Posts Tagged ‘pep class 21’

PEP was just profiled by Acton Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes. The full story can be found here.

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Shortly after the day’s guests arrive at the East Texas prison, and well before they begin to mix with the inmates, they hear a low rumbling noise in the distance. As they make their way closer to the prison gymnasium, the low rumbling grows into a constant and thunderous clamor. For those making their first visit to the Cleveland Correctional Center, located 45 minutes north of Houston, the roar of the inmates’ husky voices is disconcerting—maybe even intimidating—as they wonder what awaits them. The energy inside the prison is relentless, almost palpable. When the doors swing open to the gymnasium, the day’s guests walk single file through a sea of shouting inmates. One hundred and twenty-six prisoners to be exact.

But this is no angry riot. This is a victory celebration.Visitors are greeted with deafening applause and pats on the back from the inmates as they walk through what can only be described as a celebratory hand-slapping gauntlet.

The fist-pumping reception sets the tone for the day in what feels like a pep rally. It signifies that something behind the bars of the 520-inmate prison, indeed within the hearts of many of its prisoners, has changed.

Welcome to “pitch day,” where inmates practice and prepare for an upcoming business plan competition managed by the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Houston-based nonprofit that turns incarcerated men into aspiring business owners.

During this important dress rehearsal as they prepare for their final examination, inmates receive feedback from mostly local business leaders. At a later date, the men in the program deliver a 30-minute oral business plan presentation to a judging panel of business executives and venture capitalists from across the nation. But before inmates make it this far, they must successfully complete PEP’s three-month character development program called Leadership Academy. Then they move into PEP’s core program, the six-month business plan competition that leads to a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

Jay Wall, a Houston-area real estate developer, says the program “is all about changing the trajectory for these young men.” They can succeed and fairly quickly. “They just need to be willing to listen,” Wall says. “We come here because we want to help, and we believe in what is going on inside these walls.”

Bert Smith, CEO of the PEP program, begins the day by bringing the people in the gymnasium to silence. He speaks about Gideon, an Israelite judge, and the amen choruses from the assembled prisoners begin. “I have always thought of Gideon as a hero, but when God came looking for a leader, Gideon’s response was, why me?” Smith tells them. Gideon, who thought of himself as nothing special, is a reminder to those assembled that he was divinely selected to free the Lord’s people. Before I even arrive at Cleveland Correctional, Smith tells me that PEP doesn’t really do ministry at the 40-acre minimum security prison. “It’s not a faith-based program,” he declares. But coming inside these walls makes me think of the celebration of the Prodigal Son’s return in Luke’s Gospel, which is clearly a picture of the embrace believers can expect from their heavenly Father. Several times during the day Smith jokes with volunteers and inmates that the prison is “our own private gated community.” He tells the visitors, “Whoever came in here looking for caged animals will be sorely disappointed.”

Smith will lead and help instruct prisoners on pitching their entrepreneurial ideas and start-ups to the “venture panels.” Smith describes it as something akin to the hit television show “Shark Tank.” He tells me the inmates, in putting together their business plans, become virtual experts in important concepts, such as what competitive advantage their start-ups bring to the marketplace. Inmates are critiqued fairly, but with little patronizing or sympathy for their plight.

The program, which launched in 2004, addresses the huge need for positive reintegration of convicts into productive civilian life. When most inmates are released, they can’t find a job. A felony conviction is devastating in any job market. Almost 75 percent of PEP graduates are employed within 30 days of release, and 100 percent are employed within 90 days. Many inmates choose to live in transition homes provided by the program when they are released so they are fully plugged into a community and network that provides opportunities to succeed. The program’s three-year success rate is as high as 95 percent. In 2013, Baylor University determined that PEP delivers a 340 percent return on investment for every dollar donated to the program.

PEP also boasts of a low recidivism rate. After three years, less than six percent of PEP graduates are repeat offenders, compared to 23 percent of non-PEP graduates. To be eligible for the program inmates must not be incarcerated for a sex crime, must be within three years of release, and must possess a high school diploma or GED, all while making a commitment to change.

Natalie Baker, executive relations manager for PEP, oversees an ice breaker exercise that helps inmates and visitors connect. She lines up prisoners and volunteers face-to-face. The two groups take a step forward if they have something in common, such as coming from a broken home, experiencing a history of being incarcerated, or having used illegal drugs. For the most part, the similarities are evident. The exercise is a reminder to inmates that success is not out of their reach and to volunteers that the inmates aren’t unlike them.

Baker, who has a law degree and MBA, spent four years in prison when she seriously injured two motorists while driving drunk in Florida. She admits her transition out of prison was much more difficult than her actual incarceration. Baker was harassed and turned down for jobs despite holding two advanced degrees.

Otis Rogers, a 33-year-old inmate from Cleveland, Mississippi, was apprehended while transporting drugs from Texas to his home state. Rogers says the PEP program has been critical for pointing out the flaws in his character. “It’s a great program, and I really like it,” he told me. Rogers pitches the idea of a barbershop named “Picture Perfect Haircuts,” which would also specialize as a dry cleaning service. The business panelists who review his pitch aggressively challenge the notion of a joint barbershop and dry cleaning shop, suggesting Rogers commit to one or the other.

Being from out of state, Rogers’s story differs a little than some of the others in the program. When I caught up with him later in the day he says he is due to be released later this summer. He seems unsure as to whether he will open a barbershop and appears more excited about an opportunity in Mississippi working as a truck driver, a job he previously held. “I will be released before the graduation day from this program, but I plan on coming back with some of my family for the ceremony,” says Rogers.

Thirty-four-year-old Stevon Harris pitches the idea of a welding business, an industry in which he seems to have considerable experience and skill despite initially seeming a little shy or unsure of himself.

Inmates in PEP are given “sweet names” to help shed former gang nicknames and their rough reputation. Harris is also known as “Chris Tucker,” presumably named after the Hollywood actor and comedian. He says the program has taught him character, self-discipline, and brotherhood. “It really took the people around me in PEP to bring certain issues to my attention,” he says.

Character assessments are a big part of PEP, and most of the inmates I talk with admit this is the most challenging part of the program. One inmate describes it as akin to standing in front of a mirror all day while others give you constant correction. Another inmate says it’s essential because “you need to have somebody covering your blind spot.” Inmates are confronted with their faults and what they need to do to not only make changes but also be held accountable for their words and actions.

I ask Harris, who is scheduled for release in 2017, if the program is what he expected, and he freely admits it is a lot different. “Honestly, at first, I was looking for something that I thought was going to be much easier and a handout,” he says. “But through PEP now I can visualize my own business plan, and I see others who are released from here but come back to share their success stories.” Eligible inmates from all over Texas can apply for a transfer to the Cleveland facility for the program. Not all who apply will be admitted.

I question a 40-year-old inmate from South Texas about the ones that drop out, a topic I haven’t seen addressed in any of the media coverage or PEP testimonials. “A lot of people do leave the program,” he confides. “They simply can’t handle the homework, and there is a lot of after-hours work and preparation they are not willing to embrace.”

The business plan competition requires 1,000 hours of classroom time over six months. That works out to several hours of homework per night. Inmates study college textbooks and read novels like “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

One of the best and most animated venture plans comes from a young and very personable inmate named Joshua Moore. He looks younger than his 30 years, and he tells me he was sent to prison for bringing drugs into a school zone. “I’ve seen some people come out of prison like a broken down Vietnam War vet,” Moore says. “I didn’t want to live like that. That’s why I got involved in the PEP program.”

Moore’s “sweet name” is Marvin the Martian, and his business is “Ooh-La-La Auto Spa.” He even has a jingle ready for the pitch and has clearly thought extensively about how to market the auto cleaning and detailing business. The competition judges give him largely positive feedback and offer further suggestions such as tips for servicing vehicles while clients are at work. The name of the business, with its sexual overtones, is catchy. And after Moore’s presentation, I am fairly convinced it has a legitimate chance at success in part because I can’t help but be drawn in by the infectious personality of the “Ooh-La-La” mastermind.

Moore, who writes me a short letter along with some of the other inmates after my visit, personalizes his note with something I told him about my life and our conversations at the facility. Some of these guys really know how to network.

Joshua McComas, 27, says his favorite part of the program is the way volunteers come inside to give entrepreneurial instruction and critique. “The effort these volunteers put fort is important for us,” he says. “That feedback is essential, and I actually use it to improve myself. I mean, all these people come in and smile at us, and my own family won’t even smile at me.” McComas says PEP “is actually going to give me a chance to support my family.” He talks about vowing to “have something of substance to show my son, once my son allows me back into his life.”

It is easy to forget you are inside a prison while attending a PEP event, but in the afternoon we are interrupted several times by guards for inmate roll call. The steady interruptions seem a little out of the ordinary, even for prison. While there is no violence at Cleveland Correctional while I am there, I find out later that day that a serious prison riot broke out at the Willacy County Correctional Facility near Harlingen, along the border with Mexico.

After more inmates are grilled on their business plans, state regulatory laws, and start-up costs, everybody settles back into the gymnasium for a celebration, testimonials, and dancing. Volunteers who are first-time visitors to the program are required to dance for whooping inmates and offer up their own testimonial of the day’s experience.

A PEP skeptic might feel like some elements are carefully choreographed for maximum buy-in and emotion. But it’s hard to argue with the authenticity of many of the inmates and the entrepreneurial skills and knowledge that have been ingrained in more than 100 participants. PEP’s successful statistics are not going unnoticed by politicians either. Texas’s senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn lavishes the program with praise, saying it is “reforming lives” and “strengthening Texas communities.” There are plans to expand the program in Texas and possibly across the nation.

There’s a common feeling that many of the inmates have been changed more by the character assessment side of the program, rather than the rigorous academic work required to participate and graduate from PEP. It’s clear that inmates understand that if they are going to receive a shot at redemption, it will require much more than entrepreneurial and financial success. Many, but not all, speak freely and openly about their Christian faith and credit that for their transformation and success.

At the end of what could be described as a prison revival, Smith shouts to the assembled, “These men are determined not to let past outcomes determine the future.” This reminds me of something similar written by the Apostle Paul, when he was hopelessly wrapped in chains. He told the Church at Philippi, “What has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

PEP Pitch Day

Give us the cookies!

Class “Triumphant’ 21 will host Pitch Day on Friday, May 16, 2014 from 11:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and we need your help to make it a success!

About the Event
On Pitch Day, over 80 aspiring entrepreneurs will deliver their business plan presentations in a “Shark Tank”-style event. This event serves as a sort of dress rehearsal for the final Business Plan Competition that we will host this June 5 and 6. Pitches are 7-10 minutes each and present a fully refined concept. Your feedback will help our participants to put the finishing touches on their plans and their pitches before the final BPC event. Get ready to be impressed, ask tough questions and provide good feedback! To learn more and to register, click here.

We Need an Event Sponsor!
Sponsors make this event possible. For as little as $500, you and/or your company can transform the futures of our participants. Sponsors are provided with meaningful recognition opportunities, which are detailed here

Plus … the sponsor ensures that we can provide coffee and cookies to everyone at the event. Where else can you make hundreds of people THAT happy for as little as $500?!?!

Only in prison!

Learn more about our sponsorship opportunities here:
http://peprsvp.org/sponsor/

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program will host the Class “Triumphant” 21’s Business Plan Workshop on Saturday, April 26, 2014, 9:00am-3:00pm.

This is a perfect volunteer opportunity for those who cannot attend Friday events, such as our “Selling with Purpose” event the day before (on Friday, April 25 from 11:30 – 5:00pm).

About the Business Plan Workshop
Get your hands dirty while working one-on-one with participants to provide written and oral feedback on their business plans. Combined with the preceding day’s feedback on their personal presentations and business pitches, this is a great way to make good business plans even better!

See schedule to RSVP here.

Selling with Purpose

Selling with Purpose

Do you love to sell? Does your heart flutter at the thought of closing a deal or winning a new customer?

If so — the Prison Entrepreneurship Program needs you!

We are seeking a executive volunteers (particularly those with sales experience!) to join us for Class 21’s “Selling with Purpose” event will be on Friday, April 25, 2014 from 11:30am-5:00pm at the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, Texas (about 45 minutes North of Houston).

Our “Selling Night” event gives our participants the opportunity to present their Business Plan to you as a potential customer. This fast-paced event involves volunteers hearing one-on-one “sales pitches” in a speed-dating format. You then grade the presenters so that they can strengthen their approach over the final months of the program, all in preparation for the ultimate test before graduation.

See schedule to RSVP here.

Volunteers may visit prison up to four times before they are required to attend training through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

This important training is conveniently offered the morning before a PEP event (Class 21’s “Selling with Purpose” event) at the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, TX. You will learn the “do’s and don’ts” of being a trained volunteer. See schedule to RSVP here.

For those who have been trained in the past

REMINDER … volunteers are required to retrain every two (2) years. So, if it has been more than 2 years since you took this last, you should attend this training (and then stick around to use your volunteer skills at our Selling event).

Of course, if you cannot make it in person, on-line retraining is available for those who have already been trained in person. TDCJ developed this program to encourage and assist volunteers in meeting this retraining requirement. Please click here to learn more.

 

The following was written by our incarcerated participants. It was originally written for their families, but we wanted to share it with you so that you can get a glimpse of what we do inside of prison… from the perspectives of our participants!

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Week 10: Week in Review

Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International

Monday, March 10, 2014 — Toastmasters is evolving and competent speakers are emerging from the woodwork. The level of preparation from the speakers is increasing and the topics are vast and all-encompassing. This is coming from just the second round of speeches; once we reach the tenth round the metamorphosis will be astonishing. Everyone is doing great and the atmosphere is very relaxed as our bond of brotherhood allows us to speak comfortably to everyone present.

a9643c6b3146c8515bd2c53a38dc55b2Tuesday, March 11, 2014 — We have gotten into our groove with the entrepreneurship book. This is our second week in a row with a 90 test score average, a 92 to be exact for today. We have earned our namesake as Class “Triumphant” 21, for we are victorious and always prevail. We have almost reached the halfway mark of our class and I can’t help but think of the mantra for the Roman legions: “In Omnia Paratus,” which means “ready for all things.” By our actions we have proven that we are ready for all things and triumphant in everything we encounter.

Living in the Village by Ryan Mack

“Living in the Village” by Ryan Mack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014— Brian T. has been giving us tons of useful and beneficial information from our readings from Living in the Village. The importance of saving and investing becomes clearer and clearer as our studies progress. I know that we will take the information learned here and apply it all in our lives upon our release. The arsenal of new information we have gotten ensures only one thing: success!

Thursday, March 13, 2014 —We spent a majority of the day engulfed in educational videos. At the end of the day we had Pat M. and Marcus H. give us encouraging words which always recharge our batteries and prepare us for whatever comes our way. An important fact that Pat brought to our attention was that in a few months we will not graduate, instead we will go through a rite of passage. A graduation signifies finality; a rite of passage represents but a single step in a long journey through life.

Friday, March 14, 2014 — Today was a special movie day, as we were able to watch The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. This was one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. I got caught up in the characters and their struggles to survive. It kept me guessing all through the movie as to what was going to happen next. In some way, form, or fashion all of us could relate to something that transpired on the screen.

Check out this trailer from the film here:

Expressions

It’s nice to see the variety of fruit starting to manifest in Class 21 from all the seeds that PEP and all our brothers have been planting. Keep up all the good work, brothers!

Colleen Rickenbacher teaching etiquette in prison

Author Colleen Rickenbacher teaching etiquette in prison

WOOHOO! Some awesome photos are now available from Class “Triumphant” 21’s most recent event … Excellence in Etiquette, featuring the truly inimitable Colleen Rickenbacher (a.k.a. The Necktie Assassin).

We are grateful to our dear friend Genie Erneta for sponsoring this event (including the best meal served this year within the Cleveland Correctional Center)!

See all of the photos here:
http://prisonentrepreneurshipprogram.zenfolio.com/class21etiquette

The following was written by our incarcerated participants. It is intended primarily for their families, but we wanted to share it with you so that you can get a glimpse of what we do inside of prison… from the perspectives of our participants!

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Week 7: Week in Review

Toastmaster

PEP Participant Andrew W. Using his Toastmaster Skills to Speak to Executive Volunteers at PEP’s Concept Day (click for other pics from the day)

Monday, February 17, 2014 — Today was Toastmasters as usual, yet that’s not entirely true. Why? Because there was a calm that settled in and that made these Toastmasters whom I saw today scarcely resemble the “fraidy cat” versions seen earlier in class. Men laughed, smiled and delivered speeches with a new confidence. It really was a sight to behold. I don’t think any of us dared to believe that we could actually become competent public speakers, but week by week we actually see the miracle taking place — truly amazing.

Math is fun... :(

Math is fun… 😦

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 — Today was perhaps the most dreaded Tuesday of all: we were given our tests on EOU’s (economics of one unit). Basically, we needed to calculate our profit margins on one typical unit of sale and use that information to determine things like gross profit, breakeven points and net profits in various business scenarios. For those born without the math gene, gulp! True to form, the EOU test gave nearly two thirds of our class extra homework (more EOU’s). One way or the other, we’ll get them down, for we are TRIUMPHANT 21.

The Refining Fire of PEP Continues Its Work in Our Lives

The Refining Fire of PEP Continues Its Work in Our Lives

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 — Peer educator Bryan Troy (a.k.a. Cruella De Vil) led us in a fascinating recap of a couple of chapters in personal finance. We learned about how much a daily cup of coffee saved at an 8% rate would be over 20 years. Suffice it to say, a cup of Starbucks a day keeps a dream home away! We also had a “town hall meeting” to address a growing weariness in us from all the assignments, tests and homework. We were told that we are trudging the same difficult stretch that all previous classes have bogged down on as well, and we were encouraged not to lose heart. The heat of the refining fire is doing its work and it’s not always comfortable. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But it’s not, so only the proud few band together as brothers to unite and see each other through PEP style.

As-Iron-Sharpens-Iron1Thursday, February 20, 2014 — Let’s call today prep day. We mainly practiced our 3- minute pitches on each other in preparation for presenting them in front of a panel of executives tomorrow. Memorizing the most important 3 minutes worth of our business concepts and delivering it passionately and flawlessly to a panel of experts strikes the fear of God in most of us. We needed that practice, because iron sharpens iron.

Class 21 VCP

Class 21 Participant Receives Feedback on His Pitch From Executive Volunteers. Click to see more photos from the day!

Friday, February 21, 2014 — Oh my word! What a day! Class 21 took turns presenting pitches to a panel of executives (think Shark Tank) in an event called Venture Capital Panel (VCP). While butterflies certainly swarmed our bread baskets, the word I would use to summarize the day would be COURAGE. Triumphant 21 stepped up to the plate and delivered despite the fear, displaying courage I’m not sure we knew we possessed. We changed today, but we weren’t alone. The bewildered look upon the faces of the first time executives said it all. Prison isn’t supposed to be like this. Today we experienced life, abundant life. (To see photos from the day, click here.)

Class 21 Concept Day

A group of Class 21 Participants with some of the MBA Volunteers for Concept Day. Click to see more photos from the day!

Saturday, February 22, 2014— Would Concept Day live up to the emotional peaks we scaled only the day before? All we had to do was fasten our seat belts to see. We were visited by a bevy of Texas A&M students as well as several young teachers from Teach For America, and of course some executive “repeat attenders.” Again we met one-on-one to hone our business concepts, and once again hearts collided. It’s hard to tell who impacted whom the most. The excitement really began when we gave our repeat attendees their sweet names (for the men) and tough names (for the women). Now they are truly one with us, part of the PEP family. Just ask Mike, whom we now call “Precious Moments.” (To see photos from the day, click here.)

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PEP Class 17 Graduate Roger R

PEP Class 17 Graduate Roger R. is one of our awesome Peer Educators who Volunteers to Guide Class 21

As the days grow long and weeks get shorter, stay consistent with your studies and learn from all your endeavors.  For the road less traveled is the one traveled by courageous men we call PEP brothers.

-Roger R. (a.k.a. Rainbow Bright)

Prison Entrepreneurship Program Class Tenacious 21

Photos of Class “Triumphant” 21 are now available!

  • See all photo galleries here;
  • See headshots of Class 21 here;
  • See photos from Kickoff here.

The following email was sent to one of our loyal Accenture volunteers by a fellow employee whom she recruited to join us in prison. It is a great explanation of the impact of volunteering through PEP.

Want to join Brenan and others for such an experience? Check out our upcoming event schedule here.


Hey Sherry,

I just wanted to tell you that you were absolutely right! PEP was such an unimaginably INCREDIBLE experience!! The event started with our group of executives entering the Gym to such a warm and embracing welcome by all of the class 21 participants. During the actual Kick off session we participated in numerous ice breaking introductory events. It is hard for me to formulate the words to express how meaningful and touching this experience was to me. When meeting with these participants, I had the opportunity to do more than just speak with inmates, I met men who were eager to make a change. The guys were so genuinely expressing their gratitude for PEP and the tools that PEP is offering them to not only be successful in business, but tools that will help them reinvent their lives. You hit the nail on the head, when you said that you forget you are in a prison while participating in PEP. I don’t want to write an overbearing email. I just want to say in all that I had an amazing experience and look forward to helping see class 21 through their development in PEP and life. I want to thank you and let you know I now understand why you are so passionate about this program, because it is truly changing people’s lives.

Regards,

Brenan P. Gordon