These former prisoners are turning to entrepreneurship

When Lawrence Carpenter was released from prison in 2001, he was determined to live better lives for himself and his family.

However, he knew that having a criminal record would make it difficult to find a job.

“I shouldn’t have to live in poverty for the rest of my life because I made a mistake,” said Carpenter.

The 47-year-old, who lives in Durham, North Carolina, has served twice in prison. He was only 17 when he was jailed for drug and robbery offenses. After serving six years, he returned to the drug trade. After his second drug abuse conviction, which he served 11 months, he decided to change something.

“I was an entrepreneur … but I was just in the wrong game,” said Carpenter, who was newly married before his sophomore year.

Lawrence Carpenter started his business, Superclean Professional Janitorial Service, after spending time in jail. Today he teaches the former prisoners in the “Inmates to Entrepreneurs” program.

Madeline Hiller | Inmates to entrepreneurs

He had a vision for a cleaning service that he slowly began to build. Two decades later, Superclean Professional Janitorial Services has about 70 employees and brings in about $ 500,000 in contracts annually, Carpenter said.

Now Carpenter is teaching other ex-inmates how to start a business through the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program, launched in 2018 by entrepreneur Brian Hamilton.

After Hamilton spent more than two decades visiting prisons, speaking to inmates, and teaching them about entrepreneurship, Hamilton saw the need to offer them classes after their release.

“As an entrepreneur, instead of getting a job, my idea was to start your own and become an entrepreneur,” said Hamilton, founder of the Brian Hamilton Foundation and fintech firm Sageworks, now acquired by a private equity firm and renamed Abrigo .

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According to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate of former prisoners in 2018 was more than 27% above the total US unemployment rate in all historical periods, including the Great Depression.

There is no data on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected their employment situation, said Prison Policy Initiative spokeswoman Wanda Betram. However, when the job market is bad, people with criminal records are pushed out of the job first, she said.

“They are the first to be denied vacancies even if the crime on their file has nothing to do with who they are today or their ability to do the job,” she added.

Brian Hamilton, director of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, teaches a one-day course at the Gaston Correctional Center in Dallas, NC in 2018.

Inmates to entrepreneurs

Through Inmates to Entrepreneurs, the former prisoners take part in an eight-week course and learn the basics of starting a business, such as the type of business, how to serve customers and how to generate profits. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, courses have been moved online so the organization can reach more people in the United States

“Giving people a second chance, a second try is absolutely part of the fabric of our country,” said Hamilton.

More than 100,000 people have attended the courses and around 20 to 30% have started their own business. Typically, these are low capital service companies, such as painting, auto detailing, and house cleaning, Hamilton said.

Claudia Shivers is one of those who took the course in 2020 while also starting a company, Queen Coffee Bean. She had just served nearly 11 months in federal prison on tax fraud conspiracy.

“Actually looking for a living wage job is almost impossible to get one,” Shivers said. “I had an ankle monitor.

“I spent a lot of time internalizing myself, just had a lot of self-doubt and thought that I would never be more than the last mistake I made.”

Claudia Shivers at her coffee shop, Queen Coffee Bean in High Point, NC

Madeline Hiller | Inmates to entrepreneurs

Shivers, who owned a consulting firm before going on duty, began roasting coffee beans on the porch of her home in High Point, North Carolina. She sold them to friends, then at a local dealer market. She also created a website and now has a roasting room. She hopes to make a profit within the next six months.

“My goal is to become very involved in the coffee sector so that I can then visit coffee farms, do business with coffee farmers, [and] try to build a fairer coffee community. “

She credits the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program for giving her the confidence to get going again on her own. When she saw other previously incarcerated business owners like Carpenter, she realized it was possible.

“It doesn’t get rich quick,” said Shivers. “It’s not a super-fast solution.

“It’s a way to reduce relapse rates and build your confidence,” she added. “It gives you the path to success.”

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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