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Former inmates get fresh start by launching their own businesses

Sue Tait, who owns a jewellery business, was contracted last year by St. Lawrence College to deliver an entrepreneurship course to inmates at a federal prison in Gravenhurst, Ont.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Learning about the principles of entrepreneurship, from writing a business plan to managing cash flow and developing marketing strategies, is important to anyone looking to start a small business.

When the lessons are delivered in a federal penitentiary, they are all the more critical, educators and volunteers who offer such courses say. The audience is captive, to say the least, and the message is particularly poignant given the sort of past business experience many prisoners have, as well as their challenging job prospects for the future.

"You can't just hang out a shingle and say you're open for business," says Sue Tait, a business consultant and teacher in Bracebridge, Ont., who has developed an entrepreneurial training program for inmates. "Being self-employed eliminates a huge barrier that many inmates face upon release."

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Ms. Tait, who owns a small business selling jewellery along with her husband, Stan, and has a background teaching entrepreneurship to at-risk populations, was contracted last year by St. Lawrence College to deliver the course to two groups of inmates at Beaver Creek Institution, a minimum– and medium-security federal prison operated by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) in nearby Gravenhurst, Ont.

She says the 90 hours of training includes naming, branding, market research, marketing plans and promotion, cost-benefit analysis and financial planning. It culminated in the inmates writing a complete business plan and presenting it to a group including wardens at the prison and community business advisers. Special speakers provided unique perspectives on business ideas and feedback on the viability of the concepts presented.

"Many of the participants brought skills to the table that they themselves never identified as valuable," she says. "A drug king already has some strong business skills; my goal was to help them identify their strengths in business and apply that to legitimate and legal business ideas."

CSC provides a broad range of correctional programs and interventions to meet offenders' needs and address their risk of reoffending, says Brittanie Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the service. Corcan, a special operating agency within CSC, provides employment, vocational training and employability skills to offenders.

The programming prepares them for employment in trades such as carpentry, cabinet making, mechanic, electronic, welding and auto repair, Ms. Sullivan says, while shops run in federal institutions focus on manufacturing, textiles, construction and services such as printing and laundry.

Among the various programs in the federal institutions are entrepreneurship training offered by student volunteer groups that are part of Enactus Canada, a student leadership development organization at 64 academic institutions across the country that focuses on entrepreneurship.

For the past several years students in the Enactus program at Queen's University in Kingston have run an introduction to entrepreneurship program, called Project Fresh Start, that they give to groups of inmates at nearby Collins Bay and Joyceville institutions.

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Madison Freeston, a third-year commerce student at Queen's who is project manager of Fresh Start, says the four weeks of workshops are eye-opening for the inmates who take them as well as the student instructors. "It's a very different experience than what you're used to."

She says that with unemployment rates as high as 65 per cent among ex-offenders, "entrepreneurship is the way to go. It gives them an opportunity to become employable and find something they're passionate about."

Louisa Walch, a fourth-year commerce student who is co-chair of Enactus Queen's, says the student instructors learn presentation and organizational skills while the offenders get a helping hand. "These people have lost control of their lives; being an entrepreneur gives you the greatest control of any job out there," she says, although she warns that starting a small business is challenging and can be less stable than having a straightforward job.

Under its Fresh Start program, Enactus Queen's this year will be collaborating with the Elizabeth Fry Society to help women in the community who are ex-offenders and at risk of trouble with the law to learn about entrepreneurship. There are plans to actually start a business such as a campus coffee cart, Ms. Freeston says, so the women get practical experience with skills such as marketing and personnel management.

Ms. Tait says that many inmates who have learned trades in prison, such as carpentry, are able to be self-employed upon release but they need to learn business basics. The participants in her training program had a range of enterprising ideas, such as property management and tree care, opening a gentleman's club and spa or starting a food truck that would also teach cooking skills to at-risk youth, among the many ventures that included a social enterprise element. "A lot of them want to give back," she says.

Jose Vivar, who served more than eight years in prison for drug-related offences, took Ms. Tait's course, as well as the Enactus program offered by the Queen's students, and decided to open a non-profit gym. When he was released on parole in March he turned the interest in fitness that he developed behind bars into a program he called "Prison Pump" and started a company called 25/7 Fitness, training as many as 60 people at a time in Christie Pits Park in Toronto.

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Mr. Vivar, 35, who was shot after teaching just 10 of the courses but is recovering and plans to return to the business, says that most prisoners are smart, social and energetic people, but they often end up in "super low-wage" menial jobs upon release. "When you start a business you make a bigger contribution to society than being a labourer."

He says it's hard to do courses in prison because inmates are not allowed to use technology such as the Internet and smartphones. "It all has to be your own initiative." He feels the training he received on business plans and marketing was invaluable. "I've always been an entrepreneur, I was just in the drug business," he says. "I wanted to use my knowledge for something legitimate."

Ms. Tait says that inmates have learned through their drug or other businesses how to build relationships, manage money, protect their investments and deal with trusted suppliers, for example. "All of those are transferrable skills."

Starting a small business upon release is "an opportunity for self-worth," she says. "They understand they made a mistake, they paid for their crime, and I'd rather they have skills to come back into the community and be a contributing member of society."

Ex-offenders often have trouble trying to explain to would-be employers why they have a 10-year gap on their résumés, Ms. Tait says, so they look to be their own bosses. Those with criminal records involving fraud can have trouble getting loans, she cautions, so they might have to get help from family members or go into partnership with someone who can deal with the bank.

Ms. Tait adds the majority of the inmates she trained "had every intention of pursuing self-employment on release."

Advice for former inmates

Inmates in federal prisons who want to start small businesses upon release need to get up to speed on new technologies and seek advice from experts, says business consultant and teacher Sue Tait. Some of the tips she offers to inmates:

  • Do a self-analysis: Identify your strengths, weaknesses, what you have to offer and what you need assistance with.
  • Ask for help: Research where to get help and learn how to ask for it, Ms. Tait says. “You have to be creative.”
  • Find your target market: Researching demographics can be difficult without access to the Internet, so inmates often need to contact family or friends outside to get answers.
  • Do a business plan: Write down what your business needs to
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