Toccara King loves people. The 39-year-old was a gregarious Florida kid — a dancer, cheerleader, and gymnast — raised by her military grandparents and later joined the military herself. She said she’s always had the spirit of a self-starter.
After working as a Verizon telemarketer for eight years and then relocating to Charlotte, North Carolina, she decided to start a moving company with her friend in 2015. It was a way to combine her love of people, customer service, and travel. But it was also a bad idea, she said. There were too many moving parts (pardon the pun), and in 2017 King was arrested for her involvement in a marijuana trafficking scheme. The moving business “had more customers than I could actually keep up with… It was hard to keep employees… And I winded up here in jail, so I wasn’t able to get that far into it,” King explained.
King’s been at the Mecklenburg County jail for nearly two years. During that time, she found the free, online entrepreneurship course, Starter U, and its partner program, Inmates to Entrepreneurs, on one of the detention center’s new educational tablets. The course is an extension of an in-person program that was started two decades ago. It’s since expanded to include courses for those post-release, as well as online modules available on tablets at correctional facilities nationwide in the age of COVID.
She finished the Starter U course in three days, filling up notebooks with information that could have prevented her previous business mistakes. She learned to hire an accountant before a business attorney and not use her business account for personal expenses. The course rekindled a passion that had been on the back-burner for almost two years.
Creating access to online resources, ones that offer practical skills like Starter U and Inmates to Entrepreneurs, has rippling implications beyond individuals like King. They address a systemic problem: the undervaluing of people with criminal records and the need for support services post-incarceration.
According to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit prison reform research group, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is more than 27 percent — the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the national unemployment rate at only 6.7 percent as of December 2020. The Prison Policy Initiative also found that having a criminal record “reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent.” These numbers are even higher for formerly incarcerated Black women and men, more than a third of which won’t hear back when they apply for jobs. And it’s all exacerbated by the highest unemployment rates in years due to a global pandemic.
Starter U and Inmates to Entrepreneurs hopes to combat the statistics by offering digital resources in business ownership for those in and out of jail or prison as an alternative source of employment.
Before finding the course, King was filling her time behind bars with books and resources provided by loved ones on the outside. She had heard of the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program in passing, recommended to her by a fellow inmate’s mother who saw a flyer for the full course. King made a copy of the flyer and put it away for safe keeping. Months later, King booted up one of the new tablets to see Starter U, the same course she was expecting to enroll in after release.
She blew through the first two units. “I was really excited about it because it was something that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to do,” King explained. “I could utilize this information now, you know? And now when I get out, I can actually work towards those things.” It’s simple, King said, but the course helped her understand the possible outcomes of all the business decisions she could have made.
Now that King’s had both the lessons of her first business venture and the Starter U course, she is looking forward to pitching her new business idea: a food truck franchise with a robust digital presence, with orders placed and tracked online. “I’m just trying to get as much information as I possibly can while I’m in this moment so that when I get out, I could go at it again with my business ideas,” King said.
Starter U was designed by the Brian Hamilton Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free educational and mentorship opportunities to aspiring business owners. Brian Hamilton, founder and CEO, said he was inspired to begin the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program 28 years ago with the help of his friend Rev. Robert J. Harris, who was already working with incarcerated people in North Carolina’s penal system. “We would start going around to the prisons, teaching people how to start low-capital businesses,” Hamilton said. The businesses could be started for less than $500, like window-washing services, landscaping, housecleaning, and other service businesses, Hamilton explained (they don’t preach MLMs). Both men were inspired to build the program after hearing first-hand the difficulties of finding employment with a criminal record.
Over the two decades, the program grew. Inmates to Entrepreneurs builds on the free, online Starter U course with an eight-week-long program led by dedicated instructors and guest speakers, as well as network opportunities and a formal graduation for all participants — this year, it’s all successfully migrated online to Zoom, turning out two nationwide graduating classes totaling 147 people during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, the program also offered in-person workshops for those currently incarcerated in North Carolina jails and prisons. And in early December, the foundation introduced a new digital collaboration with tech company GTL, which distributed 200,000 tablets pre-loaded with Starter U courses to correctional facilities around the country. Since the launch, more than 1,300 currently incarcerated people have begun the course and 103 have already completed it.
Hamilton believes that creating the jobs themselves could be a solution to the lack of employment opportunities for those with criminal records. “Let’s take the people who are not the lowest members of society, but are sometimes viewed as the lowest members of society, and let’s get them part of the American dream,” Hamilton said.
Even though Inmates to Entrepreneurs already boasts 1 million graduates since its inception, Hamilton says the course isn’t going to reach everyone. Instead, it’s going to positively benefit those who already have the spark for entrepreneurship.
Claudia Shivers is one of them. The 46-year-old graduated from the free Inmates to Entrepreneurship program in October after her release from a correctional facility in July. Shivers, the former owner of a tax return business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was convicted of federal tax fraud in 2018. In just a few months time, though, she’s successfully started her own business, Queen Coffee Bean, selling hand-roasted coffee beans and coffee drinks at local pop-up farmers markets.
As someone who was consistently self-employed before serving time and is a mother of two teenagers, Shivers had a plan. In between her arrest and formally serving time, she worked at Starbucks. “Nobody knew me. I wasn’t from the area,” Shivers said. The job had a beautiful simplicity to it, which Shivers appreciated after a career as a tax consultant. “All you’re doing all day is handing people cups and smiling. ‘Thank you so much. I appreciate it.'” Shivers explained. “The coffee journey is so simple that if you just copied it, if you replicated that, then everything else would just get so simple.”
Before she was convicted, Shivers told her lawyer she wanted to open a coffee business. They told her she couldn’t start a business while inside. “But I can study it,” she told them. So during her 11-month incarceration, Shivers spent her time studying up on two things: social justice and coffee. Books like The New Jim Crow, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee, and The Sun Does Shine. After her release, Shivers knew she needed to hit the ground running.
“If you just don’t stop, you find you continue on,” Shivers reflected.
She bought a few pounds of raw beans on Amazon, roasted them herself, and sold the coffee at farmers markets in her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The feedback was positive, and, during a daily scroll through Facebook, she came across an ad for Inmates to Entrepreneurs.
The program was eye-opening, simple but effective, just like King remarked. Split into weekly Zoom sessions with a lead instructor, the course focuses on fleshing out a low-capital business concept from the ground up, Hamilton explained. Participants start with the basics, like formulating a solid pitch, acquiring an employment identification number, simple marketing, and calculating sales and costs. They move on to how to grow their business using customer demographics, how to hire employees, and the need to reinvest sales back into their businesses. Woven in are lessons on human resources, branding, and how to keep up a sustainable business model. At the end, they get one last chance to pitch and present their concept, with eight weeks of lessons behind them.
Important to Shivers was the sense of community and the lack of judgment during the course. Participants were able to connect after the weekly sessions in a private Facebook group, offering networking opportunities and advice, or reach out to guest speakers and session leaders in between sessions. And Shivers never felt she needed to explain her background. “It’s sort of like a relief. Once a week you can just be your flawed self,” Shivers said. “You just get to be in a group of people that have ideas and we’ve done our time… Let’s move forward.”
Shivers’ business is still growing. She upgraded her setup from a simple pan-on-the-stove method to a full roasting machine she operates on her porch, and has started making connections with other roasters and bean importers. The early success of Queen Coffee Bean has fueled her desire to use coffee — which she says has historic origins in the Black experience and colonialism — to boost the self-efficacy of her local community and create new, positive gathering spaces centered on Black experiences. “Baristas set the tone for your day,” Shivers said. “What if that was uplifting Black voices?”
At least that’s the plan once she opens up her first brick-and-mortar location using the success of her online store, which sells out consistently each week. Shivers said that Inmates to Entrepreneurs gave her the skills to articulate this goal — her 30-second elevator pitch — and she feels like the lessons “retrained” her view of the world. “That’s what entrepreneurship does. It makes you become more creative about the world around you and how you engage with others in that world.”
Before the pandemic, Hamilton hosted on-demand workshops for detention centers. Now, as of December, that information is held in the convenience of a small tablet. The course is not led by in-person instructors and there’s no guest speakers (for now), but incarcerated participants still use the same modules as someone on the outside enrolled online. And they get to do it at their own pace.
For King, who still doesn’t know how long she’ll remain incarcerated, the course has already had its effect on her life outside of Mecklenburg County jail. She made sure to send everything she learned, safely written down in a notebook, to her 23-year-old daughter, whose looking to expand her hair extension business. “I’m on the phone with her telling her, ‘Hey, you need to look into this. You need to get this bookkeeping application to help you look after your finances and keep up with inventory,'” King said.
Even though her life steered her away from business ownership for the time being, she’s excited to get back to her passion once she’s out. “I already knew that I wanted to own my own business… I started something and saw how passionate I can be about it. Then I get here. And then this kind of falls into my lap, and then I got my daughter into it,” King said. “So I feel like it’s something that I really want to seek when I get out.”
Shivers also said she’s witnessed the impact an accessible, digital course like Inmates to Entrepreneurs has on formerly incarcerated people: “There are some brilliant people at these camps. Moved in the right direction, they could make a real difference.”