Program aspires to help ex-offenders become entrepreneurs

Marshawn Feltus’ success shows the promise of entrepreneurship training for ex-offendersMarshawn Feltus’ success shows the promise of entrepreneurship training for ex-offenders

A version of the article ran in the Chicago Reporter.

by La Risa Lynch

Marshawn Feltus, like many ex-offenders, has heard every iteration of the word “No” when looking for employment. And after months looking for work, Feltus got a grant from a West Side nonprofit to start his own business — the first yoga studio in the Austin community.

He learned yoga while serving an 18-year stint in prison on a murder conviction. He never thought yoga would turn into a career, let alone a business.

“If anything was certain in my life, I knew I wasn’t going to do any more time. It didn’t matter how many people said no. I was not going to get so frustrated that I was going to go back to crime …,” he said.

Ban the box and fair chance legislations have made some impact in removing employment barriers for ex-offenders, but it cannot address entrenched racial discrimination in the hiring process that often profiles African-Americans as violent criminals regardless of crime, experts say.

Now advocates and government agencies are retooling their approach brought out by a push to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. The focus is now on entrepreneurship training for ex-offenders as a means to remove employment barriers, a key factor in recidivism rates for ex-offenders. In Illinois 48 percent of ex-offenders released from prison return within three years while 19 percent return within one year, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

Feltus’ success shows the promise of entrepreneurship training for ex-offenders. The U.S. Small Business Association also sees that promise. This August, the agency launched the Aspire Entrepreneurship Initiative, a program targeted to former felons to provide entrepreneurial training and microloans to start businesses in five pilot cities – Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Mo. and Louisville, Ky. The move follows a 2015 policy change to rid the felony question from its loan application, opening the door to ex-offenders to get financing.

Chicago-based Safer Foundation has signed on to be a trainer for the Aspire program, set to begin spring 2017. But the nonprofit foundation is also crafting its own entrepreneur training program for its clients, many of whom return to communities wrecked by violence, joblessness and high incarcerations rates. In Chicago the black unemployment rate has been in the double digits even as the city’s overall rate has declined.

Equipping ex-offenders with entrepreneurship skills to create businesses and jobs could be another way to expand the opportunities for people with records, says Safer Foundation’s Victor Dickson. The four-decade old nonprofit provides job training and re-entry services for ex-offenders returning to society.

“More than 75 percent of all the new jobs created are not from big corporations; they’re from small businesses,” said Dickson, the foundation’s president and CEO. “When we are struggling to find work for people with records, one way to address that is to facilitate more individuals to start businesses because those are the ones that really create the jobs.”


The $2.1 million Aspire Initiative aims to expand access to entrepreneurship education and microloans to ex-offenders, especially those with children. The federal agency has partnered with the Kellogg Foundation and Justine PETERSEN, a social agency specializing in micro-lending in low-income communities to implement the five-month training program.

The ex-offender community has been underserved and rarely supported in their business endeavors, said SBA’s regional communications director Andrea Roebker. She noted that 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed a year after their release and nearly half of all U.S. children have one parent with a criminal record. Chicago and the other cities were chosen because they have strong microlending programs in place to support the program’s objective and also have a high a number of ex-offenders returning to them.

Expanding opportunities for entrepreneurship allows ex-offenders to become self-sufficient, create business within their communities and hire others with criminal records, Roebker said.

The goal is to support ex-offenders’ business aspirations as way to provide a stable household income and to reduce the chances of children living in poverty, said Galen Gondolfi, a spokesperson for St. Louis-based Justine PETERSEN. Stigmas associated with a criminal record make finding and keeping employment difficult which can affect a child’s wellbeing, he added.

And unlike most entrepreneur training programs, the Aspire initiative has a capital component to get businesses off the ground, Gondolfi said.  Others just teach basic business planning and don’t have any funding behind it, he added.

“It is not just entrepreneurship training in a vacuum,” Gondolfi said. “What curriculum-based training may lack is true dollars in the end that can actually make a business a reality.”

The program will have a total of 200 participants, 50 from each of the four pilot cities and hope to close on a minimal 25 microloans. With a spring start date, the program will start identifying candidates by late fall or winter. There is no criteria on the type of business that can be funded through this program. Participates most complete the training program, demonstrate capacity to start and run a new business, have a solid business and a viable market for it. Participants are eligible to receive up to $50,000, but the lion’s share of the loans would be in the low thousands, Gondolfi said.

Entrepreneurship was not the focus of re-entry programs when Feltus left prison five years ago. Many concentrated on skills to land a job, not necessarily to be the boss. But in the past few years there’s been a bipartisan push at all levels of government to reform the nation’s bloated and expensive criminal justice system.

“A big part of that reform comes from a sense that we have over criminalized behavior in our society; been far too punitive particularly with nonviolent offenses and that mass incarceration and the war on drugs, in particular, have failed,” Dickson said.

Federal and state governments can no longer afford this huge industry to incarcerate people, he added, noting they are now moving to shrink the prison population and to provide supportive services once released.

“If those reform efforts are successful we are going to see more people re-entering society and we need to figure out a way to have more opportunities for them,” Dickson said. “The next logical step is entrepreneurship.”

Fate intervened for Feltus, of West Humboldt Park. An invite to attend a re-entry program at Bethel New Life led to a janitorial job where he learned about the agency’s entrepreneur training program. It provided $6,000 in seed money to open a business after participants complete a 15-week training course and save $1,500.

“A number of components came into play that helped that become what it is now,” Fletus said of his yoga studio, located 1140 N. Lamon Ave, which offers weekly classes and has several corporate contracts.

Like Feltus, Earnest Roberts Jr., learned the skill that eventually became his business in prison — landscaping. He too received training at Bethel New Life, which at that time offered a match savings program called SmartSavers. That financial literacy program allowed low-income individuals to receive business training and financial support to either start or expand a business.

“When I used to go to class I used to sit all the way in the back because I didn’t have adequate clothes,” recalled Roberts, 55, who was released from prison in December 2007. “But I had something inside me that didn’t let me quick.”

The program required some sweat equity. Participants had to save $2,000 to get a matching grant of $4,000. Roberts saved in a shoe box another $2,000 which used to buy business cards, t-shirts and some equipment at Sears. In 2010, Roberts’ Landscaping and Snow Removal opened.

Roberts doesn’t see himself as just a business man, but more of an example for other felons, who don’t have to be marked forever for past mistakes.  He spent nearly 17 years in prison for a variety of crimes including drug possession.

“I just stayed on the grind because my whole focus today is for me to bring some jobs to the neighborhood,” he said.



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