Building Lives Behind Bars
Gene is the President of Pop Labs, a company that offers interactive marketing solutions for small to mid-sized businesses. These services are implemented in a highly effective holistic approach, enabling the most rapid and predictable ROI. Pop Labs offers local, regional and national campaigns, as well as a unique white-label service for ad agencies, PR fi rms and online content providers. To contact Gene, e-mail [email protected].
Several years ago, I responded to a direct mail piece asking if I was willing to teach entrepreneurialism to soon-to-be graduates of the state penal system. Like many EO members, I have always felt a pull to give back to young entrepreneurs, speak at local colleges and volunteer in the name of junior achievement. But this was different. This was unique.
I visited with the founder of the program, Catherine “Cat” Rohr, who had resigned from her job and dedicated her career, income and sanity to building Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). PEP is a program that teaches select, pre-graduate inmates how to start their own business. Participants learn everything from selling and finance to production and service. What’s more, they graduate with a better knowledge of small business workings than most five-year entrepreneurs.
I have built a career out of developing businesses based on scalability, primarily in the services venue. I have also employed ex-inmates in the past, and I have seen many high-quality people with disfiguring scars on their resume that cause them challenges on a daily basis. I have seen scores of sharp, young men who would otherwise be able to command a larger income but were relegated to a wage-labor role due to their bad choices and subsequent incarceration.
I asked Cat to send me copies of sample business plans they had created, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a breadth of knowledge that was deeper than the bulk of entrepreneurial business plans I review as an active angel investor. I made it a point to meet these men in person.
Upon visiting the prison, I expected to see thugs and other detritus oflife; broken-down, worn-out humans who had already given up. Instead, what I saw was defi ned in one simple word: hope. The prisoners were excited that somebody finally believed in them. There was an overflow of raw enthusiasm, which stemmed from the belief that someone cared and that life might actually hold a future.
These are men who have run drug rings, car theft businesses and more, and yet they had so much passion and zest for business. They truly enjoyed the four-month PEP class, which consisted of reading business and management books, writing a business plan and participating in an intense competition inside the prison. The competition was judged by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and senior executives who flew in from around the country. For many of these prisoners, nobody has helped them in a long time. We give them a chance to believe in themselves. We help them take that first step toward personal and financial success.
I have personally mentored graduates, brought in additional executive and entrepreneurial participation, judged business plans and taught aspiring entrepreneurs how to sell their products or services. I worked with PEP because I feel like I’m really making a difference. If we teach one person how to run and operate a business well, as the old adage goes, we have taught them how to fi sh. They can then feed themselves and others, and we no longer have to worry about recidivism, depression, drug usage or poverty— a substantial reward for the participant, the economy and everyone involved in PEP.
By working with Cat and the participants, I have been inspired to continue pressing through the challenges my business and life provide. I have also learned that opportunities almost always lie in the areas other people look at as hard work, and that you can’t teach drive and ambition, but you can redirect it for a healthier outcome. Helping these prisoners has given me a new perspective on business, and it has taught me that everyone is entitled to greatness. Some just need a little more help than others.