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From Inmate to Entrepreneur

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How to Become Self-Employed When You’re Turning Your Life Around

It never ceases to amaze me both the number and variety of people who want to start their own business. I hear from everyone from would-be entrepreneurs in China, to desperate moms in the U.S., as well as college kids and, yes, prisoners.

I would like to share with you an amazing program that helps incarcerated people become self-sufficient self-employed business people upon their release. Run by Mercy Corps at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore., it is called the L.I.F.E. program (Lifelong Information For Entrepreneurs). Ideas like this one are important because prison recidivism is not an insignificant problem.

Consider:

• 2.3 million Americans are in prison

• Five states spend more on corrections than they do on higher education

• A lack of employment skills is a main reason for high recidivism rates in prison

• Many employers do not want to hire convicted felons

Combined, all of this means that 1) those in prison have a hard time getting gainful employment once they get out, and 2) a program to help them start their own business seems like a smart plan.

How Mercy Corps Helps Former Prisoners to Start Businesses

Mercy Corps is an international organization that “works to alleviate suffering, poverty, and oppression by helping people build secure, productive, and just communities.”

And the L.I.F.E. program is just such a program. The program is intended to foster an entrepreneurial mindset by teaching financial literacy, and small business and interpersonal skills to minimum security female prisoners. It is a rigorous 26 week-long program that covers everything from goal planning and writing a business plan, to profit and loss statements and funding.

If that seems like a lot to grasp in half a year, you’re right; that’s why attendees have to make a year-long commitment — the graduates stick around and help teach the class that comes after them.

At the graduation ceremony I attended the women were rightfully proud of themselves and what they had accomplished. Each woman (about 25 total) expressed what the program meant for them and how they planned on using the skills they gained upon their release.

Although not all planned on becoming entrepreneurs, 100% of them felt that they were far better equipped to handle life after prison. The financial literacy they gained seemed especially important.

My favorite quote of the day: “I read the business section of the newspaper now!”

Highlights From the Mercy Corps Graduation Ceremony

Michelle Boothby had previously owned a business. But times got tough in the hotdog cart business and she was sent away on an identity theft charge. She so appreciated the opportunity given to her, noting that, “a lot of people don’t like to take a chance on inmates.”

Tammy Rodgers had owned a trucking company before getting sent away on an assault charge. Though she obviously already understood business too, Tammy said the L.I.F.E. program was still a great help, and would make her an even better entrepreneur when she is released.

But by far, the most moving story of the day was that of:

Tanya Wheeler. Although not a drinker, Tanya was going through a rough patch in her life when she got behind the wheel of her car, drunk. The ensuing accident killed … her beautiful 8-year-old daughter.

“This class gave me hope,” Tanya told me, adding that it helped her see that “a dream was possible.”

Tanya may start her own freelancing hair care business when she is released about a year and a half from now, after which she will have served more than eight years in prison. She noted though that she also is on a mission to help people, much the way Mercy Corps L.I.F.E. program helped her.

“I need to give back,” she said.

Great programs like this should become far more commonplace. Owning a small business changes lives.