In 2018, Joshua Nowack served three months of a six-month sentence in a Santa Ana, Calif., jail for felony fraud by embezzlement. But when he was released, Nowack learned that, despite his MBA and previous professional experience as a CFO and accountant, no employer wanted to hire him once they found out about his record. Eventually, he decided his best route was to start a business—but not any enterprise. He would found an apparel company—specifically one printing custom and pre-made t-shirts—that would hire formerly incarcerated people.
To that end, in early 2020, Nowack founded Breaking Free Industries in Santa Ana, Cal., which now employs three once-incarcerated individuals. “Officially we’re in the apparel space,” he says. “Really, we’re in the second chances space.”
Nowack also is one of 60 formerly-incarcerated people with entrepreneurial aspirations who recently attended a two-month, once-a-week class called Inmates to Entrepreneurs. The program teaches entrepreneurship fundamentals to formerly and currently incarcerated people with the aim of helping them find a livelihood after they’re released, so they can build their lives back—and avoid going back to prison again. More than 300 individuals have graduated from Inmates to Entrepreneurs since the beginning of 2020.
A Viable Alternative
Inmates to Entrepreneurs was founded by entrepreneur Brian Hamilton and Reverend Robert J. Harris in 1992 after a visit to a prison near Oxford, NC. The experience got Hamilton, who had cofounded fintech company Sageworks in 1998, thinking: While it would be difficult for those incarcerated individuals to find work once they were released, maybe entrepreneurship could provide them with a viable alternative. With that, the two started teaching courses in and out of prisons about how to start mostly low-capital, service businesses. After a decade or so, they formed a nonprofit, funded in large part by Hamilton’s foundation.
During the pandemic, classes have been taught virtually. But under normal circumstances, they’re done in-person at locations across the country, both in and out of prisons. The latter are delivered via tablets, though not all correctional institutions permit them, with live instruction delivered remotely. Two years ago, the program also introduced online video classes.
More than 10,000 people have taken an Inmates to Entrepreneurs course, according to the organization. But counting online and in-prison courses, plus classes offered before the nonprofit was officially formed, Hamilton figures the number is much higher. For every 10 people who sign up, seven finish. About half of those start a business.
Classes cover the gamut of topics, including very basic ones. Think everything from how to develop a flyer to what contracts are. The focus is on service companies that don’t require much capital to start, like landscaping or house cleaning, though entrepreneurs like Nowack with other business models also sign on.
As for Nowack, he decided to launch a business after applying for jobs and getting turned down multiple times thanks to his record. He founded the company at an inopportune time—right before the pandemic hit—but the 300 square-foot space in Santa Ana that he found through a friend of a friend is situated in a building with a law center, so was open most of the time. According to Nowack, who attended Inmates to Entrepreneurs in August and September 2020, sales skyrocketed right after he graduated.
Of his three employees, two are in sales and one in operations. Nowack hopes to make another hire over the summer.
“I had the education, so I knew at some point I could land on my feet,” says Nowack. “But there are a lot of folks in prison who never even got a first chance, much less a second. There are so many remarkable people, so much untapped talent.”
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