A Nike Executive Hid His Criminal Past to Turn His Life Around. What If He Didn't Have To?


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Dec 08, 2023

A Nike Executive Hid His Criminal Past to Turn His Life Around. What If He Didn't Have To?

At age 32—feeling far removed from the violent street crimes that had consumed his teens and 20s—Larry Miller just knew he was nailing a job interview with a senior partner at Arthur Andersen. That

At age 32—feeling far removed from the violent street crimes that had consumed his teens and 20s—Larry Miller just knew he was nailing a job interview with a senior partner at Arthur Andersen. That is, until he came clean about his troubled past.

Seventeen years earlier, when Miller was 16, he had shot and killed a teenager. Miller had served four years in juvenile detention for that murder and had later spent five additional years in prison for a smattering of armed robberies.

Eventually, while behind bars, he had gotten his head straight and had made the conscious decision to stop the street-to-prison cycle that had ravaged his youth. He had passed a high school equivalency test and had earned a college degree, and by that point could envision a bright future as a budding accountant at Arthur Andersen, the firm he longed to work for most.

Yet as soon as he opened up about his incarceration, the previously jovial meeting with the senior partner took an immediate somber turn. “I watched his face deflate,” Miller recalled in a recent Harvard Business School case. The partner had a job offer in his pocket that he had planned to hand Miller, but the prison time changed everything.

View VideoVideo: Larry Miller looks back at the night he shot Edward White, what it took to turn his life around, and the success of the Jordan brand. He discusses how education can break the street-to-jail cycle and why business leaders should give formerly incarcerated people a second chance.

Crushed to see his dream job evaporate and fearing that no employer would ever look beyond his previous transgressions, Miller vowed to hide his criminal past from the business world—a secret he managed to keep for more than 40 years. That was back in 1982, when arrest and prison records were recorded on paper, stored in filing cabinets, and were much harder to hunt down than the digital documents that can be pulled up in seconds today.

If Miller hadn’t concealed his previous life of crime, would he ever have been given the chance to start fresh and perform his way to remarkable success, making his mark as a highly influential African American business leader who ultimately landed at Nike as president of the Jordan brand and served as president of the Portland Trail Blazers NBA team?

Probably not, says HBS Professor Francesca Gino, who coauthored the case with HBS Senior Lecturer Hise Gibson and HBS Professor Frances X. Frei, as well as Alicia Dadlani, director of the Mid-US Research Office at HBS.

“It would have been very difficult for Larry to even get a foot in the corporate door, let alone rise to the top,” Gino says. “Back then, there was a lot of stigma around people who have criminal records—and that stigma still exists today.”

While a growing number of companies have recently responded to a call for greater equity by revamping their hiring practices, research shows that a blemished past continues to impede many workers as they attempt to launch and advance their careers. A record of incarceration can be an especially huge stumbling block, often viewed as a red flag many employers can’t seem to get past, no matter how qualified and reformed a job candidate may seem.

It’s time for business leaders to rethink their hiring practices and start giving the formerly incarcerated more opportunities to prove themselves, the authors say. Miller’s incredible journey from a reckless kid to a highly successful businessman, the authors say, should serve as an example of the potential talent companies can uncover when they look beyond job candidates with squeaky-clean credentials and consider giving highly motivated individuals with criminal records an opportunity to perform.

“Larry Miller’s story is so much about giving people a second chance,” Gibson says. “So many people have made mistakes, and those mistakes can really hurt them on their resume. I really hope that from Larry’s experience, business leaders recognize that just because an individual makes a mistake does not mean they cannot be valuable within an organization.”

How did Miller end up in prison in the first place?

Research shows that poverty and imprisonment are closely linked. A 2018 Brookings report showed that only half of working-age men were employed prior to incarceration, and when they did have jobs, their median earnings were a mere $6,250 per year. In addition, one in 10 boys born to families in the bottom 10 percent income bracket were incarcerated by the age of 30—a rate 20 times higher than boys born to wealthy families.

Most of those imprisoned come from predominantly minority communities. In 2018, Black Americans were incarcerated in state prisons at nearly six times the rate of White Americans, research shows. Many prison reform advocates say long-standing disparities, such as racial segregation, reduced access to home ownership, and biased policing, have contributed to this trend.

For Miller’s parents, money was tight, but their small row house in West Philadelphia was a happy, loving, and supportive home for Larry and his seven siblings. In elementary school, Miller was a bright light, the teacher’s pet. He earned straight As and loved reading, often devouring two books a week. He was a responsible child who eagerly volunteered for the school’s safety patrol to guide young students across the street.

But Miller’s surroundings would change for the worse—and so would his attitude. In the 1960s, social unrest was stewing in Miller’s hometown. Deindustrialization was leading to the large-scale loss of urban jobs, increasing poverty in the city.

While many Whites began moving to the suburbs, Black residents mostly remained in the city. After all, Black people were largely prohibited from buying homes for decades. In the 1930s, the federal government created color-coded maps that “redlined” predominantly Black neighborhoods, warning lenders that these red areas were considered at high risk for default.

Furthermore, the Federal Housing Authority refused to insure mortgages in redlined neighborhoods, so minorities found it nearly impossible to obtain loans. While the FHA was providing subsidies to contractors who were building homes for White people in the suburbs, the agency was stipulating that none of those new houses could be sold to African Americans, with the justification that if Black people bought homes in those neighborhoods, property values would decline and put the FHA’s loans at risk.

By 1968, when Congress ultimately passed a law banning racial discrimination in housing, the three decades that Black people had been shut out of the housing market had already made their mark: About 98 percent of nationwide FHA loans had gone to White homebuyers.

In Miller’s neighborhood, the White population declined from 43 percent to 6 percent between 1960 and 1970. By 1970, the poverty rate was at 26 percent, twice the national average. The city began letting itself go, cleaning the streets and picking up garbage less often, and in turn, Miller noticed it “slowly began to lose its sense of order and community.”

Inner-city gangs multiplied, violence rose, and tensions escalated between Black residents and police, with riots erupting over incidents of police brutality and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Miller got older and his neighborhood grew rougher, he stopped looking for approval from his parents and teachers and began looking up to kids who got in trouble on the street. At age 12, police caught Miller stealing a bicycle with a friend. When he tried to run, the officer pointed a loaded gun at his head. Miller was charged and sentenced to probation. Miller’s parents worried as he started skipping school, joined a neighborhood gang, had some minor run-ins with the law, and spent months in and out of juvenile detention.

“My parents began to realize there wasn’t much they could do with me,” Miller says. “At 14 or 15 years old, I would come home at 2 a.m. or not come in at all. My parents didn’t give up on me, but they didn’t know what to do, so they focused on my siblings. They were disappointed because they felt I was wasting my potential.”

In September 1965, a teenager in Miller’s gang was stabbed and killed. Enraged, 16-year-old Miller got drunk, grabbed a pistol, and headed into a rival gang’s section of the city with his friends. The boys spotted another teen on a street corner, and after accusing him of being in the rival gang, Miller shot him in the chest and walked away. His victim, 18-year-old Edward White, died at the scene.

Miller, who was arrested and pled guilty to second-degree murder, later found out that White was not actually a gang member. He was a father who was on his way home from work. Miller served more than four years in a juvenile correction center for the murder, although it took him much longer to emotionally come to terms with what he had done.

“I tried to put it out of my mind, even though I thought about it every day,” Miller says. “I never talked about the details to anyone. As I evolved, I realized what a horrible thing I had done.”

While in juvenile detention, Miller tried to get his life together. He rediscovered his love of reading and took classes, acing his high school equivalency test and graduating at the top of his class. “Let’s not serve time. Let’s let time serve us,” Miller urged his fellow classmates in a valedictorian speech.

When Miller was released from juvenile detention in 1970, he saw that heroin had taken hold of his hometown, and many of his friends had overdosed and died. Feeling lost, Miller fell back into a life of crime, sold drugs, and committed a string of armed robberies, which landed him back in prison for five additional years.

“It was as if everyone was either going to or coming from jail. We were all part of an in-and-out-of-jail cycle,” Miller recalls. “I couldn’t understand why Blacks did not have access to better education and jobs that led to upward mobility. I wondered who put us in this situation and why they did that. The goal of prison should be that people come out better than they went in, and to me, the system isn’t geared toward that. It’s more about warehousing people than rehabilitating them.”

The US has one of the highest recidivism rates worldwide. Each year, 9 million people are released from jail and 600,000 are released from prison, but within three years, two-thirds are rearrested and more than half end up in prison again.

Research shows education can change the recidivism game. Incarcerated people who participate in education programs are half as likely to return to prison and are more likely to gain employment. Research shows that the more education a person attains, the less likely they are to return to prison. People with vocational training have a 30 percent recidivism rate, while the rate drops to 6 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and to zero for people with a master’s degree.

“It’s striking how much opportunity matters,” Gino says. “Even people who did something extreme, we can look at the circumstances that led to that extreme behavior, and we can recognize that people can change. If we give people a chance to get a degree, it can fundamentally change the entire trajectory of their lives and make people choose a completely different path.”

Yet incarcerated people typically have low levels of education. About 40 percent lack high school diplomas, more than twice the general population—and the cost of college feels out of reach for many. In 1994, a federal crime bill made attaining an education even harder for people in prison, stipulating that the incarcerated would no longer be eligible for Pell Grants to help pay for their education.

Many states followed suit with their own cuts to education support for incarcerated people; in less than a decade, postsecondary education programs in prisons dropped from nearly 800 programs to only eight. It would take more than 25 years for Congress to start allowing incarcerated people to access Pell Grants again—a change that takes effect this year.

Miller was one of the fortunate few to have access to an education program while in prison. He began to take college classes in trailers just outside the prison walls as a way to escape the cell for a few hours a day. Then he started wondering if those classes could lead to something—if he could learn his way out of the street-to-prison cycle. “I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible and never come back,” he says. “I couldn’t keep doing this. I had to find a way to turn my life around.”

Still, his road was far from easy. After being released from prison with a handful of college credits, he was poor and lived in a halfway house. He worked various part-time jobs to scrape together rent and pay for college tuition until he eventually graduated with honors from Temple University with a degree in accounting in 1982.

It was a huge accomplishment, yet Miller’s prison record remained a barrier.

Indeed, once incarcerated people are released, their records follow them, casting a pall on their attempts to rejoin society. People with criminal convictions get widespread credit rejections, have limited housing options, and often get their voting rights revoked, sometimes temporarily—and in some states, for life.

In addition, people with prison records have poor job prospects. The unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is 27 percent—five times the national average. In the first year after being released from prison, only 55 percent report any earnings. Those who do typically seek low-paying, entry-level positions in grocery stores, restaurants, and manufacturing plants, with median annual earnings of about $10,000. Higher-paying, professional opportunities remain scarce.

View VideoVideo: Hise Gibson shares why business leaders need to hear Larry Miller's story, and why many people deserve a second chance to succeed.

The government has made recent strides to help the formerly incarcerated gain employment. By 2022, 75 percent of states had adopted “Ban the Box” laws that prohibited employers from asking about a candidate’s criminal history on a job application. These laws are intended to delay criminal history checks until later in the application process, allowing candidates to be evaluated based on their skills, at least at first.

Still, more than 95 percent of employers require applicants to undergo background checks before hiring them, and at that point, a criminal conviction often becomes a deal-breaker. In fact, a job candidate with a criminal history is 50 percent less likely to get a second interview than an applicant with a clean record.

After watching the job offer with Arthur Andersen disappear, Miller remained mum about his prison time and ended up landing a job in the management trainee program at Campbell Soup Company.

“The job application asked if I had been convicted of a crime in the last five years. It had been more than five years since my conviction, so I checked ‘no.’ They didn’t ask if I had ever been convicted of a crime or if I had ever been incarcerated. I didn’t offer any information, but I didn’t lie,” Miller says.

Miller, a top performer at Campbell’s, rose through the ranks before moving on to senior positions at Kraft Foods and Jantzen Swimwear—roles he was able to earn through his resume, rather than job applications. Eventually he landed at Nike as president of the company’s Jordan brand, where he became friends with basketball legend Michael Jordan and other celebrities, met the Clintons and Obamas, and helped grow the brand’s annual revenues from $150 million to more than $4 billion. He also took the helm as president of the Portland Trail Blazers NBA franchise.

None of his colleagues knew about his incarceration, although he had a few close calls. At a Trail Blazers game in Philadelphia, his hometown, he says, “I was walking around the arena in my suit and tie when I spotted someone I knew from [juvenile detention] coming toward me. I thought my worlds were about to collide. But he walked right past me. Either he didn’t see me, or he didn’t recognize me.”

In addition, when US President Barack Obama spoke at Nike’s headquarters, the Secret Service found criminal records for someone named Larry G. Miller. Miller was sure he would fail the background check—but somehow, he was cleared. “They asked for my middle name, Garland, so I told them,” Miller recalled. “They had records for Larry G. Miller, but not Larry Garland Miller. It’s almost as if they couldn’t believe it was me.”

Yet this lie of omission came at a huge personal price: Miller developed Bell’s Palsy, a temporary paralysis of his facial muscles that is often caused by stress. He had frequent nightmares about the cops coming after him and throwing him back in jail, and he regularly woke up in a cold sweat. And he suffered crippling migraine headaches—at times landing in the emergency room in excruciating pain.

This mental anguish continued for 40 years, growing more intense and frightening as time went on. “The stress and anxiety of holding it all in really took a toll on me,” Miller says. “I knew that any moment, someone could find out my past, and my career and everything I had worked for would be over.”

Miller also struggled with tremendous guilt, not only for the murder he had committed years earlier, but also for his success. “I moved up the ladder, met people, and traveled the world while many of my friends were still incarcerated or couldn’t get ahead. I carried a lot of guilt for my success. I always wondered, ‘Why me? Why not someone else?’” Miller says. “And then there was the guilt of the homicide. That has been really hard to carry. I struggled for a long time. Therapy helped me realize that we are all human, and we all make mistakes, some worse than others. But it’s how we deal with it that matters because we can’t change the past.”

Miller’s daughter Laila Lacy encouraged him to share his story, and together they wrote the book Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom, released in 2022, to encourage criminal justice reform. While some readers embraced Miller’s message, others lashed out, believing his homicide was unforgiveable. In late 2021, Miller met with the family of his murder victim, Edward White, apologized, and asked for forgiveness. White’s children said their mother had never gotten over the murder, and White’s sister admitted that 30 years ago, she “would have been across that table,” but told him she did forgive him. With the help of the family, Miller is developing a scholarship foundation in Edward White’s name to help his descendants attend college.

Today, Miller is chairman of Nike’s Jordan Brand Advisory Board and regularly visits high schools and juvenile detention centers to share his story, where he often recognizes his young self in the kids he sees slumped in chairs, looking directionless. He tells them, “‘I know how you feel, and I know what you’re going through. I sat in those chairs, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be stuck here. You don’t have to let the worst thing you’ve done define who you are. You can change your life.’”

Not only do the formerly incarcerated need to hear Miller’s story to inspire them to see what might be possible for their own futures, but employers also need to realize these folks have potential, Gino says.

“We need to think differently about the opportunities we provide to people who have been in prison,” Gino says. “I hope when business leaders hear Larry’s story, it will make them rethink hiring people like him, so we can stop limiting people’s choices and provide them with a sense of dignity and a chance to access better jobs.”

Miller agrees, saying people with criminal records bring valuable skills to the corporate table. For one thing, Miller was able to keep his emotions in check and his wits about him in high-level business talks.

“It was as if I had two degrees, one from the street and one from college, and both were equally valuable,” he says. “In prison, you have to observe your surroundings because you always have to be aware of what is going on around you. It’s essential for safety and survival. So I learned how to read people and situations quickly to figure out how to take control before anyone realized it. That was particularly useful in corporate America.”

Miller, who has felt a weight lifted since sharing his story and no longer has headaches or nightmares about going to jail, hopes the HBS case shows it’s possible for people to make mistakes—even big ones—and still make a positive impact in the world.

That is, Gino says, “if others are willing to forgive and provide opportunities to move on.”

Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at [email protected].

Images above courtesy of the Miller family, Nathaniel S. Butler/National Basketball Association via Getty Images, and Bettmann/Bettman via Getty Images

Francesca GinoHise GibsonFrances FreiVideo:Video:Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at [email protected].