Barbed Wire to Business Accelerator fuels growth
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) put the bite on offender recidivism when it threw two longstanding barriers to offender reintegration — lack of employment and financial opportunities — to some business-savvy sharks during its first “Barbed Wire to Business Accelerator – Fueling Growth through Impact Investing” event in November at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Three companies, each owned by PEP graduates, had come to compete for thousands of dollars in “accelerator cash” in a Shark Tank-style pitch contest. After listening to presentations and a probing question-and-answer period, hundreds of audience members voted for the business plans they believed offered the best investment opportunity.
When the ballots came in, investors had awarded $40,000 to Don Dawson of Cherokee Acres Homes and $60,000 to David Luedecke and Christopher Morrow of FSO Construction and Management. First place and top prize money of $100,000 went to Ruben Mauricio of RPM Diesel Service.
PEP Executive Relations Manager Stephen Fucile explained how the competition provides critical financial support: “We have four graduate business owners pitch for $200,000 in accelerator cash. All three businesses are in existence, but they’re at a point where they may need another truck, maybe it’s capital for that piece of equipment, maybe it’s capital to get a road built. It’s money to help accelerate what they’re already doing and get them to the next level.”
PEP is a volunteer-based training and mentoring program that helps offenders learn real-world, ethics-based business skills so they can find freeworld employment and make it a rewarding part of their life. Participants must demonstrate a desire to improve themselves and be willing to work hard, think positively and learn new skills.
During their in-prison program time, participants complete a financial literacy course, an employment workshop, a business etiquette course and a Toastmasters class. Students are required to decide on a business they would like to start upon release, research the logistics of their chosen industry, and write a plan for launching the enterprise.
First place prizewinner Ruben Mauricio shared his feelings after learning his business plan had been selected to receive a six-figure influx of cash, saying, “It’s pretty shocking. I just came here to do what I could to give back to PEP and, it turned out, they’re giving back to me, like always.”
Mauricio joined PEP to learn how to run a business, but soon discovered the program’s true strength is its ability to teach participants how to build their lives on a solid foundation of hard work and ethical behavior: “It was about the character. Once I grasped the concept of character and what it can do for you, that’s the transformation. It changed my life, not only mine but my family’s as well. I’m able to be a better influence and more of a positive role model. What’s more important, they see how bad I used to be and now they see how I am today, and it gives them hope.”
Fucile went on to describe the objective of the volunteer-supported PEP program: “Many people in prison feel hopeless or helpless. Maybe they don’t have a network to help pull them up and out of that and into something different and better and more valuable. We help foster an opportunity to get men inside the criminal justice system connected with men outside who can help transform their lives. That’s what we do.”
Founded in 2004 at five TDCJ units, PEP now has 2,500 offender-graduates who have gone on to establish nearly 400 new businesses. PEP program graduates have consistent success finding post-release employment, resulting in very low, single-digit recidivism rates.