When you're trying to find the top entrepreneurs of tomorrow, prison might not be the first place you'd turn to. But these mentoring programmes for former inmates are successfully generating talented business leaders...
At the age of 17, Jose Vasquez left the family business to start his own venture, which made $2,000 a day. He maintained profit margins and cash flow and understood the importance of product quality and customer loyalty. The problem? The family business was in the drug trade and he sold heroin. He was arrested in 2009.
Drug dealing may be illegal but dealers in the trade show certain signs of entrepreneurialism. Criminals are forced to learn from a young age how to spot an opportunity to make money, and go for it regardless of the risk.
According to Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Blinds.com: “They're seasoned entrepreneurs who understand competition, profitability, risk management and priority sales channels. They know how to manage others to get things done. It's just that their businesses weren't legitimate, and that's why many of these men are in prison today.” So how do you take those skills and turn them into a sustainable career within the law? The answer: rehabilitation through start-up ventures.
Defy Ventures, an MBA-like training program, made life after prison an actuality for Vasquez. Today he runs Happy Vida, a concierge service which runs errands for busy professionals. Uniquely, Defy's students are all former prisoners. He provides them with entrepreneurial training and mentoring – which includes basics such as smiling and shaking hands. This "internship" provides former convicts with the chance to pitch a business concept to investors for a one in four shot at winning $3,000 in seed funding.
Catherine Rohr, founder of Defy, admits that when she first walked into a prison in 2004, she saw natural-born leaders with strong business and people skills – several of which had built and led teams. Her insight: they've served their time, and if we could somehow redirect their skillset, we'd be benefitting from an overlooked talent pool.
Defy's sister program, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), was soon tested out in Texas. The program boasts a return-to-prison rate of less than five per cent, an employment rate of 100 per cent within 90 days and over 100 businesses launched. The program has also begun a partnership with Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, offering certificates in entrepreneurship to inmates that complete the course. More than 5,000 inmates apply each year and 120 are selected for the program.
In San Quentin - California's only death row - ten out of 50 applicants are accepted onto the Last Mile program. The Last Mile, is an entrepreneurship course which was modelled on start-up incubators. The latest batch of start-up ideas included a fitness app that motivated drug addicts to exercise, a cardiovascular health organisation, a social network for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, a food waste recycling program and an e-commerce site for artists in prison.
In February, the inmates presented their start-up ideas in a Demo Day. Among the audience that day was Stripe co-founder John Collision.
“What's frustrating is that companies in the Valley come up with ideas for the one or ten per cent. Start-ups like Uber or Taskrabbit, think, 'oh, here's something to help you find a driver or someone to clean your house'. But they aren't solving real problems. The San Quentin inmates were talking about obesity and PSTD. It's a completely different perspective. We actually need that,” said Mr Collision.