Making Entrepreneurs out of Convicts

There is so much out there about creating a positive narrative out of entrepreneurship. We cherish this with the frontier spirit that built the American West. We tell stories about famous ones like Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk named his electric car company for the one who inspired him — Nikola Tesla.

They are fundamental to the ingredients of our nation, yet it takes a special skill set to really get a business off the ground. It takes grit, determination, advice, failure, and a willingness to circumvent traditional roles. But one of the biggest drivers of entrepreneurship is necessity. And for many former inmates who are looking to make a new life for themselves, having to disclose their convictions and prison time on job applications significantly decrease the likelihood that they can find effective employment that can offer stability and a future.

In the past, many people have thought that this is an active deterrent. But in actuality, all it ends up doing is ensuring that qualified people who have paid their debt to society can’t find work. We have a great example of that right here.

So when someone without opportunity goes back home, sadly, they can often turn back to the crime that got them locked up to begin with. This is part of the cycle that keeps people in the criminal justice system. This isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Whereas many states have made positive changes to their laws in regards to banning the box, too many have yet to do this.

So, what can we do in the meantime here and now to give former inmates a step up? Well, we can teach them to put their skills and insights to use creating jobs.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

When your back is against the wall, and you are reduced from many options to few, it can get desperate. As mentioned before, most offenders don’t want to return to prison. If given the overwhelming majority of prisoners the option, they’re no different from you or me: they want to provide for themselves and their families, and they want work that gives their lives meaning.

Since many felons are denied this opportunity, entrepreneurship becomes an option. Often times, they’ve developed the unique skills that entrepreneurs need while in prison — they look for opportunities, they know how to work with and around a system, and they know how to make the best of what they’ve got.

The question is this — what kind of entrepreneurship should they go into? Another form of this is some types of crime. Dealing drugs is very much so a form of entrepreneurship, it’s simply against the law. However, there’s always a market for drugs. And when you can’t find another way to make ends meet, unfortunately, some people fall into this. Wouldn’t it be so much better to encourage inmates to start legitimate businesses instead?

You’ll find few people who have the drive to live well than many former felons. Even minimum security prison is still a prison. Spend enough time being told where to go, when to eat, and how to live, and you value your freedom like no one else can understand. Starting a business is definitely not going to be the path forward for every inmate, but there are plenty who would excel. They just need the time, encouragement, and education to make it work.

John Legend Making Epic Strides

Musicians and entertainers, especially those who have made it to the top, tend to get involved in causes. They have earned the money, and they want to give back, to use their position and their platform to make the world a better place.

It’s a regular thing to hear the bad parts — the addiction, the fights, the broken marriages, etc — but it’s much more rare to hear about the good that these stars are doing in the world.

Last year, John Legend, a Grammy award winning performer, decided to put his money into such a cause. He decided to fund former convicts through a program called Unlocked Futures, who started looking to make more of themselves after failing to find work due to their incarceration.

John Legend knows that this is such an amazing opportunity, not just for the people who need to make a living for themselves, but even more so for the overall impact it can have with making the positive change needed for communities to thrive.

The truth is that when ex-cons become entrepreneurs, they create jobs, and often do so in the communities that they come from. And this is a way that, independently of the slow-turning wheels of government, that we can help support motivated people looking to make a positive change in the world.

As Many Roads as Possible

The truth is that we aren’t going to solve this problem by taking a single road. It’s going to take many ideas. It’s going to take several solutions, each geared in different directions.

We tend to focus most of our energy on how to support someone who is released from jail with just the barest opportunities. A halfway house is a great start, but convict labor is regularly exploited within our system.

What’s necessary for us to move forward and succeed is a multi-faceted approach. We have to be able to continue supporting this population in a multitude of ways. For some, it’s going to be reaching them when they’re in school, preventing the problem at its root source. For some, it’s going to be education and job training. But for those with the innate talent and ability to operate in a gray area, we have to be geared up and ready to support the legitimate businesses they create.

It’s going to take a path of innovation to solve this problem. Entrepreneurs specialize in innovation. This is the type of thinking that made our nation great, and it’s a tool that we can use to solve the problem and stop recidivism for good.

To find out what you can do to support our initiative to stop recidivism, click here.

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