Unique business plan competition gives hope to men in prison

For nearly 300 men at the Cleveland Correctional Facility — a state prison near Houston, Texas — the opportunity to participate in entrepreneurship classes and a business plan competition is literally a chance at a new life. These men, who are at risk for returning to a life of crime and ending up back in jail, work with business leaders and MBA students who mentor them and instructors who teach them how to operate a legitimate business once they are released from jail, according to Erin Davis, communications specialist at the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a non-profit organization in Houston, Texas.

The program focuses on entrepreneurship because it’s so difficult for former inmates to get a job upon release from prison. By helping them think about and plan for a business that can financially support them upon release, the PEP program offers an alternative to unemployment and also prepares them for employment if they are able to find a job, she adds.

“We take guys who have two or three years left in their sentences and work with them intensively on entrepreneurship, business training and character,” she says. “Right now we have 300 inmates at the Cleveland Correctional Facility who participate in our program and by the end of 2013 the entire prison population of 520 will be enrolled in our program.”

It is an intensive program that is designed to focus on inmates who are the most receptive to PEP’s message. The inmates are chosen from prisons across Texas and upon acceptance are moved to the Cleveland facility. The program assists men who haven’t graduated from high school in getting their GEDs and once they have accomplished that, they spend eight hours a day, five days a week in college-level business classes, many taught by volunteer executives who agree to mentor the inmates on an ongoing basis, Davis says.

“Once they get involved with us their first assignment is to read Crime and Punishment in a week,” Davis notes. “This sends a couple of messages. One is that this is a serious program — we will kick them out if they don’t read it. We’re trying to see how serious they are. Also, the theme of the novel ties into the mindset of many of the inmates.”

From that first assignment, the program moves into intensive classes in marketing, finance, psychology, accounting and other topics. Many of the men in the program have committed serious crimes but also have some practical business acumen from running criminal enterprises before they got arrested, she adds.

“We work a lot on character issues as well — we talk a lot about healthy behavior, understanding boundaries and integrity,” Davis notes. “Those are as, if not more, important than the classes that focus strictly on business issues.”

The business plan competition is a major event in the program. The competition begins with a kick off that welcomes participants into the program and progresses through a number of events including:

  • The Venture Capital Panel where participants pitch preliminary business plans to a group of VCs.
  • Etiquette Night features discussions and lessons around business etiquette and proper dress, culminating in the crowning of Mr. Manners.
  • Business Plan Workshop, a day long session where mentors give written and verbal feedback to business plans in progress.
  • Business Plan Competition and Graduation, where one participant will win the competition and everyone who completes the program graduates.

The results of the program have been nothing short of remarkable, according to Davis.  After three years of graduates, 89 of the 100 businesses started by inmate graduates are still operating. Many of these are food service, landscaping and similar businesses. During those three years, only 9 percent of graduates have been imprisoned again, versus a rate of 48 percent for all Texas prisons, Davis says.

“We estimate our program is saving the taxpayers of Texas $7 million, because that is what it would cost if more of our graduates went back to prison,” she states. “We’re excited about the opportunity we have to work with more inmates at the Cleveland facility and to eventually expand our program to two additional prisons in Texas.”

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