Pay it Forward: Prison Entrepreneurship Program

By Matt Skoufalos

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In the state of Texas, approximately 140,000 men are currently incarcerated in 100 different prison units, and finding ways to rehabilitate them once their debt to society has been paid is a daunting task. But for the past 12 years, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) has been working to create an environment in which ex-convicts can thrive in their lives outside the jail walls.

Since 2004, PEP has focused on serving men in Texas state prisons who are within three years of their release dates. Applicants must complete an intensive, 12-page form that asks about their backgrounds, requires them to disavow any gang affiliation, and explores their character at various levels. About a quarter of eligible inmates will apply, and about a quarter of those are accepted into the program. Convictions for sexual crimes can disqualify an applicant from participating.

“We’ll accept any man into the program who we believe demonstrates a desire to change,” said Tony Mayer, PEP Chief Development Officer.

The program operates from the perspective that ex-convicts have the social standing of modern-day lepers, and that by offering them business development training, the organization can give them the skills to sidestep institutions from which they may otherwise be disqualified.

“If society’s not going to offer these guys a second chance, starting their own businesses is a way around that,” he said. “We’re [also] blessed in Texas with a lot of companies who are willing to be second-chance employers.”

PEP is successful at its aims, too: within 90 days of release, 100 percent of the program participants are employed, Mayer said. The program served nearly 800 inmates in 2016 and just shy of 300 more men who were released that year. They typically find jobs in hospitality, warehousing, personal services, and construction work. PEP also places them in transitional housing centers that it operates in the Dallas and Houston areas for three to six months.

PEP also offers a singular opportunity for the men it serves to enter an executive coaching program that is unlike any other rehabilitation effort of its kind. Part “SharkTank”-style pitch session, part business-school competition, it allows inmates to meet with corporate executives to develop concepts for standalone businesses that they could conceivably launch on their own once released. It functions as the second phase of the program, which introduces prisoners to different men from the business world to help coach them up.

“There’s a think tank piece, helping formulate the idea for their plan; then giving a two-minute pitch and getting help finalizing things, and then writing and putting it together,” Mayer said. “Then, a month later, a six- to seven-minute pitch, and they’re getting feedback and constructive criticism from a panel of executives.”

The experience culminates in a daylong business competition through which 85 men are narrowed to a group of four who pitch their ideas to a large group of executives in a 12-minute form. Every panelist is given a notional $10,000 with which to vote, and a winner is crowned from among the participants. The 2016 winner proposed a business performing offshore catering and laundry and grocery services for workers on oil rigs and work boats in the Gulf of Mexico – a fairly sophisticated proposal that impressed the judges not only for its intricacy but feasibility.

“He’d worked as an executive steward for an offshore company, and he’s hoping to get back into that and rebuild his contacts and his network,” Mayer said. “He’s got some regulatory challenges that he’s got to get around, but there’s no reason for him to not start and try to build his business as soon as he can.”

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While most executives never had any contact with the men they meet through the program, Mayer said a few of them will make “fairly small investments” in some of the participants’ businesses; maybe $1,000 or $2,000. Others may find support for their ideas from microlending services like Kiva. But for those whose ideas still await their angel investors, PEP volunteer executives also provide valuable coaching experiences.

PEP mentors like FOBI Medical marketing director Mark Fishlock say they participate in the program because of the opportunities it offers for them to have an impact on people who can most benefit from their volunteerism.

“Some of the confidence and dignity necessary for these men to walk the path that PEP provides, all of that builds up,” Fishlock said. “But what good is it if you don’t have a way to use it? What PEP does is instead of saying, ‘Get your act together and move forward,’ they take these guys by the hand, give them a project, which is this business entrepreneurial program, and say, ‘You’ve got to think these things through.’ ”

“These guys can walk out of this prison now, with a document in their hand that says, ‘I understand what it takes, at least in a theoretical way, to put together a thought process, start a business, and fund a business,’ ” Fishlock said. “When they go to get a job where they’re going back into business with a skill, they know more now than they did then.”

Fishlock was a first-time mentor participating in the project recently. He said the experience gave him the opportunity of being involved in a long-term rehabilitative effort unlike any other.

“PEP is teaching men how to behave, how to think differently, in society, for the rest of their lives,” Fishlock said. “I’m participating in a program now that is long-term.”

Although PEP is exclusively in  Texas at the moment, Mayer said the organization wants to grow its operations to be able to serve fully 10 percent of those inmates released annually from the state penal system. It has, however, inspired similar programs in Tennessee and Virginia; a developmental model is in the works in Illinois, and similar programs are gaining ground in the United Kingdom and Germany. But the program still needs operational support, whether through volunteers, financial contributions, or connections to second-chance employers.

“Open that door of opportunity for a man who’s, in 95-percent of cases, going to be a top-notch employee,” Mayer said.