Meet the Group Turning Inmates Into Entrepreneurs

CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 WJZY) – A group of North Carolina entrepreneurs are joining forces and teaching their trade. Their audience are inmates. Inmates to Entrepreneurs started in Raleigh 10 years ago and is now expanding to Charlotte.

“They’re just regular people, they make mistakes, they get out. They want to work, they want to be productive, but there is systemic discrimination against these people in getting jobs,” Brian Hamilton said, the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

Hamilton is also the founder of SageWorks, a Raleigh-based software company.

Over 2 million people are in prisons and county jails in the United States. That’s about one percent of the population. There’s another 5 million on probation and/or on parole.

“It’s based on the idea that people get out of prison and they want to get jobs, but that’s really unrealistic,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his goal is to buck the trend that 67 percent of inmates will return to prison.

“All of our mentors by the way have been entrepreneurs, so we’re all mixed up. We’ve all made these mistakes and they can say ‘I remember when I made that mistake’ but they have to have that connection,” Hamilton explained.

More than 1,000 have graduated from the non-for-profit’s eight week course.

“I know what it’s like to be told no. That you cannot succeed in doing something and you have this passion and desire inside of you and it’s burning, and you have to put it somewhere,” Jessica Bladenburg said, who graduated from the program.

Bladenburg now owns her own cleaning service business.

“The desire comes from a lot of rough patches in my life to be honest. It comes from people telling me what I cannot do” Bladenburg said.

All the mentors are volunteers. Some of them have been to prison themselves.

“I thought I was the perfect mentor. I was incarcerated. I got out and started a business and just from that Inmates to Entrepreneurs, I fit it to a ‘T,’” AJ Ware said, the co-chairman of the organization.

“I know that I’m going to teach somebody, at least get them thinking, get the wheels turning. Part of my pitch to them is that you’re in a facility all day long, you have nothing else to do, but think,” Ware said.

“If you can start your own business no one is going to ask you where you come from,” John McLaughlin said, the owner of Lockers Unlimited based in Charlotte.

McLaughlin has helped mentor inmates for the last year. He said he plans on signing on to mentor the inmates when Inmates to Entrepreneurs expands to Charlotte.

“Most people who are successful in small business had at some point a mentor who took them aside and said do this, not this. Let me help you with this, try this,” McLaughlin explained.

His 1,000 square foot warehouse is on Charlotte’s west side. But he said his real work is in the state’s prisons helping inmates help themselves

“The problem is if you turn them loose without any training, and these are very capable people, but they go in [to find a job] they have to check that box that says have you ever committed a felony and that eliminates them from that job search,” McLaughlin said.

“The difference between an inmate and maybe you or me is not as great as we think. There’s a lot of people out there who made mistakes,” Hamilton said.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs helps them establish low-capital businesses.

“Most times in prisons we throw them in there, we’re not changing them very much. They’re not changing very much. They get out and 67 percent of them go back and that’s not good for anybody,” Hamilton said.

“What I learned throughout the years was the greatest risk is putting my fate in somebody else’s hands. I want to be able to control my destiny and I’m able to do that as a small business owner,” McLaughlin said.