Toccara King loves people. The 39-year-old was a gregarious Florida kid — a dancer, cheerleader, and gymnast — raised by her military grandparents and later joined the military herself. She said she’s always had the spirit of a self-starter.
After working as a Verizon telemarketer for eight years and then relocating to Charlotte, North Carolina, she decided to start a moving company with her friend in 2015. It was a way to combine her love of people, customer service, and travel. But it was also a bad idea, she said. There were too many moving parts (pardon the pun), and in 2017 King was arrested for her involvement in a marijuana trafficking scheme. The moving business “had more customers than I could actually keep up with… It was hard to keep employees… And I winded up here in jail, so I wasn’t able to get that far into it,” King explained.
King’s been at the Mecklenburg County jail for nearly two years. During that time, she found the free, online entrepreneurship course, Starter U, and its partner program, Inmates to Entrepreneurs, on one of the detention center’s new educational tablets. The course is an extension of an in-person program that was started two decades ago. It’s since expanded to include courses for those post-release, as well as online modules available on tablets at correctional facilities nationwide in the age of COVID.
She finished the Starter U course in three days, filling up notebooks with information that could have prevented her previous business mistakes. She learned to hire an accountant before a business attorney and not use her business account for personal expenses. The course rekindled a passion that had been on the back-burner for almost two years.
Creating access to online resources, ones that offer practical skills like Starter U and Inmates to Entrepreneurs, has rippling implications beyond individuals like King. They address a systemic problem: the undervaluing of people with criminal records and the need for support services post-incarceration.
According to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prison reform research group, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is more than 27 percent — the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the national unemployment rate at only 6.7 percent as of December 2020. The Prison Policy Initiative also found that having a criminal record “reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent.” These numbers are even higher for formerly incarcerated Black women and men, more than a third of which won’t hear back when they apply for jobs. And it’s all exacerbated by the highest unemployment rates in years due to a global pandemic.
Starter U and Inmates to Entrepreneurs hopes to combat the statistics by offering digital resources in business ownership for those in and out of jail or prison as an alternative source of employment.
Before finding the course, King was filling her time behind bars with books and resources provided by loved ones on the outside. She had heard of the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program in passing, recommended to her by a fellow inmate’s mother who saw a flyer for the full course. King made a copy of the flyer and put it away for safe keeping. Months later, King booted up one of the new tablets to see Starter U, the same course she was expecting to enroll in after release.
She blew through the first two units. “I was really excited about it because it was something that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to do,” King explained. “I could utilize this information now, you know? And now when I get out, I can actually work towards those things.” It’s simple, King said, but the course helped her understand the possible outcomes of all the business decisions she could have made.
Now that King’s had both the lessons of her first business venture and the Starter U course, she is looking forward to pitching her new business idea: a food truck franchise with a robust digital presence, with orders placed and tracked online. “I’m just trying to get as much information as I possibly can while I’m in this moment so that when I get out, I could go at it again with my business ideas,” King said.
Starter U was designed by the Brian Hamilton Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free educational and mentorship opportunities to aspiring business owners. Brian Hamilton, founder and CEO, said he was inspired to begin the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program 28 years ago with the help of his friend Rev. Robert J. Harris, who was already working with incarcerated people in North Carolina’s penal system. “We would start going around to the prisons, teaching people how to start low-capital businesses,” Hamilton said. The businesses could be started for less than $500, like window-washing services, landscaping, housecleaning, and other service businesses, Hamilton explained (they don’t preach MLMs). Both men were inspired to build the program after hearing first-hand the difficulties of finding employment with a criminal record.
Over the two decades, the program grew. Inmates to Entrepreneurs builds on the free, online Starter U course with an eight-week-long program led by dedicated instructors and guest speakers, as well as network opportunities and a formal graduation for all participants — this year, it’s all successfully migrated online to Zoom, turning out two nationwide graduating classes totaling 147 people during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, the program also offered in-person workshops for those currently incarcerated in North Carolina jails and prisons. And in early December, the foundation introduced a new digital collaboration with tech company GTL, which distributed 200,000 tablets pre-loaded with Starter U courses to correctional facilities around the country. Since the launch, more than 1,300 currently incarcerated people have begun the course and 103 have already completed it.