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Former Inmates who struggled to find work tell Moneyish about starting their own businesses

By Nicole Lyn Pesce, May 30, 2017

These ex-contrepreneurs are turning stigma into success

Former inmates find themselves serving life sentences even after they get out of prison.
Between four and five million Americans are on parole, and most of the 2.5 million who are incarcerated are not serving life sentences. Yet there isn’t a strong infrastructure in place to help them re-enter the workforce once they get out.

The National Institute of Justice reports that 60% to 75% of former inmates are jobless a year after their release, because most employers are still hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record. Another survey found less than half of ex-convicts were working five years after their release – despite the popularity of shows like “Oz” and “Orange is the New Black” humanizing inmates. This leads to recidivism, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting in 2010 that about three-fourths of prisoners were arrested for a new crime within five years. And the vicious cycle repeats itself as ex-cons struggle to find honest work.

“It’s a titanic problem,” said Brian Hamilton, founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals launch their own businesses through mentorship, networking and online resources. “Just having a criminal charge on your record for shoplifting is hurting someone’s chances of trying to get a job, let alone a drug charge or a violent charge.”

Scott Jennings, Fit Tech and Assembly

“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” Scott Jennings, 43, told Moneyish. “I was the kid who would stop by the pharmacy on the way to middle school to buy 10-cent candy, and sell it to you in the hall for a quarter.”

The North Carolina self-starter is the poster child for a 2013 study that found “smart teenagers who engage in illicit activities are more likely to become successful entrepreneurs than equally intelligent, rule-abiding teenagers” thanks to being both brainy and bold enough to take risks.

He did three years when he was 34 after graduating from selling candy to selling cocaine. But while serving in Orange County Correctional in Hillsborough, N.C., he attended an Inmates to Entrepreneur seminar held in the facility, which got him thinking about going into business for himself once he was released in 2010.

“I have always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I was always trying to find a new way to make a buck. However, I never had any guidance or mentoring,” he said. “ While incarcerated I was asking a lot of questions about life and what I was doing wrong, right or not at all. So basically, Hamilton showed up when I was the most pliable. Listening and asking questions for a few hours changed my approach.”

But after he got out, the only job he could find was landscaping, even though he had some mechanical repair skills and had sold office equipment.

But after posting his resume on Craigslist resulted in steady gigs repairing fitness equipment, he worked with Inmates to Entrepreneurs to launch Fit Tech and Assembly, which provides routine maintenance, service, installation and repair for exercise equipment in homes and in gyms.

“When I started in September 2011, I had maybe $75 in my pocket and I was using a doo-doo brown Toyota pickup truck,” he said. “The first year, we did maybe $30,000 in sales.”

Today his company has deals with commercial chains like Gold’s Gym, Crunch, Planet Fitness and the YMCA around Charlotte, N.C., and he expects to do more than half a million dollars in sales this year.

Jennings is one of Inmates to Entrepreneurs’ longest-standing members, and serves as a mentor for other ex-cons getting back on their feet. He doesn’t advertise his criminal record, but he’s not ashamed of it, either.

“I’m 10 years sober and seven years out of jail,” he said. “If clients have a problem with it, that’s fine. They can go somewhere else.

“But in fact,” he added, “if we compare what I’ve done in the last seven years since my incarceration versus what you’ve done in your last seven years – I’m kicking your tail, more often than not, because I’ve had many more hurdles to jump over.”

For the full story featuring Sageworks, visit Moneyish – Former Inmates who struggled to find work tell Moneyish about starting their own businesses.