Course graduates formerly incarcerated Idahoans

After eight weeks of classes, Maria Calderon, of Caldwell, feels she is well on her way to starting her own cosmetology business. Calderon said she learned a lot through the Inmates to Entrepreneurs course — growing a business through revenue, using advertising, managing employees and finalizing her elevator pitch. She and five other formerly incarcerated Idahoans graduated recently, part of a group of 54 total in Western states.

“I want to change my life,” Calderon said. “The only way (to do that) is to start with me, making a change, and I am making those changes. The ex-inmates, we’re (more than) ex-cons, ex-felons; that doesn’t mean a door lock; it makes us strong, more mindful.”

Over the past six months, around 12 Idahoans have graduated from the Inmates to Entrepreneurs free eight-week course, available virtually throughout the state. The nonprofit now offers that course, and a couple of others, nationally, according to an Inmates to Entrepreneurs spokesperson. Efforts began in 1992 with in-person courses, including a condensed bootcamp in many North and South Carolina prisons.

“Entrepreneurship allows individuals to start their own business and rise above the systemic discrimination they face in the job market,” the Inmates to Entrepreneurs website states. Over 600,000 people, every year, will leave prison.

Formerly incarcerated individuals are half as likely to get a job because of their incarceration, according to the website, and they face unemployment rates five times the national average. Through these free entrepreneurship courses, available to anyone regardless of the offense, Inmates to Entrepreneurs hopes to reduce the rate of recidivism.

“In the Google era, a simple web search ensures that no one can ever truly escape their past,” the website states. Nearly two-thirds of formerly incarcerated individuals are back in prison in three years.

The eight-week course approaches the philosophy of starting a business — typically a trade or service — with $1,000 or less. Ideally, the business will be scaled, then can be sold, earning the entrepreneur more capital, the spokesperson explained. To register for the course, general questions are asked, and potential participants simply have to say they have been judicially involved.

Brian Hamilton, founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, came from a background of economic disadvantage, starting his own businesses at an early age to eventually pay for college. He spent decades starting, and eventually selling, businesses, ultimately founding Sageworks, a financial technology company.

Hamilton sold Sageworks about three years ago, and that sale helped establish the Brian Hamilton Foundation, the primary funding source for Inmates to Entrepreneurs and Hamilton’s other philanthropic efforts he is now focusing on.

“We want people who have been judicially involved to be able to get a livable wage, to be part of wealth creation. That’s what this country is built on. America is the land of second chances,” Hamilton said in an emailed statement. “There are 2.3 million people currently in prison or jail, and over 70 million people with a criminal record in the United States and we want to equip them with the tools to start their own businesses.”

All courses like the bootcamp and eight-week (16-hour) remain free, and to date 60 to 70 instructors voluntarily help teach the course on Zoom, according to the Inmates to Entrepreneurs spokesperson; many of those instructors were formerly incarcerated themselves and have been business owners. Alumni can keep in contact through a Facebook group and continuing education opportunities such as several seminars.

In recent years, Inmates to Entrepreneurs has partnered with multiple correctional facilities to offer its courses nationwide virtually, including on some devices in facilities.

“I think what made me grab the bull by the horns (was) when men and women gave their elevator pitches while being incarcerated; I was once there,” Calderon said. “When I was there, I didn’t think about my career; I was still taking responsibility for decisions I made.”

Calderon said she would recommend the Inmates to Entrepreneur course to anybody, especially many of the women she was incarcerated with. Calderon explained the course would be helpful to everyone whether or not they are planning on starting their own business, even if they are looking for a job.

“It teaches you how to win somebody (over), and you just have to have that attitude, and be completely open-minded about it,” Calderon said. She is looking forward to starting school in August, and hopes to take more entrepreneurship classes. Her goal is to offer a wide range of cosmetology services for women and men, to help them all feel confident.

In starting her own businesses, Calderon is not afraid of running into roadblocks, as that is something the course warned could happen. Calderon is prepared to start slowly. She remembers filling her entire notebook over those eight weeks, and — with insight and feedback from her instructors — working on her elevator pitch for about four weeks until she got it right.

“And I literally felt like I won,” Calderon said. “When I lost my grandma, that’s when everything changed; I realized life is not promised; there’s a lot we take for granted. We ask ourselves ‘Why didn’t I do this when it was available at the time;’ most come up with an excuse. When it is given to you, run with it. If you don’t like then there’s something else.”

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