Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Go Forth And Be An Entrepreneur

" What if we could capitalize on their street knowledge but shift it toward productive, ethical pursuits."

Catherine Rohr, quoted in: "Channeling Street Smarts into Business Smarts," Nancy Myers, Philanthropy World Magazine, 2007 (vol 12, issue 5)

"If you haven't failed...you don't qualify."

Chuck May, quoted in:." Thinking Outside the Cellblock: Inmates With Ambition," Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, July 1, 2006

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) of Texas practices an unusual form of asset-based development, turning the entrepreneurial skills and experiences of running gangs or selling drugs into starting legit businesses. PEP, under Catherine Rohr's leadership, has gathered an impressive array of business support, raised significant money,and operates rigorous training behind the fence and out in the community.

What I like about PEP is that it recognizes the streetsmarts of a population of mostly men who have been incarcerated and largely abandoned. With 700,000 formerly incarcerated hitting the streets each year, it's a crime that more assistance for re-entry is not available. One PEP business start up gave me a chuckle, StrongArm Canine, "which keeps guard dogs on their toes by testing them with simulated break-ins and assaults."

PEP needs a good evaluation to sort out selection, costs, and a variety of outcomes. But my focus is not soley on the 1 in 10 who start a business, or the fewer number who really make it big, but on those 90 percent who get connected to work and business and have such low recidivism, 5% compared to 30-40% or more.

Every day it seems that someone comes up to me and talks about how they are going to start an entrepreneurship training program. I admit, I believe that getting a job is easier, although maybe not for certain populations like the formerly incarcerated. And a lot of well-meaning people don't know how to think through the implications of an entrepreneurship strategy.

But it has struck me over time that entrepreneurship and wealth building touch an aspirational core for people that is more motivating than thinking about a lifetime of getting and losing jobs. Maybe it's the feeling that we can be in control of our lives, make our own decisions, plant our own roots. Sounds very American, right! Maybe entrepreneurship training is a better form of job readiness training because of this values base and the big dose of economic literacy and the diversity of role models. After all, most people will still need a job, even as they start a business.

I wonder if anyone has incorporated entrepreneurial training explicitly into their job readiness efforts?


Colin Austin said...

Entrepreneurship was incorporated into the Latino Pathways site in Greensboro, North Carolina. What we learned was that some people were taking both the entrepreneurship class as well as a job training course (like CNA) at the college. Entrepreneurship provided an additional employment option and potential supplemental income during or between other jobs.

Josh said...

PEP sounds like an excellent program. It is really encouraging that they are leveraging the existing skills these individuals have, rather than trying to "start from scratch".