Free Enterprise Staff  | June 3, 2014

From Incarceration to Innovation: How Ex-Cons are Learning to be Entrepreneurs

David Thigpen isn’t your typical business owner. For one thing, he primarily works with prisoners and ex-convicts. For another, he decided to start his own company right about the same time he was sentenced to 25 years in a New York State penitentiary.

Oh, and he’s the author of “The Gangsta’s Guide to Being Your Own Boss.”

Faced with a quarter-century-long sentencing, Thigpen was forced to grapple with two grim realizations. “One, I was going to be a lot older when I returned to society,” he says. “And two, because of my criminal background, no one was going to want to hire me, so I was basically going to be forced back into a life of crime or returning to prison again.” It was at that point, says Thigpen, who had already cycled in and out of prison for more than a decade, that he made another realization—one that would alter the course of his life.

“I made a determination that I would begin to study business,” he says. “As I was studying the principles of business and the theories of it, I said to myself, wow—this is stuff I did each and every day on the streets and I never equated it as business. I equated it as hustling or being in the game or getting money. I had never really looked at myself as an entrepreneur.”

Until then.

In 1997, while still in prison, Thigpen molded the concept for what would eventually become Corners2Cornerstones, the action-based organization he heads that teaches prisoners, ex-cons, and at-risk youth the tools they need to succeed as entrepreneurs. Most of the people he works with, says Thigpen, are already armed with everything they need to succeed—it’s simply of matter of communicating it in a way they can relate to.

Brooklyn-based Corners2Cornerstones is hardly the only business that’s providing these kinds of services to the more than 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in the U.S. In California, the Last Mile was launched in 2011 to offer training and support to inmates at San Quentin State Prison, a correctional facility located outside of San Francisco. It has since expanded to Southern California, Chris Redlitz, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who co-founded the organization, told Free Enterprise.

The Last Mile works with inmates to help place them in internships and jobs after they’ve been released from prison, Redlitz says, adding that it’s “focused on teaching entrepreneurship and business skills.” Over the course of a six-month period, the program provides information and teaches practical skills like JavaScript, making it easier for them to find jobs after they’ve completed their sentences. When Redlitz first visited San Quentin, he says he was struck by the enthusiastic response he received.

“A lot of the guys have a lot of desire and a lot of interest in learning,” he says, adding that he “wanted to track success by whether these guys are employed” after they’ve completed the program.

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in prison, Thigpen is uniquely attuned to the challenges facing ex-cons. The curriculum he teaches through Corners2Cornerstones, he says, is a reflection of his unique experience. Participants not only learn practical skills—they’re taught how to use the Microsoft Office bundle and set up an L.L.C., for example—but also identify traits they already possess that can be harnessed in the business world. The program also works to instill confidence and keep participants engaged, he explains.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned about this industry and where it fails and where it can succeed is engagement,” Thigpen says. “It’s a good thing to provide these communities with an entrepreneurial education. But it’s more important to keep them engaged long enough for that confidence to become second nature.”

Similarly, Miami’s Leasa Industries has been a pioneer in combatting recidivism. The health food company, which George and Einez Yap started in 1977 with money they borrowed from friends and family, has long been a proponent of hiring ex-cons, recovering drug addicts, and homeless people. Leasa has continued to advocate for these groups over the course of the past three decades as it’s grown to become one of the largest growers and processors of healthy food in the Southeast.

Though all three organizations are working to help ex-cons acclimate to society once they’re released from prison, they’re not looking to simply give them a free pass into a company. For his part, Thigpen says that it’s exceptionally important for at-risk kids and the formerly incarcerated to understand that although success requires effort, it can be achieved by anyone.

“What do we give the formerly incarcerated? Nothing for free,” he says. “We make them work. We make them work to understand that they can do better and we give them the tools to prove it to themselves so that they believe in themselves enough to change their lives. We’re in a country of far too many brilliant people for anyone to have to commit crimes.”

If Redlitz and Thigpen have their way, they won’t have to.