3 things you can learn about entrepreneurship from prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.


Days before his release from prison, Brandon Biko Reese reads during a session of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. (photo from Tamir Kalifa and text from Maurice Chammah via The Texas Tribune)

An all-health food vending machine in schools and companies. A publishing house that only publishes words and art from prisoners. Car repair training for teens in the juvenile justice system.

Sound awesome?

These are just some of the many projects that are being given a fighting chance because of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit that aims to reduce the country’s high recidivism rate by helping inmates in Texas prisons start their own businesses.

It works like this: any man with an idea from one of the state’s 60 prisons can apply to the competitive program. Once accepted, participants go through a six-month MBA boot camp, complete with top business executives as mentors. After the cap and gown come off, help with funding, network building, schooling, and more continue both inside and beyond the prison walls.

“Really, it’s reinforced my belief in the tremendous, untapped potential of people in prison—both with respect to entrepreneurship and life prospects more broadly,” says Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who recently spent a year in jail and is now a PEP advisory board member.

Since its start in 2004, PEP has served over 800 graduates, with only five percent going back to prison three years or less after their release. To date, 120 of their plans have come to life, from a food truck enterprise to a shoe shining business to a company that provides legal assistance to inmates.

What’s more, for those on the other side of the barbed wire, it’s shifting perceptions of how we view the formerly incarcerated.

“It helps executives from around the country see that most people in prison aren’t that unlike them—they have families they love and miss, career goals and aspirations, dreams of something better,” Jeff says. “They made mistakes, but that doesn’t mean society should write them off.”


What can you learn from prisoners?

Jeff is a firm believer that inmates have some of the shrewdest business instincts around. Remember Stringer Bell’s unfailing dedication to macroeconomics in The Wire?

Here are Jeff”s three tips from inside prison that can help you with your own entrepreneurial project:

1. Cultivate side hustles.

Whether it was ironing another man’s jumpsuit, opening one-man barbershops, or smuggling cigarettes inside, Jeff witnessed lots of hustles happening in prison. The risks varied, as did the rewards, but there was something to be said about going the extra distance.

“Hustles can help you diversify your approach to solving problems, gain a new perspective, and broaden your networks,” Jeff says.

So in addition to your big project, considering picking up some side hustles to both increase your cash flow and your opportunities.

2. Make strategic alliances.

Jeff worked at the prison warehouse unloading food shipments. In order to allay suspicion that he might snitch on his warehouse colleagues who sold stolen food, he soon found himself taking an orange here or an apple there, and distributing them strategically upon returning to his cell block

Of course, in the outside world, building strategic alliances takes more than handing someone a piece of fruit. But the principle applies to entrepreneurship just the same.

In a letter to current inmate and former Illinois governor Rod Blogojevich, Jeff gives some advice for how to make the most of prison. Some of these include: corresponding with anyone who writes to you. Forgiving your enemies. Not complaining about how bad your job is, nor bragging about how good it is. Embracing your background, but not imposing it on people.

And finally, staying open to the possibility that your allies might end up being more meaningful than you think.

“When the novelty wears off and the people who approach you are doing more than rubbernecking, don’t discount the possibility of making lifelong friends,” he writes. “You will meet some of the most fascinating people you have ever met, from all walks of life. Listen to their stories, and learn from them.”

3. Tap into your ingenuity.

Doing more with less: that’s what prison life is all about. Like cutting hair with toenail clippers, or cooking grilled cheese with an iron.

If the genius juices just aren’t flowing and you need a fresh perspective, break free from your routine. Talk to people you haven’t seen in a while. Follow folks on Twitter who have different viewpoints from yours. And read, read, read.

“Think about problems you’ve thought about before, but from new angles. Then leave your desk and sit outside on a nice day and just think. On good days, somehow it flows,” Jeff says. “Failing that, write it down immediately whenever you get a flash of brilliance, no matter what time of night, etc. Gems can be so ephemeral, you gotta capture ‘em no matter what.”

Interested in prison issues? Search Idealist for almost 2,500 prison-related opportunities around the globe.

Tags: , ,

Comments (1)

  1. […] strategic alliances,” and “tap into your ingenuity.” Read the complete article here. Photograph via Idealist.org: “Days before his release from prison, Brandon Biko Reese reads […]

Sorry, commenting is now closed on Idealists in Action.
Check out our new blog and join the Idealist Network conversation on the Connector Hub.

Like what you're reading?

Subscribe and get fresh daily updates from Idealists in Action.