Program turns inmates into entrepreneurs

RALEIGH – During a visit to an Orange County prison with a minister friend from Oxford, Brian Hamilton asked an inmate what he’d planned to do once he was released. The man replied, “I’ll get a job.” Hamilton thought to himself how tough that would be with a criminal record. “Why don’t you become an entrepreneur,” he asked the inmate.

And so, a national movement of second chances was born. In 1992, through his Brian Hamilton Foundation, Hamilton started Inmates to Entrepreneurs to provide free courses to people with a criminal record on how to start and grow their own business quickly, and with little money. Hamilton told that story during the Inmates to Entrepreneurs’ North Carolina 2020 Virtual Commencement last week.

“To me, this is all about the American Dream,” Hamilton told the graduates. “It was so important to me when I was coming up to know that, in America, no matter where you were born or your station in life, you have the ability to rise up. Hamilton, referring to his own tough, meager beginnings, said realizing he could change his situation “was absolutely pivotal for me…because, inside of that, we get a second chance.”

With unemployment rates more than five times the national average for those with a criminal record, Inmates to Entrepreneurs aims to reduce the recidivism rate across the country by showing people a path to financial stability and entrepreneurial success. Over the past three years, the organization has taught entrepreneurship to over 4,500 individuals in correctional facilities and through its online courses. Seventy-seven percent of students graduate, and many have started simple businesses with low startup costs such as event planning, landscaping, catering, cleaning services.

Brigadier General James R. Gorham, a native North Carolinian who became the first African American brigadier general in the history of the N.C. National Guard, was the commencement speaker. “The only difference between me and you is you got caught; I didn’t,” Gorham told the graduates. “I have done some stuff that I would have been doing time for, but for the grace of God….”

Now retired, Gorham, a motivational speaker and author of “Sharecropper’s Wisdom: Growing Today’s Leaders the Old Fashioned Way,” told the graduates to jot down these 10 words that “changed my life”: “God will provide provisions for those who pursue their vision.”

What that means, he said, is God will provide what you need as long as “you pursue it with everything in your heart,” and refuse to break focus.

Graduate April Bond had been in the real estate business for several years when the COVID-19 pandemic left many of her rental tenants unable to pay their rent, which meant Bond wasn’t getting paid. Already wearied by “constant rejection” when she tried to return to her 20-year career in pharmaceutical research, Bond turned to the Inmates to Entrepreneurs marketing courses for a solution.

“I had lost my way completely dealing with bad tenants, bad evictions, bad contractors,” Bond told the 2020 graduates. “But I didn’t want to leave real estate. I wanted to find a way to make money even during a pandemic.” Bond credits both the courses and the instructors for helping rejuvenate her passion as a real estate investor and setting her on the path to wholesaling properties. She recently closed a $30,000 deal, she said.

Also significant, Bond said, was the answer she got when she asked, “What if someone Googles your name” and the criminal record comes up? The answer offered to her, she said: “the people who will Google you and ask about your past are not your consumers; they’re not for your business.”

“That gave me a lot of insight, and it boosted my self-esteem,” said Bond, now in training to become an Inmates to Entrepreneurs instructor. To the graduates, Bond said, simply, “Don’t fear anything but regret.”

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