Spotlight: Incredible Orgs Teaching Entrepreneurialism to Currently & Formerly Incarcerated People

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Classroom photo from Defy Ventures: defyventures.org.

Hi R&R Readers!

We’ve written before about our support for “Ban the Box” campaigns, which seek to implement a robust set of fair hiring policies to ease employment barriers for people with criminal records. While these campaigns and resulting legislation are an important step in improving employment outcomes for reentering people, only twelve states so far have adopted ban the box legislation. Furthermore, the resulting legislation is often limited. For example, in states like California, only government employers are prohibited from inquiring about criminal convictions on job applications. Ban the Box does not apply to private employers across the state of California, limiting the power of the legislation (side note: a few counties like San Francisco have passed Ban the Box legislation that applies to private employers with a certain number of employees in their counties—but the statewide Ban the Box does not). Therefore, as we have written about many times here, in the vast majority of states and cities around the country, formerly incarcerated people who where the “scarlet letter” of a conviction find it extremely difficult to find an employer willing to hire them, no matter how motivated and able they are.

To get around the enormous barrier of discriminatory hiring practices, reentry advocates are increasingly turning to creative solutions. More and more grassroots programs and leaders in the private sector around the country are helping currently incarcerated and reentering people make a living by teaching them the entrepreneurial skills needed to start their own businesses. When individuals in reentry are empowered to start their own businesses, they are no longer be at the mercy of discriminatory hiring practices that can prevent them from every reentering the workforce.

Today we want to highlight some of the incredible organizations across the country that are teaching business skills and fostering entrepreneurialism for formerly incarcerated people to start and grow thriving businesses:

  • After serving four years in prison for robbery, A.J. Ware started his own painting business in order to avoid an employer’s criminal background check. Now, he runs a nonprofit in North Carolina, Inmates to Entrepreneurs, which teaches reentering people to start their own small businesses with little to no start-up money.
  • Chris Wilson, cultivated his entrepreneurial skills while incarcerated in Maryland. He and a friend, who were both incarcerated, took pictures of fellow incarcerated people and their families on visitation days, and raised $40,000 in an effort to increase the Inmate Welfare Fund. Since his release in 2012, Wilson has started two Baltimore businesses that seek to employ formerly incarcerated people. Wilson also encourages reentering people to start their own businesses through a series of workshops he calls the Barclay Business School.
  • Defy Ventures is a New York nonprofit that runs an entrepreneurial training and mentorship program for reentering citizens. Defy Ventures pairs people with criminal records with entrepreneurs in the community who guide them through the start-up process. In addition to providing training and mentorship, the program also hosts competitions for seed money for students to make their business proposals a reality.
  • In California, The Last Mile is a prison program at San Quentin State Prison that teaches incarcerated people entrepreneurial skills. At the completion of the program, students pitch business plans to successful entrepreneurs from local companies. Since the program’s launch in 2011, all six alumni who have been released are employed. One Last Mile student, Tulio Cardozo, launched a consulting platform that operates like a LinkedIn for incarcerated and reentering people seeking employment.
  • Project REMADE at Stanford University is an entrepreneurship training program for formerly incarcerated individuals that teaches basic business principles and provides mentorship support. Mentors from Stanford and the Palo Alto community provide guidance on every aspect of business planning including defining the scope of the business, identifying the target market, brand management, vendor selection, and financial statement projections. The program culminates in an Annual Business Plan Presentation Event, where a panel of executives from local microdevelopment organizations provides feedback on the participants’ written plans and oral presentations.

We wanted to highlight this work because, while it is important to work toward a world where criminal records do not create enormous barriers for reentering people, these programs are expanding the power that reentering people have NOW to change their lives for the better. We are so happy to see these programs grow in number and size across the country!

Emily MacLeod, Summer Law Clerk    

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