Greg Winston grew up in the Little Rock projects, which he said contributed to his turning to crime and led to a stint in a juvenile detention center at age 12.

Afterward, Winston’s mother sent him to live with his grandfather, who he said was a very successful farmer, in Varner, Arkansas — about an hour from Little Rock.

Winston spent that time observing his grandfather and began dreaming about possibilities for his life. That and playing basketball growing up are two things he credits for turning his life around.

Now, Winston hopes to lift up other minority youth in Memphis who were once in his position through his nonprofit, Cultivating the Life of a Youth (CLAY). Winston started CLAY in 2018 while living in California and has worked with juveniles for three decades.

“People can tell if you are sincere. Because I’ve gone through the struggles that they are going through, I can be an example to them,” Winston said. “They can take someone who runs a Fortune 500 company and that person gives the same message, but it wouldn’t have nearly the impact because they can’t relate. I think I’m relatable.”

Winston moved CLAY to Memphis to help create jobs and internships for troubled youth in Memphis through a program he hopes will turn them away from crime and benefit the area long-term.

One reason he’s confident in his nonprofit is the experience he brings. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas, he started out his career three decades ago as a sales representative at Xerox Corp. in Memphis. He’s since worked at CBS Broadcasting and Warner Bros. Television.

“My experience in corporate America allows me to go to CEO groups, and companies and chambers and explain to them what I’m doing to resolve the crime issue,” said Winston, who moved back to Memphis from California five months ago. “The premise is to use economic development to replace crime. My thought is when people have something to lose, they don’t commit crimes. What we’re doing is giving them something to build on.”

How Winston hopes CLAY will benefit Memphis

CLAY recently announced its partnership with the Memphis Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC).

“History has shown us that when a city has a productive workforce, crime is reduced,” said Clovis Brown, Memphis Electrical Training Director, in a statement. “We’re thrilled to partner with CLAY and provide opportunities for high-quality training for people who are seeking support starting a new career.”

CLAY’s curriculum consists of three parts: training, monthly engagement with participants and their parents, and apprenticeship programs.

The training aspect of the program includes sessions designed to change the thought process of those participating in CLAY ahead of beginning any job or internship.

Winston said it’s different from California, because that was a three-week program in the summer. He plans for the Memphis CLAY to be much more of an ongoing process, even beyond when youth complete the training program.

He hopes to recreate his success from California where he had a 71% success rate of those who entered the program who either started a business, got an internship, got a job or changed their lives.

“Our goal is to stay in touch with everyone, so we’re not a Band-Aid” Winston said. “That it’s a lifelong choice. They keep learning and keep moving forward, so we’ve been happy with the results. Seventy-one percent is a high number.”

Those who complete the CLAY curriculum will have the opportunity to interview for a full-time electrical position within JATC.

Winston said 21 other companies have said those who complete the training can get into their interview process for potential jobs.

Those jobs start at $17 an hour and rise up to $33 an hour with full benefits, Winston said.

The program is open now and plans to start off with 12-20 youth, though Winston envisions CLAY having its own space and increasing the total to 150 over time.

He is also excited for more partnerships and continuing to connect with more youth in the future.

“From the time I started my business career here in Memphis working for Xerox, I had no business acumen,” Winston said. “I started reading, learning and going through my paces and became the top salesperson. That is what drove me back to come back to Memphis. There are other kids just like I did, and they do the same thing. That’s the thing I’m probably most excited about. I can be the example that kids need.”

This article originally appeared in The Commercial Appeal.