Second Chance for Former Inmates Moving on as Entrepreneurs

It’s graduation day for entrepreneurs with criminal records.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit that provides free entrepreneurship education and mentorship to former offenders, is graduating its second class of Charlotte students April 11 at 7 p.m. at the Movement Center on Freedom Drive. The graduates completed a free eight-week course covering entrepreneurship essentials.

Raleigh-based Inmates to Entrepreneurs, founded in 1992, has taught entrepreneurship in more than 50 detention centers and expanded to New York City and Atlanta. The courses are open to anyone with a criminal record.

“People with criminal records who want to start fresh and earn an income to support themselves and their families, often face discrimination in the job market,” said founder Brian Hamilton, co-founder of Sageworks and an entrepreneurship advocate. “So, our idea is, let’s turn them into entrepreneurs and they can create their own jobs.”

Hamilton cited the case of Donald Brown, a graduate from Greensboro who turned in 94 job applications after being released from prison, only to come up empty. The entrepreneurship program gives former offenders a chance to chart their own professional course by learning from mentors who are current or former business owners.

“The problem is that when they’re trying to get a decent job, their applications often get thrown into the garbage because of their backgrounds,” Hamilton said. “We just want to level the playing field.”

Said UNC Charlotte Criminal Justice Professor Toussaint Romain: “Even after paying their debts to society, individuals with criminal records are left wholly unemployed or significantly underemployed for life. Inmates to Entrepreneurs offers people with criminal records the skills they need to participate in a system from which they have been excluded.”

Entrepreneurship also is an economic catalyst in which former offenders can lift themselves as small business owners. Kelly Little, chief information officer of the Legrand Little Group in Charlotte, said North Carolina graduates have started businesses like cleaning services, auto detailing shops and landscaping companies.

Charlotte resident Kelly Little, CIO of the Legrand Little Group, helped launch the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program in Charlotte and is actively mentoring graduates running businesses, including tattoo parlors and recycling services.

“Inmates to Entrepreneurs helps people go from surviving to thriving,” said Kelly, who helped launch the Charlotte program and is CEO of The Urban Institute for Strengthening Families. “Recently Charlotte was considered 50 out of 50 in terms of economic mobility. “In order to transform that reality, it’s going to take organizations like Inmates to Entrepreneurs and the Brian Hamilton Foundation to provide practical solutions to current problems.”