2 Reasons Helping Former Prison Inmates Become Entrepreneurs is a Good Idea

In the early 1990s, I became friends with Reverend Robert J. Harris, who is a Baptist minister in North Carolina. Reverend Harris, aka “Rev,” had been doing prison ministry work for a long time in the Raleigh-Durham area. He invited me along to more-or-less watch him in action at one of these prisons. I went gladly because it was just great to be around him.

I believe the first time I walked into a prison with him was at Orange Correctional Center near Chapel Hill, NC. A few things struck me and have stayed with me.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, the first thing that I noticed was how ordinary people were. I guess I had expected some lighter version of MSNBC’s “Lockup,” replete with a bunch of angry, tattooed, rough people. Actually, I recall that the men were similar to any group of people who I have met with, excepting that, of course, they were all in jumpsuits. They listened respectfully and were lightly engaged in the conversation.

The second thing that I remember, even though it seems trite, is my feeling as I was leaving–knowing that I could leave. I guess I felt a mix of some guilt and of leaving a world behind that was remote to me.

Finally, I recall talking with one individual during the break. I asked him what he was going to do when he got released. He said he was going to get a job. I remember thinking to myself that this would probably be difficult to do with a criminal background. I had always been an entrepreneur, so it occurred to me that it would be easier for the person to start a small business than to get employment.

If there was a eureka moment to the formation of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, that moment would be it. So, in 1992, Reverend Harris and I started teaching courses in prisons on how to start a business.

Today, 27 years later, there is legislation in both chambers of Congress that would create opportunities for entrepreneurship education for federal prisoners–the House’s “Prison to Proprietorship Act” and the Senate’s “NEW START Act.” More people are starting to recognize that entrepreneurship is a viable option for some of the 600,000 people who reenter society each year.

I’m sometimes asked why people who have been judicially involved are suitable candidates for being entrepreneurs. People assume it must be because they’re all drug dealers or purveyors of stolen goods. That is not the reason they are good entrepreneurs.

To me, there are two reasons people with criminal records are suitable for entrepreneurship. First, and most importantly, many people who have been in prison have hit some kind of real bottom. I have found that people in prison are more apt to take risks because, frankly, they don’t have much to lose.

There is a demonstrable contrast between this group of people and the people I went to graduate school with at Duke, who almost always have good and viable options for their lives. In some perverse way, then, judicially-involved people have an advantage over people who have things to lose if they fail.

The second reason why judicially-involved people make good entrepreneurs, which is related to the first point, is that they have experienced some kind of failure in their lives. If you start a business, invariably you are going to face serious setbacks that will severely test your resilience and mental toughness. Most people who have not experienced scarcity or failure are not psychologically prepared to be entrepreneurs.

Many people have experienced a world that is relatively ordered where outcomes are not guaranteed, but a certain level of outcome is virtually guaranteed. When you start a business, there are so many moving variables that can easily put you out of business. At a minimum, these conditions will induce severe setbacks that will try you to your core. The truth is that most of us cannot take a real punch, which makes it hard to be an entrepreneur.

Although there seems to be some popularity around helping formerly incarcerated people, the national recidivism rate remains high; around sixty-eight percent of people will be arrested again within three years of their release.

If you know someone who has been incarcerated and is interested in starting a business, direct them here, to Inc.com, for advice. Let them know about Starter U, our foundation’s free, online video course on how to start a business. Or, look up their local small business center or SCORE chapter. Entrepreneurship is not out of reach.