Facing high unemployment rates, these formerly incarcerated people are turning to entrepreneurship

When Lawrence Carpenter was released from prison in 2001, he was determined to make a better life for himself and his family.

Yet he knew that having a criminal record would make it tough to find a job.

“I shouldn’t have to live in poverty for the rest of my life because I made a mistake,” Carpenter said.

The 47-year-old, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, served time twice. He was just 17 when he first went to prison on drug and robbery charges. After serving six years, he returned to selling drugs. It was after his second drug conviction, for which he served 11 months, that he decided to make a change.

“I was an entrepreneur … but I was just in the wrong game,” said Carpenter, who was newly married before serving his second stint.

He had a vision for a cleaning service, which he began slowly building up. Two decades later, Superclean Professional Janitorial Services has about 70 employees and is bringing in approximately $500,000 in annual contracts, Carpenter said.

Now, Carpenter is teaching other formerly incarcerated people how to start a business through the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program, started by entrepreneur Brian Hamilton in 2018.

After spending more than two decades visiting prisons, speaking to inmates and teaching them about entrepreneurship, Hamilton saw a need to provide coursework to them once they got out.

“My thought as an entrepreneur was, instead of getting a job, go create your own and become an entrepreneur,” said Hamilton, founder of the Brian Hamilton Foundation and fintech company Sageworks, which has since been acquired by a private equity firm and renamed Abrigo.

The unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated in 2018 was more than 27%, higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative.

There’s no data on how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their employment situation, said Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Betram. However, when the job market is doing poorly, people with criminal records get pushed out of jobs first, she explained.

“They’re the first to be denied for open positions, even if the crime on their record has nothing to do with the person they are today or their ability to do the job,” she added.

Through Inmates to Entrepreneurs, the formerly incarcerated take an eight-week course and are taught the basics of starting a business, such as the type of company to start, how to service customers and how to make a profit. Since the pandemic hit, the classes have moved online, allowing the organization to reach more people across the U.S.

“Giving people a second chance, a second try is absolutely part of the fabric of our country,” Hamilton said.

More than 100,000 individuals have taken the courses and about 20% to 30% have started their own companies. Typically they are low-capital services businesses, such as painting, car detailing and house cleaning, Hamilton said.

Claudia Shivers is one of those who took the course in 2020 while simultaneously launching a business, Queen Coffee Bean. She had just served almost 11 months in federal prison for conspiracy to commit tax fraud.

“Actually looking for a job that paid a living wage, to get one of those is almost impossible,” Shivers said. “I had an ankle monitor.

“I spent a lot of time just internalizing, just having a lot of self doubt, thinking that I was never going to be any more than the last mistake that I made.”

Shivers, who owned a consulting company before she served time, began roasting coffee beans on the front porch of her home in High Point, North Carolina. She sold them to friends, then at a local vendor market. She also created a website and now has a roasting space. She hopes to be turning a profit within the next six months.

“My goal is to become heavily involved in the coffee space so that I can then visit coffee farms, make deals with coffee farmers, [and] try to build a more equitable coffee community.”

She credits the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program for giving her the confidence to once again strike out on her own. Seeing other formerly incarcerated business owners, like Carpenter, made her realize it was possible.

“It’s not get rich quick,” Shivers said. “It’s not a super fast solution.

“It’s a way to decrease the recidivism rate and a way to build your confidence,” she added. “It gives you the pathway to be successful.”