Video: Entrepreneurship a road to re-entry for some ex-offenders

Like many ex-offenders, Marshawn Feltus has heard every iteration of the word no when looking for employment.

Feltus searched for work for months when he was released from prison five years ago.

“If anything was certain in my life, I knew I wasn’t going to do any more time,” he said. “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.”

Then he got a grant from a West Side nonprofit to start his own business — the first yoga studio in the Austin community. Feltus learned yoga while serving 18 years in prison on a murder conviction. He never thought yoga would turn into a career, let alone a business.

When he was released from prison, the goal was simply to get a job. Since then, state laws have removed barriers to employment for ex-offenders; those barriers are a key driver of recidivism rates. Now advocates for criminal justice reform, with support from some government agencies, are making entrepreneurship a part of re-entry programs to try to reduce prison costs by helping people stay out once they are released. In Illinois 48 percent of people released from prison return within three years while 19 percent return within one year, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.

Though he didn’t receive support from a program that targets ex-offenders, Feltus’ business success shows the promise of entrepreneurship training for returning prisoners.

In August, the U.S. Small Business Administration launched a $2 million program to teach 200 former felons how to run their own businesses and provides them with microloans to start them. The pilot, which is in four cities– Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Louisville, Kentucky – will launch in spring 2017 with 50 people from each city. The move follows a 2015 decision to rid the felony question from its loan application, opening the door for ex-offenders to get financing.

Equipping former inmates with entrepreneurship skills to create businesses and jobs could be another way to expand the opportunities for people with records, says Victor Dickson, president and CEO of Safer Foundation, which provides job training and re-entry services for ex-offenders.

“More than 75 percent of all the new jobs created are not from big corporations; they’re from small businesses,” said Dickson, whose nonprofit organization has signed on to provide training for the Small Business Administration’s program known as the Aspire Entrepreneurship Initiative. “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.”

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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 has failed,” said Dickson, many of whose clients return to communities wrecked by violence, joblessness and high incarceration rates.

Federal and state governments can no longer afford this huge industry to incarcerate people, he added.

“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, who lives in West Humboldt Park. An invitation to attend a re-entry program at Bethel New Life, a West Side nonprofit, led to a janitorial job where he learned about the organization’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. Originally Feltus wanted to open a discount dollar store, but was urged to turn his passion for yoga into a business. He opened ACT Yoga in 2013.

“A big bright lightbulb went off and that’s where I started to connect the dots,” Feltus said.

The initiative aims to connect those dots for ex-offenders, who have rarely been supported in their business efforts, said the 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.

Expanding access to entrepreneurship and microloans to ex-offenders, especially those with children, allows them to become self-sufficient, create businesses within their communities and hire others with criminal records, Roebker said.

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. Chicago and the other cities were chosen because they have strong micro-lending programs to support the objective and also have a high a number of ex-offenders returning to impoverished communities.

The goal is to support ex-offenders’ business aspirations as a 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.

Unlike most entrepreneur training programs, the Aspire initiative has capital to get businesses off the ground, Gondolfi said, adding that most programs just teach basic business planning.

“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, which will start identifying candidates by late fall or winter, hopes to close on a minimum of 25 microloans. 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.

There is no criteria on the type of business that can be funded through this program. Participants must complete the training program and demonstrate the capacity to start and run a new business.

Feltus cautioned that any program should have a strong mentor component and a continuum of support to ensure ex-offenders’ success.  He said, “I am for responsible people getting the opportunity to get their life on track so they are vibrant and useful people for themselves and their community.”