Education in Entrepreneurship Gives Prison Inmates a Second Chance

Each day, nearly 1,600 prisoners in the United States leave jail and re-enter society. One of the primary factors influencing recidivism, or the return to prison, is the inability to find a job. People can change, and educational institutions can make a big difference in the success of their futures.

With initial funding from a University of Virginia faculty endowment program and help from Darden faculty and MBA students, we began a prison entrepreneurship education program to teach prisoners how to start a company.

The goal of the program is to provide inmates business skills so that when they get out of jail, they will stay out of jail.

The story of our first graduating class of inmates — who developed business plans from behind prison walls and now look to a future empowered by an education in business creation — illustrates why you shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea of working with or hiring ex-felons. It is easy to marginalize prisoners, but I believe that many of them can transform their lives through entrepreneurship and human courage. The ones who do deserve a second look.

Trading a Prison Uniform for a Business Plan

In a high-ceilinged classroom deep in the heart of Buckingham County, Virginia’s Dillwyn Correctional Center, a medium-security prison housing more than 1,000 inmates, 13 convicted men are learning about entrepreneurship. The classroom is clean and well-organized.

The offenders, as they’re called by the Virginia Department of Corrections, range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. Two earned college degrees. All of them are well-spoken and focused. All of them have committed serious crimes, ranging from robbery to burglary to murder.

All of them also have entrepreneurial dreams.

Inmate Kirk Smith will be released from the Dillwyn Correctional Center in fewer than 18 months, having completed his sentence of more than 20 years.

Smith admits he’s anxious about his employment prospects beyond the prison walls. He knows jobs are scarce, and jobs for convicted felons are even scarcer. He also knows that former convicts need jobs to stay out of prison.

But he carries a new skill set that is potentially a game-changer. He’s been trained as an entrepreneur through our innovative program.

Smith, wearing prison blues — blue jeans and a light blue cotton shirt — presents his detailed business plan to his classmates. His concept is to launch a custom painting business once he is released.

The others have equally high hopes.

Stuart Shelton wants to start an Internet necktie store, Jason Tisdale plans to offer a computer consulting service, Chris Archie will repair computers and John Vest wants to create an apparel business. James Harvey intends to open a retail bargain store similar to a mom-and-pop version of Big Lots and Bakuma Boyd hopes to establish an occupational service for convicted felons called the Second Chance Employment Agency.

Boyd said he hopes to change the perception society has of ex-offenders, and believes that once he starts his own company, he should be responsible for lifting other former inmates.

An Experience With the Power to Change Both Student and Teacher

Mark Lund (MBA ’12) was among the group of Darden students helping to teach this inaugural class. Not only did his involvement transform the soon-to-be-ex-offenders, he changed too. “If you had asked me whether I would have hired someone with a criminal record last year, I probably would have said ‘no,’” confessed Lund. “This experience has opened my eyes to the potential people have when they truly commit to turning their lives around.”

Today, Lund works in financial services in Houston, Texas, where he also sits on the Texas Board of Corrections.

Why should you consider an inmate who receives an education inside prison a potential asset to your company?

  • A belief in redemption: Everyone deserves a second chance.
  • Tax breaks: The U.S. Department of Corrections offers tax breaks to firms that hire ex-offenders.
  • Loyalty: Once hired, ex-offenders value their jobs and appreciate the vote of confidence. They are more likely to stay with your firm in the long run.

In addition, a nationally growing focus on programs like ours will equip inmates with the tools needed to help today’s firms innovate and grow.

Next Steps and What We’ve Learned

Our next steps led us to create an entrepreneurship education program for the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center in Fluvanna, Virginia. We continue to expand our innovative curriculum to match the needs of this important population.

We will also study whether the inmates who go through our program are employable in the long run. We’ll learn whether they start their own businesses, and if they do, we’ll learn whether they hire other ex-offenders.

We won’t know these answers for three to five years. However, we have to make the investment now to realize a payoff down the road. This, in fact, is what we do in education all the time.

The above was adapted from the article “Second Chances,” which appeared in the fall/winter 2012 edition of The Darden Report, and the video Darden Discoveries: From Inmates to Entrepreneurs. Fairchild taught spring 2014 classes for inmates in both the Dillwyn Correctional Center and the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center.

About the Faculty

Gregory B. Fairchild

Fairchild is an expert in business strategy, business ethics, leadership and entrepreneurship. He specializes in underserved, overlooked markets and has taught financial literacy to victims of domestic violence, and has launched a program to teach entrepreneurship and business skills to inmates re-entering society.

Fairchild was named one of the 10 Best Business School Professors in the... Learn More