Initiative assists former offenders to become entrepreneurs

Those individuals who have been formerly incarcerated are often a forgotten demographic in our country, which is unfortunate. Realizing there was a void that needed to be filled, Brian Hamilton founded Inmates to Entrepreneurs (ITE).

Winston Starts, which is a startup incubator dedicated to nurturing entrepreneurs, is offering a free eight-week program that is designed for individuals with a criminal background who are interested in learning how to start or grow a business. Classes are offered every Wednesday for eight weeks, from 6-7:30 p.m. on the fourth floor of the 500 W. Fifth Street Tower.

According to Hamilton, the idea for ITE came to him while visiting a prison in Orange County, N.C., with a friend.  During the visit, he engaged in a conversation with an inmate pertaining to what the inmate was going to do once he was released.

“I clearly remember thinking to myself, that would be really hard to do with a record,” said Hamilton about the conversation. “I thought, instead of trying to get a job, what if people with criminal records go and create one. … That was the inception of Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

“When people with criminal records get that real second chance at freedom, we all win. Employment goes up, crime goes down and prisons become less crowded. Tax dollars get used for other purposes and at the end of the day, our country makes good on its promise of equal opportunity.”

Lawrence Carpenter, chairman of ITE, connected with Hamilton in 2009. As a former incarcerated individual turned entrepreneur, he is a shining example to those in the program of what a success story looks like. He says the program breaks down the basics of entrepreneurship to give the participants the best plan moving forward for their business.

“It is an eight-week program and you will learn everything,” said Carpenter. “It’s like Business 101 and we go from how to start your business all the way down to taxes and marketing. We cover every point of business.

“We just try to break it down to its simplest form, because for me business is simple; it’s just certain things you have to do pertaining to business to put yourself in a position to be successful.”

While incarcerated, Carpenter knew that he wanted to start his own business upon his release. He knew that working for someone else was not what he wanted to do. He said he realized he made a mistake, but that should not define who he was for the rest of his life.

“I came home and started a very successful business and I realized that the reason why these things happened for me was I had to change certain things in my life,” he said. “I had to change the way I talk, I had to change the way I presented myself, which are things that some of these young men are not willing to do.

“The first thing I always try to do is get them to understand to work on yourself first, because the first thing you have to deal with is yourself.”

Carpenter says he loves sharing his story with others, because it serves as inspiration for others to do the same. He feels his job is not only to provide and support his family, but also use his platform as a ministry to show others there is a right way if you follow God’s plan and not your own.

“I serve hope and that’s where it comes from, hope,” he said. “It is a blessing for me to see these guys transform from being street guys to businessmen. My passion is seeing others being successful. I understood that God put me in a position to help people that other people wouldn’t.”

Over the years, Carpenter said he has enjoyed all of the success stories that have come through ITE. One of the best rewards for him is hearing that participants in the program have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs themselves.

Carpenter wanted to emphasize that everyone in prison or that has been to prison is not a bad person. He says there are plenty of people walking around that have done things that would have landed them in prison, but just have not been caught.

“Everyone wants grace and mercy when it’s for them, but when it’s time to extend grace and mercy, everyone doesn’t want to do that,” he said. “That is the problem that I have with society, we are a society of judgmental people.”

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