Power of the People

Patrick Regan is an international expert on the causes and prevention of civil wars and the politics of climate change. His work has been cited in more than 7,000 academic articles. But he left all that to start a solar energy company that employs former convicts.

Author: Brett Beasley

Enter Crossroads Solar through the overhead door that opens onto South Bend’s Sample Street, and you will witness a kind of latter-day alchemy. Men and women move with precision around the clean, lab-like environment. They run tests at a sunlight simulator. They slice sheets of acetate, and they use them to sandwich together black rectangles of pinstriped silicon before feeding them into the broad mouth of a laminating machine.

They are making solar panels. But they are also making something else: clean starts.

That is because, apart from co-founder and president Patrick Regan, all of Crossroads Solar’s employees are former convicts. Part of the company’s mission is to help them transition to life outside prison.

Crossroads’ employees have served sentences that range from a few years to a few decades. Their offenses include violent crimes and drug convictions. But for Regan, it’s not their past that matters. It’s their potential.

“When most people think of an ex-convict, they think of words like criminal, scourge and threat,” Regan says, but we should think instead of adjectives like human, smart, thoughtful and motivated. “They’ve made mistakes — sometimes even colossal mistakes,” he explains, “but we’re going to make perfect panels with imperfect people.”

That’s a category Regan says includes him, too. But you’d have to squint hard to see any imperfection in his academic record. Regan is a leading expert on the causes and prevention of civil wars as well as the politics of climate change. He has five books and 60 articles to his name, and they have been cited more than 7,000 times in academic journals. As a political scientist, he worked in countries around the world — New Zealand, India and Norway, to name a few. But in August 2019, he left his tenured position at Notre Dame to devote himself to Crossroads Solar full time.

These days, Regan measures his work in entirely new ways — not in grants and citations but in steps walked around the factory and even in pounds lost. “My weight is measurably less on Friday night than on Monday morning,” he says. “I go home and I spend a weekend trying to fatten up again.”

He doesn’t walk the factory floor for his health. The company’s lean administration and flat hierarchy mean that formerly incarcerated people can learn all aspects of the business — not just soldering but also accounting, human resources and sales. Regan hopes the model will make his business profitable and provide a competitive advantage in an industry that is, as he puts it, “overloaded with executives to the expense of workers.” One inspiration is People Express Airlines, a company known in the 1980s for having its senior executives take turns serving as flight attendants. In a further show of solidarity, Regan has set his own hourly wage at $19.50, just a few dollars more per hour than his employees’ starting wage.

Regan’s bond with former prisoners started to form in 2016, when he was teaching in the Moreau College Initiative. The program, run by Notre Dame and Holy Cross College, offers two- and four-year liberal arts degrees at the state prison in Westville, Indiana. Some 50 Notre Dame faculty have participated over the last nine years. “These are my people,” Regan would say to his wife. She would laugh and remind him, “You have little in common with them — you just teach a class.”

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Regan and Noel Townsend test solar panels at the South Bend factory. Photography by Barbara Johnston

The truth of her words hit home when, during a course on the politics of climate change, one of Regan’s students said, “the truth is, your people won’t hire me.” The professor had to admit his student had a point. “Recently released felons,” he says, “are some of the most alienated people in our society.” Many can manage to land low-paying fast-food or cleaning jobs upon release. He could see his students’ potential, but even when they had a diploma in hand, the pathway to meaningful work and a career would remain narrow for most of them.

“We tend to think, ‘these students need another chance,’” says Alesha Seroczynski ’99Ph.D., the Moreau initiative’s director of college operations, “but for many of them, this really is a first chance.” Two-thirds of the Moreau students never finished high school. Only after completing a GED diploma behind bars have they been able to enroll in college courses. Most have never had a steady income, a W-2 or a bank account.

From his work on climate change, Regan knew the renewable-energy industry had a lot to offer employees: a chance to make a valued product using contemporary technology, not to mention the potential for good wages and benefits and future work opportunities.

“If the answer to the question ‘What have you been doing for the last two years?’ is ‘Working in a prison,’ most people have a hard time,” Regan says. “But if the answer is ‘I’ve been a production manager making solar panels,’ there are many more opportunities. So if we bring people in, they move up, and that requires moving out, we say, ‘Go for it.’”

To make his idea work, Regan needed to know something else about solar panels: how to build one. So atop the pool table in his basement, he went to work. Using a soldering iron, he taught himself to piece together silicon wafers to make a panel. With a heat gun and a fish-tank hose attached to a Shop-Vac, he laminated the wafers in place. The prototype hung together a bit crookedly, and the lamination was crinkled in spots. But when Regan carried his homemade solar panel out into the sunlight, his voltage meter jumped. He had power.

Still, the heart of his idea would not be technological innovation but social innovation. He needed to figure out how to get from his first panel to a thriving business. Fortunately, through his work at Moreau, Regan met a businessman named Marty Whalen.

Whalen ’82 had devoted his career to running his family’s office machine business until it was purchased by Xerox. Around the same time, Whalen discovered a friend was serving time in prison, and he began to think deeply about the justice system. “It was like in the gospels: ‘When I was in prison, did you visit me?’ I realized I’d never done anything like that,” Whalen remembers. He visited his friend for the first time on a Friday, and before the weekend was finished he had offered to teach through Moreau.

At first he taught math courses, but when he switched to public speaking he began to see the kind of transformation his students were capable of. One student’s speech went terribly wrong, and he gave up. Taking his seat, he put his head down on his desk and started to cry. So Whalen began to coach the young man step-by-step. At the end of his college career, Whalen’s protege delivered the commencement address for his graduating class.

Whalen was hooked. He created an internship program for Moreau students, giving them realistic performance reviews and preparing them for the real world of work. Then he became a student himself, returning to Notre Dame with the inaugural class of Inspired Leadership Initiative fellows. He read Catholic social teaching documents like Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, that emphasize the dignity of work and workers and the necessity of a good wage to empower employees to improve their lives.

When Whalen heard Regan’s idea for Crossroads Solar, he offered to become a partner. He would help develop the company’s vision, and Regan would run it day-to-day. “Pat and I made an odd couple starting this business,” Whalen admits, but “we make a good yin and yang.”

While many solar-panel producers are moving toward fully automated manufacturing systems, Regan says, ‘We use automation when it’s necessary, and human touch when it’s possible.’

Early on, their different backgrounds in business and academia showed up in discussions about profit. “Let’s skip that word,” Regan would say, preferring instead to talk about solidarity and the labor theory of value. But Whalen would insist that “profit is not a dirty word; you’ve got to use it every once in a while.” He emphasized the need to be profitable to drive performance and engagement and sustain the business over time.

The two men agree on what matters most at Crossroads Solar: a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit — in that order. Instead of focusing solely on financial performance, Crossroads will also measure its success by its impact on the environment and on its employees and their communities. The people-first focus means the company doesn’t operate like most others. While many solar-panel producers are moving toward fully automated manufacturing systems, Regan says, “We use automation when it’s necessary, and human touch when it’s possible.”

In practice, putting people first looks like what happened when an employee failed to show up for work for several days. Rather than firing him, Regan and Whalen reached out to learn what had happened. They discovered the employee’s mother had died. Having never held down a regular job, he hadn’t even thought about calling in.

Managing in this way is what it means to work with people who are at a “crossroads,” the partners say. It involves understanding a worker’s story and resisting the urge to jump to conclusions. The same ethos shapes the company’s long-term vision. Once it is fully established, Whalen and Regan hope to transfer ownership to workers through an employee stock ownership plan, making Crossroads 100-percent owned by formerly incarcerated people.

Everything at Crossroads is under refinement, a constant exercise in trial and error. “Functionally, it’s an experiment,” Regan says. His homemade solar panel is the first in a series of prototypes lined up against the plant wall. Walking down the row, you can track the iterations of Crossroads’ design. The silicon cracks if handled incorrectly, and during the company’s first week in operation, the team cracked 47 percent of the wafers they touched. But they gathered data assiduously and refined the process. Soon the number was down to 5 percent.

Regan and Whalen have welcomed others’ expertise into the experiment. They invited students in the Notre Dame Law School’s Legal Aid Clinic to work on an international contract with an equipment manufacturer and to develop the employee handbook. And when COVID-19 canceled a visit from the four Chinese engineers who were scheduled to set up and calibrate key pieces of equipment, Notre Dame engineering students stepped in, collaborating over WeChat to get the new equipment installed. Experiences like these give student interns the knowledge and skills they need to land first jobs in the solar industry — and exposure to a replicable business model for reintegrating ex-convicts into society.

“We are creating a social enterprise embedded in a market system,” Regan says. “It’s a model that might work, and if it does work, it could be applicable to almost any industry.”

This summer, Crossroads sent its first panels to be certified and approved for sale to consumers. The panels had to pass a battery of tests, including one to see whether they could still generate electricity after being submerged in hot water for 300 hours. They could take the heat.

Once the company surmounts the supply-chain challenges caused by COVID-19, Crossroads hopes to produce more than 16,000 panels a year. By industry standards, that’s a tiny operation — a fraction of the size of the next-largest competitor. But Regan and Whalen are fine with staying small. The growth they care about is found in the lives of people. “We’re not out to grow the business, sell it and make lots of money. We’re in this to provide opportunities,” Regan says.

As for his own transition to life on the outside — of the ivory tower — he laughs and admits, “It’s been a violent rupture.

“I had a wonderful academic career,” he says. “But more importantly, I learned in my scholarly work that you can’t generate peace without some attention to human dignity. Did my academic career teach me about supply chain management or laying out a plant? No, none of that stuff. But academia shaped who I am, and it taught me to put human dignity at the forefront.”

Looking at a panel, Regan explains how it generates electricity without moving parts. When sunlight strikes electrons inside the silicon wafers, the electrons suddenly break free and travel along the wire grid like trillions of subatomic Pac-Men.

That’s how Crossroads Solar came to be. Something almost imperceptible struck Pat Regan and Marty Whalen. But it broke them free, and the result is powerful.

Brett Beasley is associate director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership.