In Praise of ‘Lost Causes’

In this holiday edition, we explore what happens when someone refuses to accept the idea of a “lost cause” and instead gets down to the work of transforming a troubled life.

We hear the story of former executive, Mark Goldsmith, who was asked to volunteer as Principal for the Day at a New York City public high school. The self-described “wise guy” agreed but told organizers, “I want a really tough school.” So they sent him to Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail. Goldsmith spent the day sharing with young inmates some of the lessons he’d learned in the world of business. “I created an analogy between General Motors and a drug cartel,” he explained. “And I showed them that the Kingpin who heads up the drug cartel is no different from the Chairman of the Board of General Motors.”

The students were enthralled by Goldsmith’s presentation and officials invited him to return the following year.  Goldsmith later formed Getting Out & Staying Out, a nonprofit that brings successful leaders to Rikers Island to speak with inmates. The organization encourages inmates to start planning for their release while they’re still in prison and provides a range of services to the young men once they’re released.

One of those men is Phillip Whyte, a 24-year-old former inmate who heard about Getting Out & Staying Out when he was serving time for a robbery conviction. Whyte, who was raised by a single mother, tells us that Goldsmith is a father figure to him now. “Even though I’m 24, I have way more learning to do,” he explains. “And sometimes you have to talk to a knowledgeable person who is successful in what they do.” Whyte will soon complete his Associate’s Degree and interns at the hip hop label Wu Tang Management.

Mark Goldsmith speaks to former inmates


  1. Dan

    There are lots of stories out there about rich white guys volunteering their time with unfortunate black people. All of them help to make the rich guy look good while doing nothing to examine the underlying system that is pushing people of color into prisons. This guy is helping his friends in corporations by giving them a low-paid, easily exploitable workforce that is too desperate for a job to demand their rights. Yes, ex-prisoners need jobs. But the interviewer failed to probe and see if there were really any selfish motivations behind this businessman.

    Anyone who works in prisons and, at the same time, fails to criticize the war on drugs, is only helping to perpetuate this system. The subtle message of this program seemed to be that if you are imprisoned you have only yourself to blame. In a country where people are actually serving life sentences for possession of meth (see the movie “The House I Live In”) this argument tends to break down.

    People are in prison because it is profitable for certain business interests to keep them in prison. People also volunteer in prisons because is is profitable for their business careers. If you want to profile a group that is actually doing good work around prisons check out Critical Resistance.

  2. Cynthia

    I just heard this story on PRI and found it very inspiring, especially the no-nonsense attitude of Mr. Goldsmith. He does not pander, but has a realistic understanding of where the inmates are coming from, how they got there, and what it will take to get them on to a productive life. If only there were more and better programs that could reach these guys before they end up in prison.

  3. Sue

    Appreciate hearing about the work and commitment of Mr. Goldsmith, and the folks he is working with. Look forward to the next podcast.

    • Amy

      Thanks, Sue! We hope to balance inspirational stories with skeptical ones – that’s what a thorough exploration of the Business of Doing Good should be about.

  4. Efferman1

    Excellent work! Makes me think about the validity of some of my paradigms when making judgements about others. Congratulations and thank you.

    • Amy

      Thanks! As we move forward with this program, we plan to offer conversations that challenge listeners to reevaluate their assumptions about all kinds of issues. Hope you’ll continue to download Tiny Spark…and to send us feedback!

  5. Karen Dwyer

    Inspiring! Thank you for making the world a better place for everyone—no exceptions.

  6. npc

    Simply brilliant! Many thanks.

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