03 Jul Preparing Former Prisoners To Become Entrepreneurs
The momentum for criminal justice reform continues as bipartisan support for legislative changes and correctional system initiatives picks up steam.
These developments set the stage for more comprehensive education/re-entry programs for correctional populations, and a number of promising approaches are emerging. A great example is Georgetown University’s Pivot Program, which graduated its first cohort of 15 fellows just last month.
The Pivot Program was conceived and is operated by faculty in Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business in partnership with two major funders – the D.C. Department of Employment Services (part of the mayor’s office) and the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, which awarded a $400,000 grant to support the project. It’s a ten-month education and re-entry program for recently incarcerated individuals in the D.C. area, where of the 5,000 people annually released from jail and prisons, less than half find sustainable employment.
Here’s how it works. Individuals are referred to the program from various sources, and they are interviewed and screened to assess their personal and academic readiness to participate. Up to 20 carefully selected participants are then enrolled in a full-time program that blends academic work and internships. They receive a stipend of $600 per week.
The focus is on entrepreneurship, with the cohort of fellows receiving classroom instruction in the fundamentals of business along with liberal arts courses such as economics, literature, history and psychology. The curriculum also includes training in personal finance, career planning, and the soft skills of business etiquette, public speaking, basic technology and conflict resolution.
All participants are required to complete an internship, and they have done so in a broad range of settings – from real estate development and architecture firms to restaurant incubators and tech start-ups, from digital marketing to a non-profit provider of services to the homeless.
At the end of the academic classes, Pivot fellows chose one of two transition-phase tracks: incubation for those seeking to start up their own businesses and employment for those aiming for full-time employment in the public or private sector. Incubation-track participants are provided work space, coaching and legal support; the employment-track fellows are connected to local employers.
Pietra Rivoli, Vice Dean of the McDonough School and one of two executive directors of the program, explained that, in addition to its rehabilitative effects, the program has a strong business rationale as well, “Companies benefit from access to a talented pool of employees in a tight labor market, and the community benefits by realizing the human potential of its returning citizens.”
Of the 18 participants in the first cohort, 15 (ranging from 26-55 years of age) completed the program and earned a certificate from Georgetown. Included in that group is DeVaughn Bell, who now runs his own catering business, “The Empty Plate,” specializing in halal food. Another graduate, Deron Doby , is the founder of “Odd Kickz,” a deadstock sneaker restoration and customization business. Ralph Green described Pivot’s impact on him this way: “I’ll never forget that this program treated me like a citizen…being here, you feel part of a great community. You don’t feel like it’s us and them, it’s a community.”
The Pivot Program demonstrates that cycles of crime and incarceration can be broken and that individuals striving to build new lives of productivity can, with the right combination of higher education and employment services, become productive entrepreneurs and employees.
The nation continues to face the challenge of how best to help formerly incarcerated individuals return successfully to their communities. The Pivot Program illustrates the task can be accomplished, particularly when leveraging the advantages of a partnership like the Georgetown – D. C. pairing: an urban government with clout teaming up with the type of major university that’s present in every major American city. We need more Pivots.