New Program in Greensboro Helps Former Inmates Be Their Own Boss

GREENSBORO — Don Brown has an idea how to get obese kids off the couch and into better shape. It sounds a little wacky, but he thinks it just might work.

“I call it Exergaming,” Brown explains. “It’s a youth gym where kids get on a bicycle and they have to pedal to power an Xbox.”

Brown was among about 50 people who recently attended the Greensboro launch of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a program that began in early September at The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, is an eight-week course that teaches ex-convicts how to start their own business.

“The folks who are coming out of prison have difficulty getting jobs,” says Brian Hamilton, who founded the program. “I’m not convinced that is ever going to get any better. So what we want to do is help them start their own business and be the employers.”

The course is free.

Hamilton founded Inmates to Entrepreneurs over 20 years ago after accompanying a friend on a ministry visit to a Raleigh prison.

“An inmate told me he was going to get a job when he got out,” Hamilton recalls. “I thought to myself: ‘How? No one is going to hire you.’ ”

Hamilton said that was the “light-bulb moment” when he decided to start the program.

In the beginning, Hamilton took Inmates to Entrepreneurs to prisons in central North Carolina. Being employed full time, Hamilton was only able to offer the program occasionally.

About five years ago, Hamilton took Inmates to Entrepreneurs beyond the prison walls. He operated the nonprofit with funding from his banking software and data company called Sageworks, which he recently sold.

Around the same time, Hamilton met AJ Ware, a former inmate who successfully started his own business. Now, Ware is not only a mentor for Inmates to Entrepreneurs but also the program’s co-chairman.

“We don’t expect them to start out a business like Microsoft right of prison,” Ware said. “I tell them, ‘One of the first things you’ve got to do tomorrow is eat. How are you going to do that?’ ”

Hamilton said the challenge for inmates to find employment is even greater in the digital age.

“The real challenge to getting a job is the Internet,” Hamilton said. “All an employer has to do is Google your name and your mugshot comes up.”

Hamilton said the program aims to show participants how to start a business for $500 or less.

Ware cautions against borrowing money to start a business. He said to get the cashflow going first.

“We’ll teach you how to get that first dollar,” Ware said.

One of the program’s strong points is the network of 50 or more mentors across the state who operate their own businesses and advise program graduates.

Some who attended the launch event, like Charlette Mans, are interested in being a mentor.

“I work as a re-entry coordinator in a prison,” Mans said. “I have a lot of drug-treatment experience.”

Hamilton has already launched the program in Charlotte and Wilmington.

“We really want to blow this through North Carolina and get it out to the country,” Hamilton said. “There’s a huge need.”