Posts Tagged ‘prison entrepreneur’

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

Opp

“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.”

Check out our most recent write-up in the Houston Forward Times! Read the full story here.
________________________________________________________

Houstonforwardtimes

Who really believes in giving second chances to someone who is already considered a failure?

Many people wonder about today’s society. Most do not think someone in an unfortunate circumstance could make the most of a chance they are given. Is opportunity only for the more fortunate citizens of the United States of America or can anyone rebound after getting knocked down?

Not many people can honestly say they believe in that today. However, this is not the case for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is a Houston-based 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that was established in 2004. At PEP, they are servant leaders on a mission to transform inmates to executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring. Their groundbreaking results include a return-to-prison rate of less than 7%, an employment rate of 100% within 90 days of release and over 185 businesses launched by graduates of the program. They have pioneered innovative programs that connect the nation’s top executives, entrepreneurs and MBA students with convicted felons.

PEP’s team knows from experience that prison is a storehouse of untapped potential. Many inmates come to prison as seasoned entrepreneurs who happened to run illegitimate businesses. Once equipped with education and life skills training, the ROI potential for the truly reformed prisoner, his family and his community is limitless.

Charles Hearne is the Houston Executive Relations Manager for PEP, and believes the program continues to make a great impact in our communities.

“Our entrepreneurship boot camp and re-entry programs, which include spiritual and character development courses, are proven for maximizing self-sufficiency and transforming broken lives,” said Hearne.

Former Wall Street professional Catherine Rohr founded PEP in May of 2004 after she toured a prison and noticed that executives and inmates had more in common than most would think. They know how to manage others to get things done.

Rohr wondered what would happen if inmates who were committed to their own transformation were equipped to start and run legitimate companies. Following an unusual calling, Rohr left behind her New York career and financial stability, moved to Texas started a one-of-a-kind “behind bars” business plan competition. Her efforts were geared toward channeling the entrepreneurial passions and influential personalities of the inmates—intentionally recruiting former gang leaders, drug dealers and hustlers.

She quickly realized the entrepreneurial ability of the men inside of those prisons and wanted a way to show how successful those men could be on the other side if they were cultivated correctly.

Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers inherently understand business concepts such as competition, profitability, risk management and proprietary sales channels. For both executives and inmates, passion is instinctive.

The overwhelming response of 55 inmates and 15 world-class executives to judge the business plans and presentations was the catalyst to launch the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

While Rohr resigned in 2009, the organization has continued to grow and prosper. PEP now graduates more men than ever before, and the results are better than ever and remain the best in the prison rehabilitation field.

PEP has been picking up steam and has come a long way since 2004. Although based in Cleveland, TX, PEP is associated with prisons in other states that have embraced this revolutionary idea.

“The goal is to affect the tipping point in Texas prisons,” said Hearne. “About 43,000 men are released throughout the year in Texas prisons. We want to be in a situation where we are affecting about 10 percent of those men. So essentially we want to affect about 4,300 men a year.”

PEP has only two units and roughly graduates 300 men per year. Although they have not fully met their target goal, they are getting closer.

Many of the men who go through PEP have amazing ideas. Some have wanted to open meat markets, while others have wanted to open pool companies.

“Some of the men have actually owned businesses before and already have legitimate business knowledge,” said Hearne. “Those men would take their own business plan, revamp it and use that information and knowledge to build a business they already had information on.”

PEP has established more than 200 different businesses, and of those 200, at least 6 of them will be performing at the million dollar revenue range by the end of the year.

A true testimony on how PEP has helped different individuals get up after being knocked down in life is Hearne, who not only serves as the Executive Relations Manager, but is also a former participant in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.” said Hearne. “I’ve been out of the program for a little more than two years and I’d already made up my mind after I got incarcerated that the things I was doing wasn’t working for me. So it was time to have a change of heart, a change of surroundings and do things differently. Being a part of PEP set me on a trajectory faster than what I could have accomplished on my own. In the 2 ½ years I have been out, I have completed about 5 semesters of college and will be graduating next spring. I have given back to the community in different ways, such as community engagement and volunteer services. I have become a true contributor to society by way of Prison Entrepreneurship Program.”

PEP is an outstanding program that has directly and indirectly helped thousands of lives every year since it was established.

If you are looking for more information, or if you know someone who could use helpful information about this program, please visit http://www.PEP.org to learn more about the program.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program has proven that everyone deserves a second chance, and more importantly, you should never judge a book by its cover.

Houston timber company, Building Products Plus, has had great success hiring PEP graduates. Read the full PR Underground article here.
__________________________________________________________________________

PR underground

Building Products Plus, a Houston-based company that manufactures and supplies extended life structural building materials, has found success in hiring employees through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, (PEP). Having hired seven program graduates within the last year, the company’s President, Dorian Benn, is “more than pleased” with the results of these employees. Of the seven BPP hired during the last year, five have stayed and made a real difference both in their own lives and as employees.

The PEP Program

The PEP program operates in 60+ prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with all operations based out of the Cleveland Correctional Center. In 2013 Baylor University researchers conducted a study of PEP’s results vs other similar programs in Texas. PEP outperformed the other nine rehabilitation programs’ recidivism rates by 70%.

While program members must complete and present a business plan, including a multi-year financial plan, in order to graduate, they do not have to start the business once released. They are encouraged to find employment using the skills and knowledge obtained while in the program, and that might not always be by starting their own business.

Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program is proud to report that since the program began 11 years ago, 185 graduates of the 1100 total have started businesses. Of those 185, four of those business are forecasted to gross $1 million, each, this year alone, as well as creating 25 jobs, combined. “Don’t judge the man by the label. Never assume he’s not capable of living a different life.” Smith says.

An “Attitude of Gratitude”

Building Products Plus is certainly an advocate for this program. They have an “attitude of gratitude” says Benn, “I don’t look at them any differently. They needed a job, we had an opening. They are grateful and eager to succeed. It’s a better life.”

One such program graduate, Rocky Arnold, was hired as a Mill Coordinator over a year ago. Since then he has been promoted to Mill Supervisor, and then to Operations Manager. He often returns to the program he is immensely thankful for and mentors those still going through the program. BPP has hired all ranges of program graduates from truck drivers to salesmen. Their training and experiences from previous jobs and education combined with life skills and spiritual connections made in the PEP are key ingredients for their success.

Smith states that there aren’t any official partnerships with specific businesses, “just good relationships forged by the graduates themselves,” which appears to work well. Based on the success of the employees at Building Products Plus, Benn intends to remain an active business partner of the PEP, and adds “The program shows them that they can have a better life. They can succeed honestly and with hard work their reintegration isn’t nearly as scary or unsure. They have a solid base and support. We’re happy we found them.”

My name is Jason and I was asked to write about my experience with PEP. When considering how a program has changed your life, it is easy to get caught up in the rites and rituals and begin to think of that program, any program, as a series of steps to be taken to reach a goal.

To me, PEP is so much more than that. To be sure, there are procedures and there are rites of passage, but I cannot look at these as mere steps; they are tools to be used, remembered, called upon in times of need, and passed on to those who come after us. PEP is a living, breathing entity embodied by the men trying to change their lives, the PEP staff, and the volunteers that offer so much encouragement.

Jason Bowles

I joined the Navy at 18, straight out of high school, and thought that I had the world pretty much figured out. The problem was that there was one thing I did not completely understand; I had no real idea of who I was. I allowed myself to be defined by the people around me and when I did not fit in with them, a few drinks made everything go a little more smoothly. I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic, but then who does?

Fast forward a couple of decades and my life was in shambles. I had spent the greater part of my adult life either on a barstool, recovering from my last hangover, or planning my next one. I knew my life was wasted and going nowhere, but I had no earthly idea how to change it, so I took the easy way and did nothing to make any improvements whatsoever. Like alcoholics the world over, I hid in a bottle and perpetuated my downward spiral.

I had never thought of myself as someone who would end up in prison and I certainly never saw incarceration as any kind of rescue. Like most of society, I viewed the penal system as a way to deal with people who did not want to play by the rules. Also like most of society, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and ignored the fact that I was no paragon of virtue.

Because of my continued alcohol abuse, I quickly learned how easily one can be sucked in and spit out by the judicial system. I also learned there is hope for everyone, no matter if they are locked in a cell by the state or locked into a pattern of self-destruction by their own choices. Hope abounds for anyone willing to work to make a better life.

For me, PEP is a life saver. I learned how much I was truly hurting myself and everyone around me by finding excuses to indulge in my weaknesses. I learned that I can be a part of a group without having to be just like everyone in it. I found out that fitting in does not mean conforming, it means contributing. Most importantly, I learned how to live with the fact that I am flawed. I have made mistakes in the past and I will make more in the future, but those mistakes do not define me; how I recover from them does.

My name is Jason and I am many things; a veteran, a son, a brother, an alcoholic, a convicted felon, a PEP graduate and a productive member of society.

Jason B.
Class 18 Graduate

Those released from prison face an uphill battle, especially in the employment arena. Read on to learn more about a proposed bill that aims to level the playing field for felons in the hiring process. The story, published by the Houston Chronicle, can be found here.
________________________________________________________

HChron_logo-325x294

The “box” asking about a criminal conviction is one most of us mindlessly check on employment applications. But for many otherwise employable adults, it’s the biggest barrier to moving forward with productive lives.

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, introduced a bill this legislative session that would prevent state agencies from asking about an applicant’s criminal background until the interview stage. The proposal is in line with a national trend that has strong bipartisan support.

Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, recently teamed up with the conservative Koch Brothers to form an advocacy group for criminal justice reform. One of the coalition’s goals is to lessen the barriers to employment for ex-offenders. The Koch brothers have banned the box at Koch Industries, the multinational conglomerate.

Policies promoting rehabilitation for ex-offenders require a strong dose of common sense. No one is proposing, for instance, that a former drug dealer be allowed to work for the Texas Pharmacy Board. Or, for that matter, that any state agency be required to hire any ex-offender. A “ban-the-box” law just gives the potential employee an opportunity to present himself to a potential employer and for the potential employer to see the whole person. When that box is checked, applicants often are immediately rejected for a prior offense that may have no bearing on the job or is so old that it’s not relevant.

Johnson’s bill would apply only to state agencies. Regardless of whether the proposal becomes law, our entire community should embrace the challenge of ex-offender rehabilitation. Offenders who are released from prison and can’t find work are more likely to reoffend, thus ensuring that taxpayers will shoulder the burden of supporting them.

The numbers are staggering. According to U.S. Department of Labor estimates, one in three American adults has a criminal record. On any given day across the country, about 2.3 million people are incarcerated and each year 700,000 people are released from prison and almost 13 million are admitted to – and released from – local jails.

Last year, more than 70,000 ex-offenders were released from prisons, state jails and other state facilities in Texas alone. Let’s bring common sense to bear on this number. Our society can’t afford to continue to lock out nonviolent ex-offenders after they are released from jail. Those who are qualified and can do honest work should be able to do so.

The following was written by PEP Class 20 graduate, Jose M. 


PEP Graduate Jose M.

PEP Graduate, Jose M.

Because of PEP and the Ten Driving Values, I am a new man.

As a teenager and a young man, I was a very lost individual. How I became the person I am today is largely due to the program and the tools given to me while incarcerated, to apply to my life on the inside and once released. I started off as a troubled person with no respect or values, but now I have a plan, and I have respect for society and others.

I initially thought PEP was a business program, but eventually I learned it was much more than that. I was skeptical at first, but like others, I began asking questions around the unit about the program. I heard that it was family-oriented and heavily involved in repairing broken homes. I latched onto it for that reason because I love my family very much and was tired of hurting them.

While in class, I learned business skills, which was great. But most importantly, I learned how to identify my character flaws in the Effective Leadership training and through a number of character assessments from my peers. I also learned that I had talents and that I actually had something to contribute to the world. We were given etiquette lessons that taught me how to conduct myself in a number of circumstances. Once released, I was also given the opportunity to continue learning in our eSchool classes. Upon completion, I was given the status of alumni, and in September of this year, I will receive my second diploma from PEP.

We have been given so much by PEP to guarantee our success in the real world. I have been gainfully employed since within a few days after my release, and I am now enrolling into courses to finally complete my college degree. I am closer to my family than I have ever been, and my whole thinking process has improved greatly. I owe so much to PEP. Thank you for opening my eyes and restoring confidence in myself. I know that as long as I work hard and remain positive, I will be successful.

I continue to participate and involve myself when I can to give back. I and others see that I’m a changed individual, and for that, I want to thank everyone involved in the program. It has been a life-changing experience.

Jose M.
Class 20

PEP Challenge Sign

If you’ve kept up with our blog, you have read some amazing stories of life transformation in the past few months.

You have read graduate about Adam C., who shared that PEP taught him that “beauty could rise from the ashes of (a) brokenhearted young man.” You have read graduate Lance N.’s story about how PEP helped him to find his first job (and why he donates to PEP each month). Graduate David F. shared how he had never stayed out of jail for more than a year, but now has been out for more than three years thanks to PEP. Others, like Devon S. and Cristian H. , shared how God has changed their lives through PEP.

And all of that was just in October!

Just imagine the stories that you can make possible over the next year.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program is rapidly growing. This past August, we launched our operations in a second prison in Texas. By 2015, we might be able to serve nearly twice as many people as we did at the beginning of this year… provided that we have the funding to do so.

PEP is 100% privately funded. Without donors like you, graduate Clay T. may not have paid of $44K in debt and graduate James C. may not have generated over $5MM in sales through his business.

You make these stories possible. That is why we are asking for your help today.

We need to raise $190,000 by December 31, 2014.

These funds will ensure that we can launch into 2015 with full force, rapidly expanding our presence both inside of prison and outside of the walls. Your gift will make sure that 100% of our graduates find a job within 90 days of release from prison and that their likelihood of returning to crime drops by 80-90%.

Help us Meet the Challenge!

thermometer

Thanks to the PEP Board of Directors, we have the potential to match every gift!

  • One-time gifts will be matched dollar-for-dollar. That means a gift of $1,000 will instantly become $2,000!
  • Monthly commitments will be matched TWO to one based on their annual value! That means a commitment of $100 per month will receive a $2,400 match – making a $3,600 combined impact on PEP!

Where else can you make this kind of impact?

Your gifts matter.

Can we count on you?

Bert Smith
CEO

The following article was originally posted on August 6, 2014 in the Houston Press:

Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs

By Craig Malisow
Published Wed., Aug. 6 2014 at 9:00 AM

cs-featimg.jpg
Photos by Troy Fields

“This is not about charity.
This is about opportunity.”

Jeremy Gregg, chief development officer, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

A short while into a 30-month sentence for buying a stolen trailer, James Cornish received a peculiar postcard in his Plainview prison cell.

It was from a group called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Even in prison, it seemed, there was no escape from junk mail. Cornish set it aside and didn’t think much of it until a guy from that organization named Marcus Hill rolled in with a video and a spiel.

Hill said he had served five and a half years of a 17-year bit for possession of seven pounds of weed. He got that postcard, too. It changed his life. Now he was a recruiter. He went from prison to prison and preached the gospel of business education.

There was no shortage of rehabilitative or educational programs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Many of them promised to hook you up with Jesus. But PEP was the only one that promised to hook you up with CEOs.

There was an “entrepreneurship boot camp,” a business plan competition, a re–entry program upon release with transitional housing and continued education. It appealed to Cornish’s business goals. He was an independent truck driver at the time of his arrest, and was in such a hurry to grow his business that he’d taken a shortcut. Cornish bought a flatbed trailer knowing full well it was stolen.

“It was a quick, easy way to make a bunch of fast money,” says Cornish, who at 32 still looks every bit the linebacker he was at Los Angeles Valley College.

Prison didn’t end his ambitions; it just interrupted them. And PEP retooled them: Cornish still wanted a bunch of money, but now he was prepared to get it the right way. He was prepared to work hard and put in the time.

He already had a truck waiting for him on the outside, so he was able to find work in a matter of weeks after his release in 2011. He says he bought “a raggedy truck” and pieced it together. Fast-forward two years, and Cornish is running six trucks and “leasing” outside drivers — finding them work and collecting a cut. He says he’s grossed more than $5 million and has bought two homes.

If one were partial to cheesy metaphors, one could say that PEP’s participants are sort of like that raggedy truck, and the program’s core philosophies — rooted in both character development and business acumen — are the tools to piece it together.

Now in its tenth year, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program boasts a significantly lower recidivism rate than not only the general released population but also of five major offender rehabilitation organizations.

One hundred percent of its graduates are employed within 90 days of release; 73 percent find work within 30 days. The average wage is more than $11 an hour.

While PEP is about to launch its program in TDCJ’s Sanders Estes unit, it has operated solely from the privately run Cleveland Correctional Center, about 40 miles north of Houston. Participants are accepted from prisons across the state after a rigorous application process.

Despite its own significant stumble five years in when it was discovered that founder Catherine Rohr had engaged in inappropriate relationships with four graduates and had to resign, the program continues to attract volunteer executives and business owners — “repeat attenders,” in local parlance — as well as interest from other state correctional departments. But other prison systems have yet to implement anything like it — PEP appears to be the only program of its kind in the nation. That might be because it serves a demographic that is easy to ignore or even look at in practical terms: Nationally, hundreds of thousands of offenders are released each year. Many of them will commit new felonies and go right back in.

If a system could even up those odds — if it could look at a group of drug dealers, thieves and murderers and see potential taxpaying, productive members of society, then those people would become more than just ex-offenders. They would become a good investment.

“General George S. Patton said, ‘When compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.’ Clearly, General Patton has never had his business plan critiqued by you.”

— PEP Class XXI participant to 
business plan adviser

 

Return on investment is where it’s at.

Jeremy Gregg, PEP’s chief development officer, made this point at a series of TED talks in 2012. Delivering easily digestible stats in high-energy bursts, Gregg assumed the role of pitchman — a carnival barker urging the audience to look at the untapped market potential inside his “gated community.”

Gregg, an executive MBA with a history in nonprofits, first volunteered for PEP in 2007. Looking at the nation’s correctional system through a purely financial lens, he saw a black hole.

“This is a deeply troubling financial issue,” he told the audience. “We will pour $74 billion…into corrections this year.”

Speaking strictly as a taxpayer, Gregg said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it worked, but it doesn’t.” That’s when the startling statistics flashed on the screen behind him: According to national recidivism statistics, half of the 700,000 offenders released in 2012 were predicted to return in 2016, having committed a new felony. That’s one crappy ROI.

But graduates of the six-month program were a different story, Gregg told his audience. These guys learn skills. They use college-level textbooks and the AP writing style guide, and study Harvard MBA cases. And, as Gregg is fond of pointing out, “These guys literally read and discuss Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment while sitting in prison.”

Not all inmates are eligible for the program: Sex offenders are prohibited, as is any inmate with current gang ties or recent and significant disciplinary actions. Inmates must also be within three years of release. For each six-month block, there are approximately 6,000 eligible inmates in TDCJ. About one in four return postcards expressing interest in applying. In return, they get a roughly 20-page application packet; about two-thirds actually apply. Then there’s more reading requirements, a test and an interview. About 47-48 percent were convicted of a violent crime — murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault or robbery. The average participant is serving his second sentence. (The program’s directors have chosen to offer it only to male prisoners because they make up the overwhelming majority — 93 percent — of the total Texas inmate population, according to recent statistics.)

cs-prez.jpg
Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Bert Smith (center) became the PEP’s CEO afer five years of volunteering.

 

And their mentoring doesn’t stop at the prison gate: Gregg told audiences that one of the keys to PEP’s success is an inside-out approach in which volunteers continue to work with offenders after their release, and offenders continue to take classes.

“If all we do is train them on the inside, pat them on the back and say, ‘Good luck to you,’ there’s a good chance we’re going to train a drug dealer how to leave prison with a better marketing strategy,” Gregg said. “And that’s not what we want to do.”

According to a report on PEP by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, “Studies show that a former inmate’s most vulnerable and impressionable time actually occurs in the first 72 hours following release.”

That’s why every PEP participant is, upon release, met by a case manager who drives him to his family’s home, a halfway house or one of PEP’s transitional homes in Houston and Dallas. And his studies don’t end at the gate, either — newly released participants are expected to complete 20 “Entrepreneurship School” (or “eSchool”) workshops in which they learn sales, marketing and personal finance. Eligible graduates can win a cash bonus for investment in their business.

Sure, it’s the nice thing to do. But it’s not just designed with ex-offenders in mind — PEP’s directors say it serves the public as well. These guys aren’t simply peppered with platitudes and released into society with a cheerful disposition. Every man who graduates from PEP saves Texas taxpayers an average of $21,000 a year, according to the Baylor study.

Individually, that may not sound like much, but the study points out that by 2012, the state’s correctional system was sucking $3.3 billion from the budget. Moreover, according to the Baylor study, PEP grads have a three-year recidivism rate of just under 7 percent, compared to the state average of 23 percent.

The heart of PEP is the business plan competition. Over six months and 1,000 classroom hours, participants craft an idea for a business, then pitch it, Shark Tank-style, 120 times, to volunteers. At the end, three winners are chosen, but all graduates receive a certificate of entrepreneurship from Baylor.

These practical ambitions exist within a framework known as the Ten Driving Values. These range from the more grounded — Accountability and Innovation — to those of a more touchy-feely sort, like Love and Fun.

Cornish latched onto the tenth one: Wise Stewardship, which states in part, “We will apply donors’ funds as promised…We use funds intelligently, efficiently and strategically to achieve maximum benefit for all whom we serve.”

For Cornish, this means that when he signs a contract, he delivers.

“If I tell a company I’m going to have ten trucks there [and] we’re going to complete this job in five or six days, that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I don’t care if I have to drive a truck…24 hours a day for five days; I’m going to do it. I’m going to get the job done.”

“There but for the grace of God, in many cases, I could be sitting not in a pinstriped blue suit but a blue jumpsuit.”

— Bert Smith, CEO, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

Nine years ago, Bert Smith, a venture capitalist and Princeton-educated economist (with a JD from UT-Austin tossed in for good measure), was sitting at his weekly Executives Association of Houston breakfast meeting, listening to a woman named Catherine Rohr talk about her strange new prison rehabilitation program. Smith was sold. He told her he’d like to volunteer as a business plan adviser.

“I think maybe I didn’t realize it when I went to breakfast that morning, [but] after I heard her speak, I really felt a desire to give back,” Smith says. “That sounds very lofty, but it was actually very simple. I just felt like, wow, you know, I’ve had some ups, I’ve had some downs; maybe I can bundle up that mess and share it with somebody else where it’ll really make a difference.”

cs-worker.jpg
Photo by Troy Fields
Program graduate James Cornish (right), talking with driver Marlon Martin.

As profiled in a 2012 Inc. story, Rohr at that time was working for a Manhattan private equity firm and commuting regularly to prison. Specifically, she had found God in her twenties and, as part of a ministry, brought the gospel to Texas prisons. But in between all the Jesus talk, according to the Inc. story, she found that inmates often “exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders as an investor.”

By 2004, Rohr had left New York for Houston and founded PEP. An attractive, dynamic speaker, she had no trouble gathering volunteers and media attention. So of course the media were on standby in 2009 when Rohr confessed a transgression and PEP nearly imploded: In the midst of a divorce, Rohr engaged in what have only been described as “inappropriate relationships” with four PEP graduates. Suddenly, the focus wasn’t on all the men the program had helped in the previous five years, but on a scandal. As Kris Frieswick reported for Inc., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, fearing Rohr was a “security risk,” conducted an investigation and banned her from ever entering any Texas correctional facility — one of the rare times a person has been punished by being forced out of prison. Rohr had no choice but to step down from the program she had created.

Whatever concerns prison officials may have had about the program’s future were likely tempered by its track record up until that time. Even if Rohr had faltered personally, her formula had been proven a success.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, told the Houston Press in an email that, in 2004, “It was an unknown, but PEP officials were very passionate and were convinced that the program could help tackle one of the biggest barriers for offenders — employment. Also, the program’s approach in pairing successful executives in the corporate world with offenders who had some business skills was unique. Ultimately, the program showed promise, and now, almost ten years later, there are numerous success stories of former offenders who have started businesses and become taxpaying members of society.”

But by the time of Rohr’s departure, Smith was willing to move from volunteer to CEO. His trips to prison over the years had given him a new outlook.

He may not have felt that way before walking through the prison gates, but after he really got to know the inmates, he says, he saw them “as human beings, not sort of as caged animals, and human beings whose life stories were raw, who in most cases made bad decisions in extremely difficult and unforgiving circumstances. Honestly, I began to have a lot more empathy for them, and felt that if they were willing to commit to living a new life with new values…then I was willing to do what I could to help them.”

Around the time Smith joined PEP full-time, an ex-offender named Al Massey became the program’s executive relations manager. A big part of Massey’s job is recruiting volunteers, like Rohr once did, and perhaps one of his best selling points is himself.

On Halloween night 2003, the 53-year-old Massey was drunk-driving his truck along Beltway 8 when he smashed into the back of a truck that had stalled in the right lane. That truck burst into flames and the driver was killed. Massey pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to six years.

He’d had 35 years of sales management experience, came from a loving family and had a clean record. He’d also been married three times. He never thought he had a drinking problem. He started in sales when three-martini lunches still helped close deals. His thinking was: I never drink at home, so therefore I can’t be an alcoholic.

Prison changed that. He had plenty of time to think, and he did whatever he could to keep his mind occupied. He read every day, did crossword puzzles. He took whatever jobs he could, and when the PEP postcard came, he filled it out and sent it back. He figured a business class would help his goal of keeping his mind intact. Soon, he says, he discovered the program was just as much about developing character.

Sixteen other inmates from his unit took the bus to Cleveland Correctional, “and we bonded, and we found out what brotherhood was all about,” Massey says. “Because, you know, in prison, it’s hard to sometimes let down your guard, because you don’t want…people to consider you to be weak or anything like that.”

Upon release, Massey moved into one of PEP’s transitional homes, found quick work at a moving company that was run by a PEP grad, then got a less back-breaking sales position before the spot at PEP opened up.

Now Massey gives presentations to college business classes, church groups, civic groups, any groups that will listen, to find volunteers.

“You write a business plan, but that’s not the nuts and bolts,” Massey says of the program. “The nuts and bolts is to make you realize who you were supposed to be, and not who…you’ve become so far in your life. That there’s always a chance to change. Because fresh starts are available.”

cs-peptalk2.jpg
Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Longtime PEP volunteer Kirsten Berger says she loves witnessing the participants’ transformation.

 “How often can you be around people who are in the middle of completely remaking themselves as individuals?”

— Bill Frank, PEP volunteer

 

On the phone, Al Massey can be soft-spoken.

But here, in the Cleveland Correctional Center’s cavernous gym, where 129 participants of PEP’s 22nd class are being welcomed to thunderous applause by more than 100 volunteers, Massey is an electrifying emcee.

The volunteers, mostly middle-aged, mostly white men and women in business attire, form two parallel lines as the inmates, a mostly young mix of black, white and Latino in blue jumpsuits, stride down the aisle created by the volunteers, smiling as they slap palms and shake hands. Many inmates take the time to greet each of the volunteers, whose first names are printed on laminated tags, and thank them for coming.

It’s a downright cheery, celebratory atmosphere that includes chocolate chip cookies and a sound system blaring “Hip Hop Hooray.” If it weren’t for the jumpsuits, the event could be mistaken for a pep rally at a high school for slightly older students.

In a bit, the inmates will set up rows of folding chairs that face each other, so PEP participants and volunteers can introduce themselves and talk for a few minutes. It’s like platonic speed-dating. Some of the volunteers, like Kirsten Berger and Bill Frank, have been coming for years. In her makeup, slacks and heels, Berger seems like the last person you would encounter in a prison gym, but there might not be anyone else here who appears to be having as much fun.

A few years back, when she attended her first PEP class as part of her certification for becoming a life coach, Berger wasn’t quite sure what to think. She saw the joy and hope on display behind this bastion of barbed wire and was haunted. “These guys are criminals,” she thought. “They aren’t supposed to be smiling.”

But after a while, she says, she saw the transformation. She says that these criminals were really trying to become something.

“Nobody should be defined by the biggest mistake they ever made in their life,” Berger says. No doubt about it, these guys screwed up. They made terrible decisions, but, Berger says, “Your choices can suck, but people don’t suck.”

Berger says she got hooked by witnessing in the participants a “complete transformation of a human being,” which is also why Frank, the general manager of business development at Chevron, stuck around.

Like Berger, Frank is among the “God squad” contingent of PEP. He met a PEP grad at church and was intrigued enough by the guy’s stories that he decided to check it out himself — provided his new friend accompanied him. He’d go to prison only via the buddy system.

“I thought I’m just a, you know, suburban white guy, professional job…no tattoos,” Frank says. “What do I have in common with these guys?”

As you might have guessed, the story ends with Frank realizing he had more in common with them than he thought. And much of that had to do with their being, like him, husbands and fathers. There was something there to connect with.

And as also happened with Berger, Frank said the real appeal was in the changes he was witnessing: “The fancy word is ‘transformation,'” he says. “You’re around all these people who are changing their lives right in front of you. And you know, how often do you see that?”

Striking a more subdued pose was Jaime Shaw, a first-timer who’d heard about PEP from a friend who’d volunteered. Shaw had especially personal and professional motivations to check out the program: He knew just how difficult it was to start a career with a criminal record.

Five years ago, he and his business partner founded Greenstream International, an Austin-based recycler and remarketer of used electronics, not just out of entrepreneurial zeal but out of necessity: Both men had criminal records.

Unlike the men in PEP, Shaw didn’t have a felony; but a series of misdemeanors, including assaults — the byproduct of years of drug and alcohol addiction — closed a lot of doors. Shaw found out that, whether it’s a few years in prison or a plea-bargained probation, “These punishments go on in perpetuity.”

If on the rare occasion Shaw scored an interview with a potential employer, once they got to his record, “the whole tenor of the interview change[d].” To Shaw, a job rejection carries a sharper sting for an ex-offender. For non-offenders, it’s an unfortunate roadblock on the path to the next interview.

But for “people like us, when [you’re] being told no, you’re really just being told, ‘Hey, you’re not good enough, and you don’t belong here.'”

Today, even though Greenstream’s 200 employees span several U.S. states as well as a facility in Hong Kong, Shaw still feels the sting of those interviews.

He and the company’s co-founder are “now in our thirties, and we’re fathers…we’re business owners. We are still facing the consequences of those convictions, you know, ten, 12 years later. What we did as boys, we’re still paying for as men.”

That’s why Greenstream hires ex-offenders, and why Shaw and his business partner are eager to talk about that practice with other employers.

“Usually,” Shaw says, “the first thing out of another business person’s mouth is, ‘Oh, yeah, and you can pay them less.'” (For Shaw, it’s quite the opposite: He says Greenstream’s ex-offender employees are paid well. In return, “What we get is lower turnover; we get a better-invested employee, and we get people that have just a higher level of gratitude for what they’re being given, and recognize it as a real opportunity and not just a place to spend eight hours of their day.”)

Knowing full well what this latest class of PEP participants will soon be facing, Shaw was eager to pull up a folding chair and chat with each of them.

Two and a half years ago, Cornish sat in one of those chairs. He’d done the work to get through the application process, he’d done the work for six months of classes and business plan competition, and, on the outside, he does the work from about 4 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. during the week, and he spends the weekend fixing up his trucks for Monday. Some day he’ll take a more hands-off role — a position he says his wife would just as soon have him take sooner.

“My wife tell me all the time, ‘Hey, baby, why don’t you put on some clean jeans today and a clean T-shirt and some nice shoes?'” he says. “That’s not me. I don’t wear that.”

It’s all part of that “wise steward” value Cornish likes so much. For six months, PEP’s staff and volunteers invested in him. When he was released, one of the program’s board members lent him money to buy more equipment. A lot of people have a lot invested in James Cornish. He doesn’t want to let them down. One day, he’ll drive less and focus more on management and writing contracts. Getting there is all on him.

“I’m headed that way,” he says. “But until it comes, it’s me.”

Great news! Photos are now available from the Class #Transcendent 22 Kickoff … as well as their headshots and some special images from a recent Houston Press article on PEP!

See the whole gallery here:
http://prisonentrepreneurshipprogram.zenfolio.com/class22

Special thanks to our long-time photographer, Israel Thompson, for these amazing images. We especially love this shot of three graduates who now work for PEP …. Al Massey (Executive Relations Manager), Marcus Hill (Recruiter), and Charles Hearne (Development Associate).

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

The Shine King of Texas with Cheri Garcia and Steve Harvey

The Shine King of Texas with Cheri Garcia and Steve Harvey

More GREAT NEWS from Kiva!

PEP Graduate Clarence Campbell (pictured to the right when he was profiled on the Steve Harvey show) was just approved by Kiva Zip for a $5,000, zero-interest loan! He will use the loans to build three stands and purchase the supplies to get them running. Clarence says:

I expect the purchase of those three stands in the American Airlines Center to increase my revenue and profits by $10,000.00 a month. I expect my business to be impacted greatly because I’m truly building a brand now. I hope to make my business a franchise all over the world. We’ll start right here by expanding my business with three new shoe shine stands.

Clarence is now crowd-funding loans (NOT gifts) from people like you. You will be repaid monthly over 2 years.

INCENTIVE: If we can secure 30 loans in the next two weeks, Kiva itself will invest $500 towards this loan!!!

Please check it out here:
https://zip.kiva.org/loans/4587/i/a60s

You can invest as little as $5 – and you will be repaid! Again, this is not a gift. This is an investment in the future of Clarence’s business … and he will use the loan to purchase THREE stands and all the supplies that he need to create more jobs for other PEP graduates.

THANK YOU!