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This 32-Year-Old Was Incarcerated as a Teen—Now He Brings in Over $150,000 a Year: ‘Your Past Does Not Define Your Future'

John Luna | CNBC Make It

This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

Marquis Mckenzie Sr. currently has a lot going for him.

The 32-year-old brings in $150,000 a year between running his own commercial cleaning business in Orlando, Florida, and working at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an organization fighting to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people.

And although he works up to 80 hours a week at times, he's able to support his wife and three children.

But the road to earning six figures wasn't a smooth one for Mckenzie.

He dropped out of high school at 15 and lost all focus on his future, he says. He began acting out and hanging out with older people who were "living the street life." At 16, he was sentenced to 24 months in prison and four years probation for armed robbery. Although Mckenzie didn't have any previous offenses, he was charged as an adult.

"The only thing I can remember is my mom crying in the courtroom and begging the judge to please... give me a second chance," he recalls. "The only thing that the judge would say is, 'I'm sorry, this case is out of my hands.'"

At 16, Mckenzie was sentenced to 24 months in prison and four years probation for armed robbery.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
At 16, Mckenzie was sentenced to 24 months in prison and four years probation for armed robbery.

Mckenzie had already spent 16 months in jail awaiting his trial and served the remaining eight months of his sentence in prison. He was released in 2008 and served two years of his probation sentence until it ended early due to his good behavior.

He credits his supportive family for helping turn his life around after his release. "My family told me that I didn't have to go anywhere or rush to try to figure things out, but just don't procrastinate," he says.

And he didn't. After facing a series of career barriers due to his previous conviction, Mckenzie started his own company and found success in entrepreneurship.

Life in the criminal justice system

Mckenzie's time in prison was stressful, he says, due to constant fights and stabbings happening around him. But he found peace in his assigned job as "houseman," which involved cleaning the dorm.

For six months straight, his dorm ranked as the cleanest at the jail, he says. "I made the comparison, when you clean your life up, you feel good," he says.

Mckenzie's company, The Dirt Master, cleans commercial office spaces around the metro Orlando area.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
Mckenzie's company, The Dirt Master, cleans commercial office spaces around the metro Orlando area.

Mckenzie also earned his GED during his time in prison and had dreams of becoming an educator.

After he was released, he enrolled in college and began taking the prerequisite courses for the school's early childhood education program. However, when it was time to apply for the program, he became discouraged by the part of the application that asked about his previous criminal record. He eventually dropped out of college altogether.

"I just wanted to help people," he says. "But when you look at the applications for those programs, you have that box on there and that question asks you, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony offense?' And once I saw that, I just lost all hope."

Tired of doors closing in his face, Mckenzie looked into becoming an entrepreneur.

Becoming an entrepreneur

Working as a houseman inspired Mckenzie to start a cleaning business after he was released.

"If I can clean in here for free and get this recognition here, how hard would it be for me to go out clean?" he remembers thinking. "I knew that the properties and buildings that I was going to clean weren't going to be as dirty as the prison. So, I figured that I found my niche right then and there."

When Mckenzie looked into the application to start a small business and get business insurance in Florida, neither inquired about his criminal record, he says.

He founded The Dirt Master in 2015 and officially made it a limited liability corporation, or LLC, in 2018. Last year, the company brought in $92,000 in profit.

When he was incarcerated, Mckenzie found peace through cleaning.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
When he was incarcerated, Mckenzie found peace through cleaning.

Since he began his business, Mckenzie estimates he's hired a total of around 80 formerly incarcerated people to clean various commercial office spaces in the greater Orlando area. His wife, Sharnisha, co-owns the business, and sometimes his kids, who are 9, 12 and 13, will help out too.

After sending the kids off to school in the morning, Mckenzie typically heads to his day job at the voting rights organization, FRRC, where he works until around 5 p.m. He takes his son to football practice after work, but is back at it in the evenings: From 8 p.m. to as late as midnight, he cleans commercial office spaces with his Dirt Master team.

Giving others a second chance

Through The Dirt Master, Mckenzie aims to give formerly incarcerated people a second chance and help them avoid going back to prison.

It's important to him to create opportunities: Over half of formerly incarcerated people aren't able to find stable employment within their first year of being released, according to the Brookings Institute.

"We have to think about giving opportunities to those who are coming out of the criminal justice system, so they don't go back out and commit more crimes," he says.

Mckenzie purchased his 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom childhood home for $220,000 in 2021.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
Mckenzie purchased his 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom childhood home for $220,000 in 2021.

Stable housing is also key to helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society, Mckenzie says. To help with that, he purchased his childhood home from his mother after she moved out in January 2022. He plans to renovate it and rent out rooms to formerly incarcerated people.

"I know a lot of returning citizens who don't have a place to live," Mckenzie says. "If they don't have a proper place to shower, a proper place to eat, or just to be at peace, trying to be a productive citizen is the last thing that's on their mind."

How he spends his money

Here's how Mckenzie spent his money in September 2022.

Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It
Elham Ataeiazar | CNBC Make It
  • Housing and utilities: $3,524 for rent on his apartment, the mortgage on his childhood home, electricity, water and Wi-Fi
  • Discretionary: $3,076 given to financially support family and community members
  • Car payment: $1,929 for his 2021 Mercedes-Benz Coupe
  • ATM withdrawals: $1,617
  • Phone: $823 for seven phone lines that include himself, his wife, his three kids and two business lines
  • Food: $814 on groceries for his family and dining out
  • Insurance: $618 for car and life insurance
  • Debt repayment: $85 toward repaying his 401(k) loan
  • Savings and investments: $77 toward his 401(k) plan

McKenzie pays $1,799 for the 3-bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment where he lives with his family, in addition to a $1,320 mortgage payment on his childhood home.

Health insurance for both himself and his family is fully covered by his employer.

Currently, one of Mckenzie's top financial priorities is helping those around him. Each month, he says he gives several thousand dollars to family members and formerly incarcerated people who have been recently released to help cover their bills.

Mckenzie with his wife and three children.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
Mckenzie with his wife and three children.

Mckenzie also prefers to use cash to pay for most things, which is why he makes so many ATM withdrawals. This helps him better manage his spending, because "once it's gone it's gone," he says.

Although he isn't currently putting much toward his savings account beyond his 401(k), he hopes to build up his savings in the future. He also aims to teach his children about the importance of saving money.

Looking ahead

In the next five to 10 years, Mckenzie plans to further expand The Dirt Master and eventually franchise it out to other formerly incarcerated people so that they can run their own small businesses too.

He hopes that his story and experience will inspire others who may be facing similar circumstances.

Mckenzie plans to further expand The Dirt Master and eventually franchise it to other formerly incarcerated people.
John Luna | CNBC Make It
Mckenzie plans to further expand The Dirt Master and eventually franchise it to other formerly incarcerated people.

"Your past does not define your future," he says. "It shouldn't hold you back from trying to be successful in the future or stop you from being a productive citizen."

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