, Kansas, at one point, and was later in the oilfield industry, so he's got direct experience in supply chain, and he also talked about his military and government service as well. Some of the key issues he discussed — and it was a wide-ranging conversation — but one of the first issues to come up was China as a threat to the U.S. and global economies. He emphasized the importance of not underestimating that threat for a variety of reasons, and he talked about the importance of diversifying sourcing and supply chain activities away from China to other countries and regions. That's been a common theme since the pandemic, of course. We've talked about it many times here on the podcast. Beyond that, he listed two other threats to the U.S. that he said he is most concerned about. There are many, but these are the two are the ones that he highlighted in addition to the one I just mentioned. The first has to do with threats to our commercial infrastructure and the need to preserve that infrastructure, and he said that includes preserving our workforce through things like training and develop — training and educational development. There was a lot of discussion about the labor problems we're facing in the United States, especially a lack of skilled labor. Second, he said he's very worried about the threat of what he called "ungoverned spaces" on our southern border, particularly the growing influence of drug cartels in Mexico and the power they exert over the Mexican government. He gave some examples of recent incidents and said, and I'm quoting, he's deeply worried about their penetration at the southern border and their ability to potentially hold us hostage as they do the Mexican government in many ways. It's interesting, Pompeo admitted that listing Mexico is one of his biggest concerns for the U.S.and economy may come as a surprise, but he emphasized that he does indeed feel it's one of the biggest threats we're facing. Another interesting note — to me, anyway — he mentioned at one point that he felt very much like a supply chain manager during his time as Secretary of State, because it's a job that's focused so much on where our assets are and where our transportation corridors are, and it's very much about risk, managing risk, which is a theme, I think, our audience can certainly relate to. Just to wrap up, the meeting also featured, you know, panel discussions with industry executives and an economic outlook from Alan Beaulieu of ITR Economics. So, quite a mixed bag, and, as I said, it's held this time each year, and an interesting conference.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 17:28
Sounds like it was very interesting. Thanks, Victoria, for reporting on it.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 17:32
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 17:34
We encourage our listeners to go to DCVelocity.com for more on these and other supply chain stories. And check out the podcast Notes section for some direct links on the topics that we discussed today. And our thanks to Aaron Smith of Escaping the Odds for being our guest.
We welcome your comments on this topic and our other stories. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also encourage you to subscribe to Logistics Matters at your favorite podcast platform. Our new episodes are uploaded each Friday.
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And a reminder that Logistics Matters is sponsored by TGW. TGW is leading global systems provider of automated warehouse solutions, providing, designing, manufacturing, implementing, and maintaining end-to-end fulfillment solutions for URBN, Gap, Jasco, TVH, and more. Learn more about how to improve your supply chain operations by visiting them at ProMat this March in Booth S1503.
We'll be back again next week with another edition of Logistics Matters. Be sure to join us. Until then, have a great week.