These ex-contrepreneurs are turning stigma into success
Former inmates find themselves serving life sentences even after they get out of prison.
Between four and five million Americans are on parole, and most of the 2.5 million who are incarcerated are not serving life sentences. Yet there isn’t a strong infrastructure in place to help them re-enter the workforce once they get out.
The National Institute of Justice reports that 60% to 75% of former inmates are jobless a year after their release, because most employers are still hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record. Another survey found less than half of ex-convicts were working five years after their release – despite the popularity of shows like “Oz” and “Orange is the New Black” humanizing inmates. This leads to recidivism, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting in 2010 that about three-fourths of prisoners were arrested for a new crime within five years. And the vicious cycle repeats itself as ex-cons struggle to find honest work.
“It’s a titanic problem,” said Brian Hamilton, founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals launch their own businesses through mentorship, networking and online resources. “Just having a criminal charge on your record for shoplifting is hurting someone’s chances of trying to get a job, let alone a drug charge or a violent charge.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $10 million “Jails to Jobs” initiative this spring dedicated to giving every person in the custody of the city Department of Correction vocational and educational counseling on the inside, and paid, short-term transitional employment once they finish their sentences.
Other programs trying to break the cycle include the Villalobos Rescue Center, which hires former inmates to rescue pit bulls. The shelter is featured on the Animal Planet show “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” which has helped men like Earl Moffett get back on their feet.
“I’m a convicted felon with a disability, and I was being judged as soon as people saw me. That’s why pit bulls and convicted felons go hand in hand – people are very stereotypical of us. We both need second chances,” said Moffett, 49, from New Orleans. He did 11 years for armed robbery and attempted murder, and he credits working at Villalobos for almost six years for turning his life around.
“This has opened a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I was able to purchase a house and a car. I speak at juvenile centers. I’m just trying to stay focused, and to stay on the right path.”
But some parolees have realized that only way to get work for now is to work for themselves. These four ex-contrepreneurs told Moneyish how they have paved their own paths to success.
Frederick Hutson, Pigeon.ly
Frederick Hutson realized the prison population was a huge untapped market while he was on the inside.
When Hutson began serving four years for drug trafficking at age 23, he was struck by how difficult it was for inmates to communicate with their loved ones on the outside. Prisoners don’t have access to cell phones or email, so they and their families rack up expensive phone charges, or communicate by snail mail.
So he started Pigeon.ly, which serves as the liaison between digital and analog by printing emails, photos and texts from your computer, or pix from Facebook and Instagram, and then mailing them to the inmate in prison for you in the regulation white envelope, or whatever standard the facility requires. Pigeon.ly also serves as a database to track where a prisoner is in the system (Hutson said he was moved eight times in four years), and its phone service saves money on expensive prison calls by signing up relatives on the outside with a number that’s local to the area where the inmate is being held.
“You have to have experienced the pain for yourself, or it’s not something that you really understand,” said Hutson, now 33, who lives in Las Vegas. “There’s a lot of different nuances that go into this market – like how to interface with the correctional institutions, and the needs of inmates and their families – that are hard to know unless you’ve lived them.”
When Pigeon.ly first started in 2012, Hutson was happy when they transferred 500 pictures a month. Now they’re up to 4,000 to 5,000 prints a day (at 20 cents a print, plus shipping), and up to 2 million phone minutes a month. Subscribers pay $4.99 a month for unlimited talk time. “We have over 200,000 users spread over 88 countries,” he said.
Hutson also makes a point to hire parolees. “They have such a strong work ethic,” he said. “Let’s just say the people who show up late in my office were not previously incarcerated. The former inmates are the ones who are always on time. They value their jobs so much more than someone who thinks he can get a job anywhere.”
He doesn’t credit being in prison with producing better entrepreneurs per se, but admitted that dealing drugs is its own business school.
“We understand and can stomach taking risks,” he said. “We focus on making every transaction profitable. The bottom line is all that matters. We prioritize customer service and loyalty. And you learn to stay creative.”
Scott Jennings, Fit Tech and Assembly
“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” Scott Jennings, 43, told Moneyish. “I was the kid who would stop by the pharmacy on the way to middle school to buy 10-cent candy, and sell it to you in the hall for a quarter.”
The North Carolina self-starter is the poster child for a 2013 study that found “smart teenagers who engage in illicit activities are more likely to become successful entrepreneurs than equally intelligent, rule-abiding teenagers” thanks to being both brainy and bold enough to take risks.
He did three years when he was 34 after graduating from selling candy to selling cocaine. But while serving in Orange County Correctional in Hillsborough, N.C., he attended an Inmates to Entrepreneur seminar held in the facility, which got him thinking about going into business for himself once he was released in 2010.
“I have always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I was always trying to find a new way to make a buck. However, I never had any guidance or mentoring,” he said. “ While incarcerated I was asking a lot of questions about life and what I was doing wrong, right or not at all. So basically, Hamilton showed up when I was the most pliable. Listening and asking questions for a few hours changed my approach.”
But after he got out, the only job he could find was landscaping, even though he had some mechanical repair skills and had sold office equipment.
But after posting his resume on Craigslist resulted in steady gigs repairing fitness equipment, he worked with Inmates to Entrepreneurs to launch Fit Tech and Assembly, which provides routine maintenance, service, installation and repair for exercise equipment in homes and in gyms.
“When I started in September 2011, I had maybe $75 in my pocket and I was using a doo-doo brown Toyota pickup truck,” he said. “The first year, we did maybe $30,000 in sales.”
Today his company has deals with commercial chains like Gold’s Gym, Crunch, Planet Fitness and the YMCA around Charlotte, N.C., and he expects to do more than half a million dollars in sales this year.
Jennings is one of Inmates to Entrepreneurs’ longest-standing members, and serves as a mentor for other ex-cons getting back on their feet. He doesn’t advertise his criminal record, but he’s not ashamed of it, either.
“I’m 10 years sober and seven years out of jail,” he said. “If clients have a problem with it, that’s fine. They can go somewhere else.
“But in fact,” he added, “if we compare what I’ve done in the last seven years since my incarceration versus what you’ve done in your last seven years – I’m kicking your tail, more often than not, because I’ve had many more hurdles to jump over.”
Nickia Baker, Sheer Elegance Events
Nickia Baker has always loved throwing parties. Her daughter’s first birthday in 2009 featured a magician, Elmo, cotton candy and popcorn machines – the works.
“That’s when I knew I could do this,” said Baker, 38, from Raleigh, N.C. “I just absolutely love putting events together, and dreaming up visions on how someone’s special day can look.”
But a domestic violence charge when she was 28 has dogged making her dreams come true. “I was issued a suspended sentence and didn’t have to do any prison time, but that one bad choice, that one fight between myself and my child’s dad, ruined my life,” she said. “Try applying for a job. Try applying for an apartment. It’s nothing but ‘no,’ even though that was an isolated incident 10 years ago.
“I’m not who society says I am. I’m not a hothead,” she added. “But they won’t let me live past it.”
Organizations like Inmates to Entrepreneurs and StepUp Ministry have given her the courage and the guidance to build her brand-new events planning business, which launched just last fall. And she joined LaunchRaleigh, which gives microloans (between $500-$2,500), business training and mentoring to help entrepreneurs start their businesses.
“I realized that if I’m ever going to get away from the system and be successful, I’ll have to create my company and make my own destiny,” she said. “I had to figure out a way to create ‘yesses’, when everyone else was telling me ‘no.’ I had to develop a system that would create a way out, and an open door for me and my family.”
Her catering packages start at $1,000, with full-service wedding planning running up to $2,495. She will also decorate a venue for $75 an hour (minimum 4 hours) or do consulting work for $65 an hour.
While she has seven weddings under her belt since she began organizing events in 2009, her first big nuptials under her new company is next month. She has also organized some baby showers and corporate events, including the centerpieces for a recent Campbell University Law School breakfast – a major show of faith coming from the community.
“Having such a prestigious school accept my bid was a really big deal. It meant the world to me,” she said.
Now Baker is working toward her travel agent certification so that she also can offer destination weddings or honeymoon packages. And she’s even been ordained, just in case you need someone to officiate your wedding ceremony.
“I’ve got plenty of irons on the fire,” she said.
Coss Marte, ConBody
‘When you’re sitting in jail and you have nothing to do, you have that mentality that you want to take over the world,,” said Coss Marte, 31, who served six years for drug trafficking. “You really just want to come out and hit the ground running.”
So not long after he was released, he began teaching the same intense bodyweight routine of burpees, squats and calisthenics that he used to shed 70 pounds behind bars. He started holding classes in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, which grew into renting studio space at a nearby preschool, and ultimately getting his own studio on the same corner he used to sell drugs on.
He raised the money for his ConBody boot camp from family and friends, private equity and winning business competitions. His first-time classes are $20, and class packages run $125 for either five sessions or an unlimited monthly subscription.
And while he was sharing his success story as a keynote speaker at the FounderMade summit for entrepreneurs in February, he grabbed the attention of a Saks Fifth Avenue executive who invited him to become part of the luxury store’s new Wellery boutique. So now ConBody also meets in a swanky Fifth Avenue studio that also houses meditative manicures and dry salt therapy.
“It’s crazy,” Marte said. “I helped over 20 inmates lose over 1,000 pounds combined, so I just took the same program I was using in the prison yard, and decided to bring it out.”
Marte was also driven to go into business for himself after other employers refused to hire him.
“I had to lie on my application multiple times, just to even be granted an interview,” he said. “And then they would find out I lied, and say, ‘We would’ve given you a chance if you hadn’t lied.’
“Yeah, right,” he said. “If I hadn’t lied, my application would have been in the trash.”
Plus, the nature of job hunting had completely changed. “I was someone who went into prison with a flip phone, and came out to a touchscreen world,” he said. “I tried doing the old-school knock on doors, and learned everything gets filled out online now.”
So as Marte’s client base grew, he made a point to pay it forward by hiring other former inmates as trainers. He’s brought 10 men on board so far, found through nonprofits and “fan jail mail” from people looking for jobs.
Marte believes former inmates make the best employees. “Honestly, I trust these people more than I would trust a person that’s never been convicted,” he said. “They’re so grateful, and they don’t want to lose this second chance.”
And his students have no qualms about exercising with ex-cons.
“It’s not even something that really crossed my mind,” said regular client Mila Petrova, 28. “This shows people that some folks do deserve a second chance. And if you give it to them, they just might surprise you.”
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