From Prison to Private Business: Program Offers Path to Entrepreneurship

One in three Americans will have a criminal conviction on their records by age 23, according to the National Institute of Justice.

As a result, they face a number of collateral consequences –– chief among them limited employment options. An NIJ-funded study conducted by the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section identified more than 38,000 statutes that affect convicted criminals, 80 percent of which represent disqualifying factors for employment.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, is working in the Triangle and in Wilmington and Charlotte to increase opportunities for people to make a living coming out of prison – and soon will be helping people in the Triad.

Starting Sept. 6, the nonprofit will offer an eight-week course at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship in Greensboro to help convicted criminals and those with pending charges establish their own businesses.

“Basically, people get out of prisons and they can’t get jobs. So what we do is help people start low-capital businesses where their record won’t hurt their chances of being able to make a living,” founder Brian Hamilton said.

These aren’t necessarily tech startups or venture opportunities, Hamilton said. These are businesses that might cost $500 or less to get off the ground – a cleaning, lawn service or car detailing business, he said.

Hamilton founded and ran a tech company, Sageworks, for about 20 years. He sold it and began working with inmates. He fell into it, he said, after accompanying a friend in the early 1990s who was doing prison ministry. Hamilton would ask the inmates what they intended to do once released.

“And they’d go, ‘Oh, I’m going to get a job.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Boy that’s going to be hard with a criminal record to get a job,'” he said.

So he started holding entrepreneurial workshops for prisoners – three-hour courses on the basics of starting a business. Things ballooned from there until, in 2008, Inmates to Entrepreneurs was born.

Anyone enrolled in the free course at Nussbaum will begin to learn the ins and outs of building a business – finding customers, getting an employment ID number, marketing and finance.

“We start of with what kind of business a person is interested in starting. And how do you do that with very little capital. Most people don’t have money,” Hamilton said. “How to get an employment identification number, what kind of taxes you have to file, what type of business are you going to run. Is it going to be a sole proprietorship or a partnership, an LLC?”

He said the course, taught mostly by volunteers who are inmates-turned-entrepreneurs, emphasizes mentoring. Mentors work with the former inmates, teaching them how to get a business up and running.

“Then we get into marketing. We spend a lot of time how are you going to get your first customer. That’s a big deal, literally to go from $0 to $1 in sales,” he said.

There are no fees, no costs associated with the course and no ministering.

Nor will there be a lot of investing.

“We’re big believers in boot strapping,” Hamilton said.