Ready for Release: Ventures Goes to Prison

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you know that Ventures mission is to empower individuals with limited resources and unlimited potential to improve their lives through small business ownership. In 2016, when we drafted Ventures’ ambitious 2017-18 strategic plan, we saw an opportunity.

Today, there are 17,000 non-violent offenders who have been released from prison and are on active supervision in Washington State.

Unfortunately, however, there are no organizations in the Seattle area that provide targeted entrepreneurial training and support to help these individuals gain long-term, living wage employment. We know our services make an impact, so we decided to create a pilot program to support women during and after incarceration: Ready for Release.

How We Served Mission Creek’s Returning Citizens

We found great partners at the Department of Corrections and Tacoma Community College who helped us bring our proven eight-week Business Basics Course to the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Washington. Just like the Business Basics Courses that we provide in other locations, the goals of this course were to:

  • Increase individuals’ confidence and competence in small business concepts;
  • Develop and learn from a community of support, and;
  • Complete a Feasibility Plan, a 6-page business planning document that captures business ideas and financial planning tools.

To provide additional training and skill development, we taught a three-week, six-hour Pitch Clinic to help participants build five-minute business pitch presentations to:

  • Increase confidence in public speaking;
  • Increase knowledge of using PowerPoint, and;
  • Ability to articulate a business plan to an audience.

In total, we delivered 585 classroom hours to 18 women. It was a success. We achieved 100% of our programmatic goals: feasibility plans were created, knowledge was gained, and confidence increased.

The Unique Challenges of Being in Prison

As a part of our commitment to transparency and constant improvement, we also took notice of the unique challenges of this program. Teaching in prison presents its own set of challenges, and teaching entrepreneurship in prison adds a completely different layer. Prison is a controlled environment. We needed to work around strict rules.

  • Internet access. Program participants have no access to internet, email, or up-to-date market research for their business ideas. We enrolled a Market Research Intern who worked with me to help students access the information they needed.
  • Social isolation. Some women had very limited knowledge of trends outside of prison. Few participants were aware of review sites like Google or Yelp and how they could be used in marketing. Limited contact with the outside world is another barrier facing these aspiring entrepreneurs.
  • Computer use. Although Mission Creek generously allowed us to work with students in their computer lab, participant’s restricted access to computers slowed their ability to work on business plans, Excel financials, and creating a PowerPoint presentation for the final pitch.

Ready for Results: Our Students Persevered

Of the 18 participants, 100% completed the course. We asked our students for feedback—both positive and constructive criticism—and were inspired by what we heard:

Card from the formerly encarcerated

The thank you card from the aspiring entrepreneurs at Mission Creek.

“This course made me feel encouraged and motivated.”

“Informative, very motivating, and realistic. I loved this course. I learned so much”

“Thanks for the support- Nice to know small business is possible with the right people.”

On top of this feedback, they also wrote a wonderful note to thank the Ventures team for supporting them! What an incredible group.

Even though this program is new, we are already seeing the results.

One participant, Nichole, was released in late 2018 and has already begun accessing our training, coaching, incubation, and capital programs. She has begun working part-time, and we are so proud that she is working with Laura Gómez to set goals, do market research, and understand the food business regulations that she will need to start a gluten-free bakery on the Kitsap Peninsula.

We are excited to expand Ready for Release. First, we must refine our program, build a data set to better understand the impact of our work, and develop a sustainability plan that allows this program to thrive for years to come.

If you want to support this program, please let us know. We need “time, talent, and treasure” to make this a sustainable program. You can volunteer your time and talent or support this program financially. As always, thank you for supporting Ventures and our entrepreneurs!