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USA Today: Ask an Expert: Charting a Path From Inmate to Entrepreneur

United States, June 9, 2008

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Steve Strauss

USA Today
June, 2008

I thought Mercy Corps only helped out with international disasters, it is easy to see why they sponsored the L.I.F.E. program (Lifelong Information For Entrepreneurs) at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore.

Q: Steve — Mercy Corps has a pilot program where we teach women prisoners how to start and run their own small business. It's important because many of these women have a hard time getting jobs once they get out. There is a "graduation ceremony" that I'd love to try and get you to attend. Interested? — Caitlin

A: It never ceases to amaze me both the number and variety of people who want to start their own business. I hear from everyone from would-be entrepreneurs in China, to desperate moms in the U.S., as well as college kids and, yes, prisoners.

But this was the first time I have heard about a program to actually help incarcerated people become self-sufficient small business owners upon their release. It's important because it is not an insignificant problem.

Consider:

• 2.3 million Americans are in prison

• Five states spend more on corrections than they do on higher education

• A lack of employment skills is a main reason for high recidivism rates in prison

• Many employers do not want to hire convicted felons

Combined, all of this means that 1) those in prison have a hard time getting gainful employment once they get out, and 2) a program to help them start their own business seems like a smart plan.

At least, that is what the folks at Mercy Corps thought. Mercy Corps is an international organization that "works to alleviate suffering, poverty, and oppression by helping people build secure, productive, and just communities."

So, although, like you maybe, I thought Mercy Corps only helped out with international disasters, it is easy to see why they sponsored the L.I.F.E. program (Lifelong Information For Entrepreneurs) at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore.

Attending the graduation and meeting some of the women and hearing their stories was an incredibly moving experience.

The program is intended to foster an entrepreneurial mindset by teaching financial literacy, and small business and interpersonal skills to minimum security female prisoners. It is a rigorous 26 week-long program that covers everything from goal planning and writing a business plan to profit and loss statements and funding.

If that seems like a lot to grasp in half a year, you're right; that's why attendees have to make a year long commitment — the graduates stick around and help teach the class that comes after them.

As I said, the graduation ceremony I attended was both joyous and moving. The women were rightfully proud of themselves and what they had accomplished. Each woman (about 25 total) expressed what the program meant for them and how they planned on using the skills they gained upon their release.

Although not all planned on becoming entrepreneurs, 100% of them felt that they were far better equipped to handle life after prison. The financial literacy they gained seemed especially important.

My favorite quote of the day: "I read the business section of the newspaper now!"

Some of their stories were fascinating:

Michelle Boothby had previously owned a business. But times got tough in the hotdog cart business and she was sent away on an identity theft charge. She so appreciated the opportunity given to her, noting that "a lot of people don't like to take a chance on inmates."

Tammy Rodgers had owned a trucking company before getting sent away on an assault charge. Though she obviously already understood business too, Tammy said the L.I.F.E. program was still a great help and would make her an even better entrepreneur when she is released.

But by far, the most moving story of the day was that of

Tanya Wheeler. Although not a drinker, Tanya was going through a rough patch in her life when she got behind the wheel of her car, drunk. The ensuing accident killed ... her beautiful 8-year-old daughter.

"This class gave me hope," Tanya told me, adding that it helped her see that "a dream was possible."

Tanya may start her own freelancing hair care business when she is released about a year and a half from now, after which she will have served more than eight years in prison. She noted though that she also is on a mission to help people, much the way Mercy Corps L.I.F.E. program helped her.

"I need to give back," she said.

Bravo, ladies, and congratulations. Great programs like this should become far more common-place. Owning a small business changes lives.

Today's tip: The L.I.F.E. program/Coffee Creek Correctional Facility needs business books. If you would like to donate some, please contact me at sstrauss@mrallbiz.com

Ask an Expert appears Mondays. You can click here to see previous columns. Steven D. Strauss is a lawyer, author and speaker who specializes in small business and entrepreneurship. His latest book is The Small Business Bible. You can sign up for his free newsletter, "Small Business Success Secrets!" at his website www.mrallbiz.com.