Posts Tagged ‘PEP graduation’

PEP helps former inmates make a positive impact on their community. To read the full story, click here.

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“What if you were known for the worst thing that you have ever done?” That’s the question at the center of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit that helps convicted felons get a fresh start in life.

When a prison sentence is over, it can be tough for former inmates to move forward. It’s hard to find a job, engage in their communities in positive ways, and turn their lives around. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush said, “We know from long experience that if [former prisoners] can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison…. America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” In Texas, PEP works to make that path easier to find, and easier to walk.

Prison Initiatives Manager Patrick McGee spoke recently at the State Policy Network Conference in Nashville, explaining that inmates “have potential, but nobody believes in them.” McGee knows what that is like. Born to a young single mother, he saw her taking government assistance and, he said, “that trained me how to struggle.”

Looking back, he realizes that the circumstances of his birth didn’t have to dictate his life. “Poverty, it may have been inherited, but it was something I did not have to exist in,” McGee said.

After serving time in prison, McGee turned his life around and — through his involvement with PEP — he now helps other men with criminal records to succeed. One of the first tasks new participants are given is to write a eulogy for themselves. This forces them to take a look at their lives and think about what people would say about them if they were gone.

“We work with those whom society has cast off, and instead of sending them back out to commit more crime, we hook them up with legitimate skills and challenge them to maintain high standards for their lives,” PEP’s website explains. Inmates are connected with entrepreneurs, CEOs, and top executives to learn the skills that will lead to success after re-integration.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program participants live by the four Gs: gather, grow, give, and go back to communities.

The first 36 hours after a prisoner’s release are crucial. Former inmates find themselves vulnerable, frequently without a support system that will be conducive to positive change. PEP is there to help with that as well. The organization provides some bare essentials, such as a care package and a place to stay, as well as clothes for job interviews, parole mediation and transportation. Family is critical to PEP, so the group works with families to assist with reunifications and connect participants with local churches. When participants have re-entered society, PEP is there to help them get on their feet.

Former inmates meet weekly to discuss entrepreneurship and are frequently joined by business leaders who mentor them as they look for work. For many, PEP is their avenue to their first legitimate job. Participants are trained in everything from negotiation, marketing and web development to portfolio management and taxation. PEP can even provide small amounts of start-up capital and a $500 reimbursement once Entrepreneurship School (eSchool) is complete, a process that takes place over the course of at least 20 workshops. Above all, these men must earn their help.

“We don’t do handouts,” McGee said.

The results speak for themselves. PEP boasts three-year success rates of up to 95 percent, and a recent study by Baylor University has found that the program has a return on investment of an astounding 340 percent, thanks to reduced recidivism, increased child support payments and less reliance on government assistance.

The organization receives no government funding and, perhaps most telling, 25 percent of PEP’s donors are graduates of the program. Checking out the testimonials on their YouTube Channel, it’s not hard to see why.

As McGee puts it, “To see someone take a hand up and run with it, that’s a beautiful thing.”

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.”

Read on for the most recent coverage of how our programs change lives!

http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Texas-Prison-Program-Aims-to-Produce-Business-Savvy-Inmates-288584471.html

Graduation is the culmination of nearly six months of hard work by our participants, who were hand-selected from a pool of nearly 10,000 other men across the State of Texas to enter PEP.

PEP Class 21 Graduation
Friday, June 6th
2:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Cleveland Correctional Facility
(45 minutes North of Houston)

PEP is an entrepreneurial “boot camp” that requires graduates to complete over 1,000 hours of work while developing a complete business plan. In recognition of their accomplishments, graduates will earn a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University (learn more about these certificates here).You can learn more about the overall PEP program here.

Come ready to celebrate their accomplishments as these men open the next chapter of their lives!

To register to attend graduation, click here. PLEASE NOTE that we must have prior authorization for all guests; you can not gain entrance to the prison without completing an RSVP form and securing approval.

To see pictures from the last graduation event, click here.

Whether or not you can attend: Please share your best piece of advice, line of encouragement or favorite quote with our graduates! Click here.

PEP Graduation in Prison

This December 13, 2013 will mark a a major milestone for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. On that day, we will watch our 1,000th graduate cross the stage and receive a PEP diploma.

Your support made this possible.

We would love for your to join us that day in prison for the Class 20 Graduation! You will not only see over 80 members of “Tenacious Twenty” earn their Certificate of Entrepreneurship from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, but you will be able to meet their families and loved ones.

Friday, December 13, 2013
2:00 – 5:00 pm
Cleveland, Texas
(45 minutes north of Houston)

To register, go to www.PEPrsvp.orgThis site provides directions and logistics about the event

See you in prison!

Believe in yourself -- lessons from prisoners

PEP Graduate, Ricky L., being interviewed on the radio about his involvement in PEP.

One of our graduates, Ricky L., recently shared this note, which we have adapted for this blog:

“Let me clear a few things up.

I was released from prison 8 months ago with only 100 dollars and two bags of clothes. I was working a temporary job within 2 days of release, then found a steady job within a month.

I am still employed, obtained my driver’s license, and just moved into a huge town home. All my bills are in my name, never late, and I pay my 12 year old’s phone bill every month. I also went to continuing education every Tuesday night through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s ‘eSchool’ program and was able to graduate with my second diploma from P. E. P.

I’m a man, and with Gods blessing I can’t fail.

I have ridden a bike in the heat and rain to achieve all this.

I won’t quit, I wont back down, and I don’t give up.

I believe in myself.”

We believe in you too, Ricky! Thank you for your dedication to building an inspiring life.

Britanie Olvera Austin TexasNearly 90 men walked across the graduation stage this past Friday … one of whom had been released from prison barely 24 hours earlier, but who returned to deliver his business pitch and walk across the graduation stage!

The celebration was joined by the largest crowd in PEP’s history: nearly 70 executive volunteers who had judged the Business Plan Competition that morning, another 50 volunteers who joined us for the graduation ceremony as well as nearly 300 family members. Together, we laughed, we cried, we gave thanks and we stood in awe of the tremendous transformation within the lives of Class “Noble Nineteen.”

One PEP Board Member, Britanie Olvera, summed it up best:

THANK YOU!!! Or Thank God—for putting this program into existence.. it’s such a delight!! I just am sorry I did not get to attend more events this class. Building a business if fine – but building new lives with people is way more important!  PEP is the best ‘environmentally friendly, heart impacting, good for your engine (mind) and carburetor (soul) on the planet’!  It’s  HI OCTANE and I love getting my tanks full of PEP…

Big news! National speaker Jeff Smith will deliver the keynote address for our Class 19 graduation. (If you would like to join us for free, click here)

As he shares in his TED talk (below), Jeff has a very intimate understanding of the need that PEP is addressing in the prison system.

Jeff Smith is Assistant Professor of Politics and Advocacy in the New School’s Urban Policy graduate program, a consultant on affordable housing policy and prison reform, and a frequent public speaker on ethics in politics. Jeff served in the Missouri Senate from 2006-2009 as the nation’s only white state senator from a black-majority district. He is a columnist for City and State and a contributor to The Recovering Politician, a popular new blog for former legislators. He has appeared on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and Current, and has been profiled by NPR’s “This American Life,” Harper’s, The New Republic, and several other periodicals. He recently gave a TED talk (see here) on prison entrepreneurship, and has published op-ed pieces for CNN, The Atlantic, Salon, Inc., National Journal, Salon, Politico, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Washington Examiner, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Graduation is the culmination of more than five months of hard work by our participants, who were hand-selected from a pool of nearly 10,000 other men across the State of Texas to enter PEP.

PEP Class 19 Graduation
Friday, June 7th
2:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Cleveland Correctional Facility
(45 minutes North of Houston)

Featuring a keynote address by former Missouri state senator (and inmate) Jeff Smith

PEP is an entrepreneurial “boot camp” that requires graduates to complete over 1,000 hours of work while developing a complete business plan. In recognition of their accomplishments, graduates will earn a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University (learn more about these certificates here).You can learn more about the overall PEP program here.

Come ready to celebrate their accomplishments as these men open the next chapter of their lives!

To register to attend graduation, click here.

To see pictures from the last graduation event, click here.

Whether or not you can attend: Please share your best piece of advice, line of encouragement or favorite quote with our graduates! Click here.

Baylor University Certificate in Entrepreneurship

William G. was among the first PEP graduates to earn his Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business

Graduates from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program can now earn their Certificates in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University‘s Hankamer School of Business through a new partnership between PEP and the university. See the official press release here.

“We offer a ‘mini MBA’ program within the Texas prison system that transforms inmates into entrepreneurs,” said Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). Through the program, the inmates also develop complete business plans for a real venture that they can pursue after release.

During PEP’s Business Plan Competition at the Cleveland Correctional Center north of Houston, these inmates will pitch their business plans over 120 times — including to groups of more than 50 “free world” executives, entrepreneurs and MBA students who attend PEP’s in-prison eventsLearn more in this recent article in The New York Times.

Founded in 2004, PEP is a privately-funded nonprofit that engages executives, entrepreneurs and MBA students as volunteers in a values-based entrepreneurship boot camp that is offered within the Texas prison system. Each year, more than 5,000 inmates apply to be a part of PEP – but only the top 5 percent are selected for this elite program.

“Our graduates invest over 1,000 hours of work into our six-month Business Plan Competition class, which incorporates a college-level curriculum supplemented by Harvard MBA cases, the AP Writing Stylebook, Toastmasters, an employment workshop and a financial literacy course,” Smith said. “In addition, we focus at least half of our time on character assessment and development, built around PEP’s Ten Driving Values.”

“What impresses me the most is how these men not only complete this very rigorous program within a prison, but they do so while completing a full business plan for a real venture that they can launch after release from prison,” said Dr. Gary Carini, associate dean of the Graduate Program in Management & Entrepreneurship at the Baylor University Hankamer School of Business, and a member of the governing board for PEP.

PEP participants pitch their plans before panels of executive judges in a “Shark Tank” format at PEP’s monthly events. The presentations prepare the men for making their case in the free world – including to potential employers once they are released.

“I had been arrested four times before my 21st birthday,” said Harvey M., who graduated from PEP’s Class 10. Harvey is now rolling his first food truck in Houston. “Most of the world had written me off – but not PEP. They gave me the tools that I needed to succeed and even helped me to open my own business.”

Thanks to the preparation that they receive while in PEP, 100 percent of PEP’s graduates find a job within 90 days of release from prison. More than 120 of them have started their own businesses, including at least two that are now grossing more than $1 million in annual sales. And most impressively, the organization boasts some of the lowest recidivism rates in the country: PEP’s three-year recidivism rate has been as low as <5 percent, compared to the national average of nearly 50 percent.

“After reviewing the caliber of PEP’s curriculum and the quality of their results, Baylor University has agreed to award a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from the Hankamer School of Business to every graduate from PEP,” stated Carini.

The partnership began in December 2012, when 70 PEP graduates earned their certificates by completing the PEP Business Plan Competition class and graduating in a full cap-and-gown ceremony attended by their friends, family and PEP executive volunteers.

ABOUT PRISON ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROGRAM
Established in 2004, Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is a Houston-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We are servant leaders on a mission to transform inmates and executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education, and mentoring. Our groundbreaking results include a return-to-prison rate of less than 5%, employment rate of 100% within 90 days, and the successful launch of more than 100 businesses. www.PEP.org

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

ABOUT HANKAMER SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business provides a rigorous academic experience, consisting of classroom and hands-on learning, guided by Christian commitment and a global perspective. Recognized nationally for several programs, including Entrepreneurship and Accounting, the school offers 24 undergraduate and 13 graduate areas of study. Visit www.baylor.edu/business and follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Baylor_Business.