Inmates to Entrepreneurs helps people find their second chance after serving time

Every day, someone is released from prison. Many walk out with the hope that someone will give them a second chance. But more often than not, their record is a deal-breaker.  A program called Inmates to Entrepreneurs is helping people across the state create their own second chance.

“I did federal time. I did 10 years,” said Don Brown.

Before Don Brown was busted for drugs, he worked as a bouncer. He’s been out of prison for 16 years, but he tells FOX8 those first days were hard.

“It took me 95 job applications. By the time I was at number 94, I was ready at that point to go back to doing what I needed to do because nobody was willing to give me a chance. I got lucky. I walked into Ruby Tuesday, filled out an application, and it was like, 'Here you go.'”

During that process, he got connected with Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

“We teach people who have been incarcerated or judicially-involved how to start their own small businesses. We focus on low-capital businesses,” said program founder Brian Hamilton.

The program focuses on businesses people can start with $500 or less, like painting, lawn service, gutter repair, car detailing and pest control.

Brian Hamilton, who is the co-founder of financial tech company Sageworks, started teaching the program in prisons about 27 years ago. Now his foundation, the Brian Hamilton Foundation, teaches men and women who have been released how to start those businesses.

“Look, you make a mistake in life," Hamilton said. "Have you made them? I’ve made a few. You make a mistake, there’s got to be accountability for that mistake. I think we all agree on that. But after you’ve fulfilled that to society, sometimes by going to prison or whatever it is, what happens then? Do you believe in a clean slate or not? To me, it’s a very American principal – the clean slate.”

They also pair participants up with mentors who have done what they’re trying to do successfully.

According to the North Carolina Justice Center, 1.6 million North Carolinians have a record. That’s about 15% of the population. There are about 40,000 people in our prisons right now. People with a record are 50% less likely to get a job, and 40% will be back in jail within three years.

“The dial hasn’t moved very much,” Hamilton says. “So we’re all about second chances, obviously. But do it in a productive way where people don’t just get a second chance but they can be an owner. They can own part of our economic system.”

Don Brown says the label stays with people who have gone to jail even after they’ve paid their debt.

“Once you’re a criminal, you’re always a criminal,” he says. “That’s it. That’s the label. Regardless of what you do good, it’s always what you did bad.”

You can see the foundation’s motto on billboards all over North Carolina: Entrepreneurship for All. That includes people who have made some mistakes.

Brown says without the skills he learned in Inmates to Entrepreneurs, he doesn’t know what he’d be doing. Instead, his latest business venture is a gym in Ramseur where he’s the co-owner.

“Everybody doesn’t change. But it’s just having the opportunity to get out here and show that you can do something different,” Brown says.

Brian Hamilton says they’ve worked with more than 500 people who have been in jail or judicially-involved.

Graduates have started pest control businesses, cleaning businesses and one of the success stories is a man in Raleigh who started a gym equipment assembly business and is now on the foundation’s board.

They’ve recently started targeting middle schoolers to get them on the entrepreneurial track while their minds are still able to be molded.

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