Ralphy Dominguez once ran one of the largest drug rings in New England, making over a million dollars a year. After spending several years in prison, he’s reinvented himself as an entrepreneur at the helm of New York City-based leather goods maker Pen & Pistol, which produces accessories like wallets with a minimalist aesthetic.
What started as a leather craft course when Dominguez was behind bars flourished into a promising startup. In both worlds, he says he found something therapeutic and rewarding in working with his hands. After prison, Dominguez, originally from the South Bronx, found his way to Refoundry, a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn that coaches ex-cons to start their own ventures by training them to turn discarded materials into beautifully designed products.
“Refoundry lent itself to the first major problem that you face coming home, which is trying to find a decent paid living wage—and Refoundry offered that and then it offered me a way to dream bigger, to start my own business,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez’s company continues to use discarded materials, including leather from old sofas and handbags, as well as scrap leather from manufacturers that would otherwise be tossed out. He uses the materials to craft hand-stitched wallets and business card holders, which retail for between $30 and $75 on Pen & Pistol’s website.
Dominguez credits the artisan skills and entrepreneurship know-how he learned behind bars and at Refoundry with helping him discover a new and rewarding life outside of prison.
“I was a hothead, I was a young gun, I was troublesome,” he said, “and going through that experience, going to prison, I really had the opportunity to redraft and re-pen my life.”
The entrepreneurial story he’s writing is one of revival through persistence. Pen & Pistol has started to catch hold, as a growing number of consumers are inspired by his story of reinvention and his brand’s beautiful designs. Dominguez started selling at flea markets throughout New York City, such as the Brooklyn Flea and Artists & Fleas. He’s since secured shelf space at different outlets, namely Lazaro SoHo, a high-end boutique in Manhattan.
Today, the Pen & Pistol founder comes across as an unassuming young man with a story to tell.
He appears thoughtful and determined, a far cry from the tumultuous youth he describes from his former life. Dominguez uses his past experiences to shape his success and is motivated to pay it forward. He helps others with a criminal record—including Pen & Pistol President Walter Escobar—to take back control of their lives through his leather craft business.
Dominguez says that ex-cons are well positioned to become successful entrepreneurs.
“That hustle was there, that spirit, that thirst for entrepreneurship is there,” Dominguez said. “And I think coming from a place where we had nothing and we can only gain—this is really what motivates people coming home from prison.”