The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”


Week in Review: Week 2

Monday (July 14, 2014)

Toastmasters International

Today is the first day of Toastmasters for Transcendent 22.Toastmasters is an international organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills. Looking around the room, I see anticipation and excitement on the faces of my classmates. The class is very large and we are squeezed together tightly in a semicircle around the room in multiple rows. Servant-leaders demonstrate the duties we will assume in future meetings. Rolando T. opened with the definition of a servant-leader, Jerry H. was the Toastmaster for today and Mr. Arnold was our distinguished guest. Mr. Arnold, our public speaking mentor, talked about what it means to be a servant-leader. Andrew T. spoke on the importance of Toastmasters and the role it plays in the business plan competition. At the end of the day, we elected our own presidents for each session and vice presidents for each Toastmasters group.

Tuesday (July 15, 2014)

PEP Classroom with Coat of Arms

PEP Classroom with Coat of Arms

It was Throwback Tuesday for Transcendent 22. We took a trip down Nostalgia Boulevard and participated in arts and crafts. Glue sticks, glitter and stickers lay out on tables ready to be used for creating a “Coat of Arms.” We were tasked with creating our own personal Coat of Arms that would reflect the personality of each class member. For some this was a painful reminder of a lost youth, but for most it was smiles and yet another chance to build bonds with people who were strangers just weeks ago.

The day was not all arts and crafts, though. We were introduced to the resume and personal story portions of the business plan. We also continued to focus on our character. We will put into writing personal characteristics and flaws that need work. All these activities are important to the PEP development cycle that leads to success in business, as well as on a deep personal level. To be bankrupt in one aspect of life is to be bankrupt in all of life.

Bert Smith Teaching in PEP

Bert Smith Teaching a Prior Class in PEP

Wednesday (July 16, 2014)

Class 22 was all ears today as CEO Bert S. (a.k.a. Chocolate Truffles) arrived to deliver the inaugural lesson and show a glimpse of what lies ahead. There is no doubt about it: the next several months promise to bring stress, homework, sleepless nights and unrelenting assignments. Having the lessons delivered by a real professional, though, makes this adventure so very worth it! We are lucky to have such an incredible opportunity. To Bert, Class 22 sends a Transcendent thank you!

Entrepreneurship A Small Business Approach textbook

Our textbook

Thursday (July 17, 2014)

Wow, an unexpected day off! Well, that gives us more time to study and catch up on homework. Everybody on the dorm is digging into his entrepreneurship book or practicing the icebreaker speech for Toastmasters on Monday. A day off from the classroom doesn’t mean a day off from the books, especially with business plan assignments and our Venture Capital Panel event approaching.

Expressions

Days of rest and weekends go unwritten, but the journal of our journey never stops. Transformation comes etched in our hearts as we grow in little ways, the dark, the empty and the large. Like peaks and valleys, activity is easily seen on the mountaintops, but much life and growth spring from the hidden paths. Schedules will change, curriculum will range from business to character development, activity will pick up and slow down, and people will come and go. Let it all be etched at all times throughout all of you. These are the depths, the steps, the work and rest, and the breaths of Transcendence.

Yesterday, The Houston Chronicle ran a strong editorial about The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, in which the paper’s stated:

“State lawmakers should find a way to expand the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.”
– The Houston Chronicle

The article can be read here:
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Fresh-start-5696533.php

It is also cited below.

Our country is facing a prisoner re-entry crisis. Since the 1970s, the U.S. prison population has grown by more than 700 percent.

This means that as many as 70,000 prisoners may be returning to communities in Texas annually over the next several years, according to a recent study completed by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

That’s about 55,000 more prisoners per year than the number of students graduating from all the colleges and universities in Texas after four years.

Prison terms are designed at least in part to deter prisoners from committing future crime. Yet despite our state’s massive investment in our criminal justice system, around 23 percent of the prisoners released will be back in jail within three years. Ex-cons face considerable obstacles to gainful employment.

Without mentors or a means of sustaining themselves, former inmates can lapse into old habits. The costs of incarceration don’t stop with the prisoner: His incarceration makes it more likely that his children will be incarcerated.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit that operates exclusively in Texas, provides a fresh approach to the long-standing and costly problem of prisoner recidivism.

With the help of volunteers skilled in their professions, the program trains inmates for productive work. While in jail, a prisoner conceives of a business and writes a complete plan for implementing it upon his release. Since mid-2010, every active graduate of the program has secured his first job within 90 days of leaving prison.

The criminal justice system needs to develop capacity to help inmates who are genuinely committed to starting over. With a three-year recidivism rate of five to seven percent, Prison Entrepreneurship Program participants are much less likely than other freed prisoners to be re-incarcerated. This model appears to work, yet the program has only been able to serve 1,000 inmates. And at this point, the program is working exclusively with men, not women inmates.

State lawmakers should find a way to expand the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. If budgetary or other restraints make that impossible, then lawmakers and civic leaders should adopt it as a model and lend their influence to recruiting more volunteers from diverse backgrounds willing to work with ex-prisoners.

Nothing speaks to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s success more powerfully than a single statistic: 30 percent of the program’s donors in recent years are graduates. From felon to philanthropist – that’s a transformation worthy of support.

The following article was originally posted on August 6, 2014 in the Houston Press:

Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs

By Craig Malisow
Published Wed., Aug. 6 2014 at 9:00 AM

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Photos by Troy Fields

“This is not about charity.
This is about opportunity.”

Jeremy Gregg, chief development officer, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

A short while into a 30-month sentence for buying a stolen trailer, James Cornish received a peculiar postcard in his Plainview prison cell.

It was from a group called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Even in prison, it seemed, there was no escape from junk mail. Cornish set it aside and didn’t think much of it until a guy from that organization named Marcus Hill rolled in with a video and a spiel.

Hill said he had served five and a half years of a 17-year bit for possession of seven pounds of weed. He got that postcard, too. It changed his life. Now he was a recruiter. He went from prison to prison and preached the gospel of business education.

There was no shortage of rehabilitative or educational programs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Many of them promised to hook you up with Jesus. But PEP was the only one that promised to hook you up with CEOs.

There was an “entrepreneurship boot camp,” a business plan competition, a re–entry program upon release with transitional housing and continued education. It appealed to Cornish’s business goals. He was an independent truck driver at the time of his arrest, and was in such a hurry to grow his business that he’d taken a shortcut. Cornish bought a flatbed trailer knowing full well it was stolen.

“It was a quick, easy way to make a bunch of fast money,” says Cornish, who at 32 still looks every bit the linebacker he was at Los Angeles Valley College.

Prison didn’t end his ambitions; it just interrupted them. And PEP retooled them: Cornish still wanted a bunch of money, but now he was prepared to get it the right way. He was prepared to work hard and put in the time.

He already had a truck waiting for him on the outside, so he was able to find work in a matter of weeks after his release in 2011. He says he bought “a raggedy truck” and pieced it together. Fast-forward two years, and Cornish is running six trucks and “leasing” outside drivers — finding them work and collecting a cut. He says he’s grossed more than $5 million and has bought two homes.

If one were partial to cheesy metaphors, one could say that PEP’s participants are sort of like that raggedy truck, and the program’s core philosophies — rooted in both character development and business acumen — are the tools to piece it together.

Now in its tenth year, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program boasts a significantly lower recidivism rate than not only the general released population but also of five major offender rehabilitation organizations.

One hundred percent of its graduates are employed within 90 days of release; 73 percent find work within 30 days. The average wage is more than $11 an hour.

While PEP is about to launch its program in TDCJ’s Sanders Estes unit, it has operated solely from the privately run Cleveland Correctional Center, about 40 miles north of Houston. Participants are accepted from prisons across the state after a rigorous application process.

Despite its own significant stumble five years in when it was discovered that founder Catherine Rohr had engaged in inappropriate relationships with four graduates and had to resign, the program continues to attract volunteer executives and business owners — “repeat attenders,” in local parlance — as well as interest from other state correctional departments. But other prison systems have yet to implement anything like it — PEP appears to be the only program of its kind in the nation. That might be because it serves a demographic that is easy to ignore or even look at in practical terms: Nationally, hundreds of thousands of offenders are released each year. Many of them will commit new felonies and go right back in.

If a system could even up those odds — if it could look at a group of drug dealers, thieves and murderers and see potential taxpaying, productive members of society, then those people would become more than just ex-offenders. They would become a good investment.

“General George S. Patton said, ‘When compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.’ Clearly, General Patton has never had his business plan critiqued by you.”

– PEP Class XXI participant to 
business plan adviser

 

Return on investment is where it’s at.

Jeremy Gregg, PEP’s chief development officer, made this point at a series of TED talks in 2012. Delivering easily digestible stats in high-energy bursts, Gregg assumed the role of pitchman — a carnival barker urging the audience to look at the untapped market potential inside his “gated community.”

Gregg, an executive MBA with a history in nonprofits, first volunteered for PEP in 2007. Looking at the nation’s correctional system through a purely financial lens, he saw a black hole.

“This is a deeply troubling financial issue,” he told the audience. “We will pour $74 billion…into corrections this year.”

Speaking strictly as a taxpayer, Gregg said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it worked, but it doesn’t.” That’s when the startling statistics flashed on the screen behind him: According to national recidivism statistics, half of the 700,000 offenders released in 2012 were predicted to return in 2016, having committed a new felony. That’s one crappy ROI.

But graduates of the six-month program were a different story, Gregg told his audience. These guys learn skills. They use college-level textbooks and the AP writing style guide, and study Harvard MBA cases. And, as Gregg is fond of pointing out, “These guys literally read and discuss Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment while sitting in prison.”

Not all inmates are eligible for the program: Sex offenders are prohibited, as is any inmate with current gang ties or recent and significant disciplinary actions. Inmates must also be within three years of release. For each six-month block, there are approximately 6,000 eligible inmates in TDCJ. About one in four return postcards expressing interest in applying. In return, they get a roughly 20-page application packet; about two-thirds actually apply. Then there’s more reading requirements, a test and an interview. About 47-48 percent were convicted of a violent crime — murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault or robbery. The average participant is serving his second sentence. (The program’s directors have chosen to offer it only to male prisoners because they make up the overwhelming majority — 93 percent — of the total Texas inmate population, according to recent statistics.)

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Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Bert Smith (center) became the PEP’s CEO afer five years of volunteering.

 

And their mentoring doesn’t stop at the prison gate: Gregg told audiences that one of the keys to PEP’s success is an inside-out approach in which volunteers continue to work with offenders after their release, and offenders continue to take classes.

“If all we do is train them on the inside, pat them on the back and say, ‘Good luck to you,’ there’s a good chance we’re going to train a drug dealer how to leave prison with a better marketing strategy,” Gregg said. “And that’s not what we want to do.”

According to a report on PEP by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, “Studies show that a former inmate’s most vulnerable and impressionable time actually occurs in the first 72 hours following release.”

That’s why every PEP participant is, upon release, met by a case manager who drives him to his family’s home, a halfway house or one of PEP’s transitional homes in Houston and Dallas. And his studies don’t end at the gate, either — newly released participants are expected to complete 20 “Entrepreneurship School” (or “eSchool”) workshops in which they learn sales, marketing and personal finance. Eligible graduates can win a cash bonus for investment in their business.

Sure, it’s the nice thing to do. But it’s not just designed with ex-offenders in mind — PEP’s directors say it serves the public as well. These guys aren’t simply peppered with platitudes and released into society with a cheerful disposition. Every man who graduates from PEP saves Texas taxpayers an average of $21,000 a year, according to the Baylor study.

Individually, that may not sound like much, but the study points out that by 2012, the state’s correctional system was sucking $3.3 billion from the budget. Moreover, according to the Baylor study, PEP grads have a three-year recidivism rate of just under 7 percent, compared to the state average of 23 percent.

The heart of PEP is the business plan competition. Over six months and 1,000 classroom hours, participants craft an idea for a business, then pitch it, Shark Tank-style, 120 times, to volunteers. At the end, three winners are chosen, but all graduates receive a certificate of entrepreneurship from Baylor.

These practical ambitions exist within a framework known as the Ten Driving Values. These range from the more grounded — Accountability and Innovation — to those of a more touchy-feely sort, like Love and Fun.

Cornish latched onto the tenth one: Wise Stewardship, which states in part, “We will apply donors’ funds as promised…We use funds intelligently, efficiently and strategically to achieve maximum benefit for all whom we serve.”

For Cornish, this means that when he signs a contract, he delivers.

“If I tell a company I’m going to have ten trucks there [and] we’re going to complete this job in five or six days, that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I don’t care if I have to drive a truck…24 hours a day for five days; I’m going to do it. I’m going to get the job done.”

“There but for the grace of God, in many cases, I could be sitting not in a pinstriped blue suit but a blue jumpsuit.”

– Bert Smith, CEO, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

Nine years ago, Bert Smith, a venture capitalist and Princeton-educated economist (with a JD from UT-Austin tossed in for good measure), was sitting at his weekly Executives Association of Houston breakfast meeting, listening to a woman named Catherine Rohr talk about her strange new prison rehabilitation program. Smith was sold. He told her he’d like to volunteer as a business plan adviser.

“I think maybe I didn’t realize it when I went to breakfast that morning, [but] after I heard her speak, I really felt a desire to give back,” Smith says. “That sounds very lofty, but it was actually very simple. I just felt like, wow, you know, I’ve had some ups, I’ve had some downs; maybe I can bundle up that mess and share it with somebody else where it’ll really make a difference.”

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Photo by Troy Fields
Program graduate James Cornish (right), talking with driver Marlon Martin.

As profiled in a 2012 Inc. story, Rohr at that time was working for a Manhattan private equity firm and commuting regularly to prison. Specifically, she had found God in her twenties and, as part of a ministry, brought the gospel to Texas prisons. But in between all the Jesus talk, according to the Inc. story, she found that inmates often “exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders as an investor.”

By 2004, Rohr had left New York for Houston and founded PEP. An attractive, dynamic speaker, she had no trouble gathering volunteers and media attention. So of course the media were on standby in 2009 when Rohr confessed a transgression and PEP nearly imploded: In the midst of a divorce, Rohr engaged in what have only been described as “inappropriate relationships” with four PEP graduates. Suddenly, the focus wasn’t on all the men the program had helped in the previous five years, but on a scandal. As Kris Frieswick reported for Inc., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, fearing Rohr was a “security risk,” conducted an investigation and banned her from ever entering any Texas correctional facility — one of the rare times a person has been punished by being forced out of prison. Rohr had no choice but to step down from the program she had created.

Whatever concerns prison officials may have had about the program’s future were likely tempered by its track record up until that time. Even if Rohr had faltered personally, her formula had been proven a success.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, told the Houston Press in an email that, in 2004, “It was an unknown, but PEP officials were very passionate and were convinced that the program could help tackle one of the biggest barriers for offenders — employment. Also, the program’s approach in pairing successful executives in the corporate world with offenders who had some business skills was unique. Ultimately, the program showed promise, and now, almost ten years later, there are numerous success stories of former offenders who have started businesses and become taxpaying members of society.”

But by the time of Rohr’s departure, Smith was willing to move from volunteer to CEO. His trips to prison over the years had given him a new outlook.

He may not have felt that way before walking through the prison gates, but after he really got to know the inmates, he says, he saw them “as human beings, not sort of as caged animals, and human beings whose life stories were raw, who in most cases made bad decisions in extremely difficult and unforgiving circumstances. Honestly, I began to have a lot more empathy for them, and felt that if they were willing to commit to living a new life with new values…then I was willing to do what I could to help them.”

Around the time Smith joined PEP full-time, an ex-offender named Al Massey became the program’s executive relations manager. A big part of Massey’s job is recruiting volunteers, like Rohr once did, and perhaps one of his best selling points is himself.

On Halloween night 2003, the 53-year-old Massey was drunk-driving his truck along Beltway 8 when he smashed into the back of a truck that had stalled in the right lane. That truck burst into flames and the driver was killed. Massey pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to six years.

He’d had 35 years of sales management experience, came from a loving family and had a clean record. He’d also been married three times. He never thought he had a drinking problem. He started in sales when three-martini lunches still helped close deals. His thinking was: I never drink at home, so therefore I can’t be an alcoholic.

Prison changed that. He had plenty of time to think, and he did whatever he could to keep his mind occupied. He read every day, did crossword puzzles. He took whatever jobs he could, and when the PEP postcard came, he filled it out and sent it back. He figured a business class would help his goal of keeping his mind intact. Soon, he says, he discovered the program was just as much about developing character.

Sixteen other inmates from his unit took the bus to Cleveland Correctional, “and we bonded, and we found out what brotherhood was all about,” Massey says. “Because, you know, in prison, it’s hard to sometimes let down your guard, because you don’t want…people to consider you to be weak or anything like that.”

Upon release, Massey moved into one of PEP’s transitional homes, found quick work at a moving company that was run by a PEP grad, then got a less back-breaking sales position before the spot at PEP opened up.

Now Massey gives presentations to college business classes, church groups, civic groups, any groups that will listen, to find volunteers.

“You write a business plan, but that’s not the nuts and bolts,” Massey says of the program. “The nuts and bolts is to make you realize who you were supposed to be, and not who…you’ve become so far in your life. That there’s always a chance to change. Because fresh starts are available.”

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Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Longtime PEP volunteer Kirsten Berger says she loves witnessing the participants’ transformation.

 “How often can you be around people who are in the middle of completely remaking themselves as individuals?”

– Bill Frank, PEP volunteer

 

On the phone, Al Massey can be soft-spoken.

But here, in the Cleveland Correctional Center’s cavernous gym, where 129 participants of PEP’s 22nd class are being welcomed to thunderous applause by more than 100 volunteers, Massey is an electrifying emcee.

The volunteers, mostly middle-aged, mostly white men and women in business attire, form two parallel lines as the inmates, a mostly young mix of black, white and Latino in blue jumpsuits, stride down the aisle created by the volunteers, smiling as they slap palms and shake hands. Many inmates take the time to greet each of the volunteers, whose first names are printed on laminated tags, and thank them for coming.

It’s a downright cheery, celebratory atmosphere that includes chocolate chip cookies and a sound system blaring “Hip Hop Hooray.” If it weren’t for the jumpsuits, the event could be mistaken for a pep rally at a high school for slightly older students.

In a bit, the inmates will set up rows of folding chairs that face each other, so PEP participants and volunteers can introduce themselves and talk for a few minutes. It’s like platonic speed-dating. Some of the volunteers, like Kirsten Berger and Bill Frank, have been coming for years. In her makeup, slacks and heels, Berger seems like the last person you would encounter in a prison gym, but there might not be anyone else here who appears to be having as much fun.

A few years back, when she attended her first PEP class as part of her certification for becoming a life coach, Berger wasn’t quite sure what to think. She saw the joy and hope on display behind this bastion of barbed wire and was haunted. “These guys are criminals,” she thought. “They aren’t supposed to be smiling.”

But after a while, she says, she saw the transformation. She says that these criminals were really trying to become something.

“Nobody should be defined by the biggest mistake they ever made in their life,” Berger says. No doubt about it, these guys screwed up. They made terrible decisions, but, Berger says, “Your choices can suck, but people don’t suck.”

Berger says she got hooked by witnessing in the participants a “complete transformation of a human being,” which is also why Frank, the general manager of business development at Chevron, stuck around.

Like Berger, Frank is among the “God squad” contingent of PEP. He met a PEP grad at church and was intrigued enough by the guy’s stories that he decided to check it out himself — provided his new friend accompanied him. He’d go to prison only via the buddy system.

“I thought I’m just a, you know, suburban white guy, professional job…no tattoos,” Frank says. “What do I have in common with these guys?”

As you might have guessed, the story ends with Frank realizing he had more in common with them than he thought. And much of that had to do with their being, like him, husbands and fathers. There was something there to connect with.

And as also happened with Berger, Frank said the real appeal was in the changes he was witnessing: “The fancy word is ‘transformation,'” he says. “You’re around all these people who are changing their lives right in front of you. And you know, how often do you see that?”

Striking a more subdued pose was Jaime Shaw, a first-timer who’d heard about PEP from a friend who’d volunteered. Shaw had especially personal and professional motivations to check out the program: He knew just how difficult it was to start a career with a criminal record.

Five years ago, he and his business partner founded Greenstream International, an Austin-based recycler and remarketer of used electronics, not just out of entrepreneurial zeal but out of necessity: Both men had criminal records.

Unlike the men in PEP, Shaw didn’t have a felony; but a series of misdemeanors, including assaults — the byproduct of years of drug and alcohol addiction — closed a lot of doors. Shaw found out that, whether it’s a few years in prison or a plea-bargained probation, “These punishments go on in perpetuity.”

If on the rare occasion Shaw scored an interview with a potential employer, once they got to his record, “the whole tenor of the interview change[d].” To Shaw, a job rejection carries a sharper sting for an ex-offender. For non-offenders, it’s an unfortunate roadblock on the path to the next interview.

But for “people like us, when [you're] being told no, you’re really just being told, ‘Hey, you’re not good enough, and you don’t belong here.'”

Today, even though Greenstream’s 200 employees span several U.S. states as well as a facility in Hong Kong, Shaw still feels the sting of those interviews.

He and the company’s co-founder are “now in our thirties, and we’re fathers…we’re business owners. We are still facing the consequences of those convictions, you know, ten, 12 years later. What we did as boys, we’re still paying for as men.”

That’s why Greenstream hires ex-offenders, and why Shaw and his business partner are eager to talk about that practice with other employers.

“Usually,” Shaw says, “the first thing out of another business person’s mouth is, ‘Oh, yeah, and you can pay them less.'” (For Shaw, it’s quite the opposite: He says Greenstream’s ex-offender employees are paid well. In return, “What we get is lower turnover; we get a better-invested employee, and we get people that have just a higher level of gratitude for what they’re being given, and recognize it as a real opportunity and not just a place to spend eight hours of their day.”)

Knowing full well what this latest class of PEP participants will soon be facing, Shaw was eager to pull up a folding chair and chat with each of them.

Two and a half years ago, Cornish sat in one of those chairs. He’d done the work to get through the application process, he’d done the work for six months of classes and business plan competition, and, on the outside, he does the work from about 4 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. during the week, and he spends the weekend fixing up his trucks for Monday. Some day he’ll take a more hands-off role — a position he says his wife would just as soon have him take sooner.

“My wife tell me all the time, ‘Hey, baby, why don’t you put on some clean jeans today and a clean T-shirt and some nice shoes?'” he says. “That’s not me. I don’t wear that.”

It’s all part of that “wise steward” value Cornish likes so much. For six months, PEP’s staff and volunteers invested in him. When he was released, one of the program’s board members lent him money to buy more equipment. A lot of people have a lot invested in James Cornish. He doesn’t want to let them down. One day, he’ll drive less and focus more on management and writing contracts. Getting there is all on him.

“I’m headed that way,” he says. “But until it comes, it’s me.”

Great news! Photos are now available from the Class #Transcendent 22 Kickoff … as well as their headshots and some special images from a recent Houston Press article on PEP!

See the whole gallery here:
http://prisonentrepreneurshipprogram.zenfolio.com/class22

Special thanks to our long-time photographer, Israel Thompson, for these amazing images. We especially love this shot of three graduates who now work for PEP …. Al Massey (Executive Relations Manager), Marcus Hill (Recruiter), and Charles Hearne (Development Associate).

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

Winnefred Jackson

Winnefred Jackson

My name is Winnefred Jackson and I am a 2009 graduate of Baylor University. I graduated from Hankamer School of Business with a major in Financial Services and Planning. I just wanted to share with you the amazing experiences that I have had since being a part of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

In March of 2013, I read an article on Baylor’s website about PEP and I knew that it was something that I just had to be a part of. I grew up in a neighborhood in which for most people fathers were nonexistent because of drugs and jail. I emailed Al Massey so that I could find out how I could use my skills in economic development to serve the needs of the program.

Mr. Massey invited me to my first experience at PEP, Class 19 Graduation. I walked in with the notion that I would see how I could help the program, but what I received was a life changing experience.

As a woman in an all-male facility I was nervous at first, but once I walked in I realized that PEP was a band of brothers striving to pull each other up and be a support system for each other. Some of them did not have family on the outside to encourage them, but on the inside they had PEP.

I cried at graduation as if I knew someone about to walk across the stage.

What I saw that day was men able to hold their head up high with a sense of accomplishment. Regardless of what the men had done in the past their families, friends and business plan advisors were there to support them.

Many of the men had dropped out of high school and had on a cap and gown for the very first time. Even those that had been in the past repeat offenders where given another chance to get it right to do something to make their loved once proud of them once more. They received a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from not just any school but my alma mater.

Through attending more PEP programs I talked to the participants and learned more about how the program was helping them to become better fathers and better men. Over a year later, I still remember talking to a young woman while waiting in line to get inside graduation. She began to tell about how her husband had actually gotten paroled a few weeks ago, but made arrangements to be able to come back and graduate. The fact that her husband left prison and asked to come back in order to graduate spoke volumes about PEP.

A few weeks after attending graduation, I was at a conference in Dallas and picked up a newspaper. Inside the newspaper was a drawing of a prisoner getting out of jail only to stand in an employment line. That drawing confirmed that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. Without the help of PEP, men will be released with no direction while families eagerly awaits on their leadership.

It’s so easy for them to succumb under pressure by trying to make easy money and possibly end up right back in prison. With our help, these men can be the leaders that they need to be for their families. I hope that you will join me by becoming a business plan advisor (click here) or helping out at one of the events (click here) so that you too can be a repeat attender like me.

Please let us know what you’d like to see on this blog!

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week 1 in Review

Tuesday, 08 July 2014

We entered the PEP classroom surprised by the graduates lined up for us. They gave us high-fives, pats on the shoulders and hugs to welcome us to this new chapter in our lives. What a feeling! After all that, we gathered into groups by pods and had a dance-off in the center of the room. It was a surprise to see how many guys can dance – it was also a joke to see how many guys cannot dance.

The fun didn’t last too long, though. “Everything under your chairs, test time!”  We took the AP Style test and PEP’s Survival Rules test. The real test of the day came when Pat M. gave the entire class homework: two copies of AP Style, two business vocabulary lists and two 10 Driving Values lists. Basically, this is a lot of handwritten homework. We were surprised and curious when Pat gave us this minor test. Being Transcendent 22, though, we will get it done as part of our efforts to change our lives no matter what it takes.

Wednesday – 09 July 2014

Today, again, we walked into the PEP classroom, where different graduates showed up sharing the same PEP love as yesterday. Again, it was test time. After business vocabulary and personal finance tests, the fun began. Anyone up for balloon popping? What does balloon popping involve? Mass hysteria, adrenaline and tons of fun. Around the room men were all smiles and having fun. It is an amazing feeling to experience community, happiness and fun despite our circumstances.

Thursday – 10 July 2014

Testing, testing… Our final two tests were given. A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the unit.

We were joined again by two members of the PEP staff to discuss their favorite of PEP’s 10 Driving Values. Kristie (a.k.a. Mimi) discussed Servant-Leader Mentality and showed a video on the life of Bill Crawford. Afterwards, Al (a.k.a. Granny Panties) shared his favorite Driving Value: “Fresh-Start” Outlook. Al told his story and shared his reasons for his dedication to the PEP way of life.

Friday –  11 July 2014

Class 22 was treated to a visit by Dr. John Younker today. Dr. Younker specializes in maximizing performance at the executive level in corporate America. He utilizes the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in his approach to building and sustaining effective relationships. Class 22 was all ears as Dr. Younker explained the goal of his role in our development and future growth after release. Throughout this first week, the love and encouragement has been constant. The layers of a hardened outer skin are beginning to peel back. For the first time in a long time, the future looks amazing.

Expressions

“Be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois

There is nothing so hopeful as a new beginning. From the guests through the tests to the chicken dancing, each step becomes a chance to participate in our own new creation – ourselves.

We send special thanks to PEP staff for their steadfast commitment to this revolution. Thank you for being here Kristie, Phi, Pat, Mike, Al, Marcus, Jeremy, and special guest Sara. Your participation in the Class Transcendent 22 internal kickoff makes you Transcendent.

Here is the first “PEP Chronicle” from Class #Transcendent 22, written by men who are in the program today.

Read how this program is already changing the lives of the men in prison … click here.

PEP Chronicle - Class 22 - 2014-07

Click to download “Class 22 – PEP Chronicle #1″

Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, TX. (Prison Entrepreneurship Program)

The Estes Unit in Venus, TX is about 45 minutes away from Downtown Dallas. (Prison Entrepreneurship Program)

It’s official: PEP is launching operations in a second prison this month! ! !

Now in our 11th year of service, PEP recently secured approval from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to pursue this expansion. We have spent the past few months in a quiet planning mode with the leadership from MTC, the private operators of the Sanders “Sandy” Estes Unit (a TDCJ prison) in Venus, TX. Representatives from their team met with PEP’s leadership team, and the Warden even visited our existing program in the Cleveland Correctional Center to see PEP in action.

Yesterday, our staff met with the team at the Estes Unit to finalize plans for our launch. We have already transferred 10 servant leaders (past graduates) there to guide the program’s first class of forty participants through PEP’s new “Leadership Academy.” These incarcerated men are taking on the critical task of building PEP’s culture within this new unit. . . which is only 45-60 minutes away from Downtown Dallas!

The task will be a challenging one in some ways. With 1,040 beds, the Estes Unit is twice the size of the Cleveland Correctional Center where PEP has offered our in-prison initiatives for the past several years. The ratio of PEP-to-General-Population also drops from 3-to-2 down to 1-to-20+.

But we believe firmly that our ten Servant Leaders are up to the task. They will also be guided by a full-time staff member: PEP graduate Gami Jasso, who has returned to PEP for his third “tour of duty” with the organization (Gami is formerly a re-entry manager for the Dallas area who will now serve as the manager for our in-prison initiatives at the Estes Unit; he returns to PEP after serving in a similar role for adjudicated youth involved in Youth Village Resources of Dallas).

The team at MTC has also been fully supportive of our efforts; their leadership team has been especially committed to our mission of transforming the lives of incarcerated men and their families, so we anticipate this new effort will be very successful.

That said — we still need your prayers and your financial support to make this effort a success:

Formerly known as “Effective Leadership,” the Leadership Academy (“LA”) now serves as a three-month precursor to PEP‘s full Business Plan Competition (“BPC”) program. PEP first piloted the LA inside the Cleveland Unit (where PEP currently operates the BPC), and we are now expanding it to the Estes Unit in order to reach a larger population.

In some ways, LA serves as a sort of “junior college” to prepare participants for the full BPC. LA is only 20 hours per week (compared to BPC’s 40+), and the program is entirely focused on character development rather than entrepreneurship. This approach helps PEP to emphasize our belief that the foundation for all lasting professional success is a person’s character. 

LA will involve three core initiatives:

  • Driving Values: The foundation for PEP’s character development efforts are its 10 Driving Values.
  • Effective Leadership: Using a curriculum that was developed by PEP on the basis of classic leadership texts such as “True North” (by Bill George and Peter Sims), this curriculum guides participants through an intense period of self-assessment and personal transformation.
  • Men’s Life: Also known as “Men’s Fraternity,” this program utilizes a curriculum developed by Dr. Robert Lewis called The Quest for Authentic Manhood. The program is based on Biblical principles and uses Jesus Christ as the model for manhood, but it is open to people of all faiths (or no faith). PEP considers itself “faith infused” but not expressly evangelical (i.e. no religious commitment is required for inmates to successfully complete any of our programs). Men’s Life is also open to the entire prison, including men who are not currently involved in PEP.

Graduates of the LA will then become eligible for the BPC in Cleveland.

Eventually, we plan for the Estes Unit to grow into a full BPC campus. Based on the success of this initial launch, we will then look to replicate the LA into other prisons around the state … effectively building a feeder system of qualified participants for PEP. This will allow PEP to rapidly and cost-effectively scale our impact across the Texas prison system.

You can make a donation to support this effort at http://pep.org/donate/

Please COMMENT with anything you’d like for us to share with these amazing leaders. Favorite quotes, encouraging notes and words of wisdom welcome!

 


Calling all PEP supporters!

Graduate Corey M. has been approved for a $5,000 loan for his organic gardening business in Houston. He now needs YOUR help to raise the loan capital.

This is loan (NOT a donation). You can invest as little as $5 and you will be paid back over two years through Kiva.

Will you invest at least $5 today?

Learn more here:
http://zip.kiva.org/loans/4861/i/iM