It can be hard to find a job in general. Throw in a criminal history and things get even harder.
Raleigh-based Inmates to Entrepreneurs works to give former inmates an alternative way to find work.
“Inmates to entrepreneurs is all about helping people who have been incarcerated start businesses,” founder and co-director Brian Hamilton said. “We’re really about helping people become entrepreneurs. It’s really that simple and specifically we want them to start low capital businesses so they can bootstrap because a lot of the people have limited resources from which to start businesses.”
Hamilton co-founded Sageworks, the country’s first financial technology business and largest provider of software to U.S. banks. Hamilton sold the company in 2018 and used the profits to fund Inmates to Entrepreneurs.
Inmates to Entrepreneurs was formally organized seven years ago, but Hamilton has been working in the field for much longer.
Reverend Robert J. Harris, a friend of Hamilton’s, did ministry work at prisons in North Carolina and while tagging along with the reverend, Hamilton became inspired after talking to an inmate.
That sparked the idea for Inmates to Entrepreneurs.
“At that moment, I thought, instead of helping people get jobs — which is super hard, especially today with the emergence of the internet — let’s help these guys start low capital businesses and create income and wealth for themselves,” Hamilton said. “That was the genesis of the idea. From that time, which I think was in 1992, I started teaching courses at different facilities, how to start your own business.”
Since its creation, Inmates to Entrepreneurs has added a mentorship component, classroom training, and still teaches a formal program at prisons.
The organization has expanded from its Raleigh roots with programs in Charlotte and Wilmington.
“Is it realistic for people in America who have been incarcerated to get jobs? Unfortunately, I would say it is very unrealistic,” Hamilton said. “We know without getting into all the data, although the data is really daunting, that employers take the applications, they do Google searches, and they throw the applications out. It’s really hard to get a job coming out of prison. It’s not impossible. We should try to do it, but it’s really difficult.”
Due to this, Hamilton and his team work to teach anyone with a criminal record how to start their own small business.
“What we’re trying to do is say…’There’s great agencies helping people to get jobs, but if you can’t get a job, start your own business,'” he said.
The program focuses on low-capital businesses that can start with around $500 or less.
“It might be window washing, home cleaning, car detailing, but it’s usually around work that people don’t want to do themselves,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s co-director, AJ Ware, is an Inmates to Entrepreneurs success story.
Through what Hamilton described as a “Herculean” effort, Ware started his own business and is now helping other former inmates do the same.
“Think about that beautiful cycle,” Hamilton said. “These are people I just absolutely love.”
An eight-week course will start in Wilmington on Aug. 23 and is open to anyone with a criminal history or charge against them, but Inmates to Entrepreneurs helps individuals outside the course as well.
The organization is also in need of mentors.
“I do want to talk to business people. If you’re listening, you’re running a business. You’re an entrepreneur. We need mentors,” Hamilton said. “We need for the peanut butter to have the jelly, meaning we want to take the mentees, the people starting the businesses, coming out of prison and match them with a friend, a mentor.”
Course and program materials are offered free of charge, but participants are required to attend all eight sessions.