Business classes transform inmates into CEOs

by Laura Edghill
Posted 1/23/15, 04:23 pm

Richard Chavez Jr. has an ambitious business plan. He seeks $50,000 in seed money for a proposed mobile youth counseling center set to launch in 2020. It could be earlier if he gets paroled.

Chavez is serving an eight-year sentence in a Texas prison for aggravated assault. While incarcerated, though, he is participating in a unique program designed to encourage prisoner reform and reduce recidivism through the teaching of business concepts.

“Man, my life was just selfishness,” Chavez says. “That’s all my life was. I had a daughter, a beautiful little girl, and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t the father I needed to be. I joined a gang. And, you know, it hurts my heart, to say that. But that was comfortable for me. That was life.”

Chavez is in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a privately funded, multimillion-dollar nonprofit serving inmates in a Houston-area prison. PEP pairs prisoners with successful business executives, entrepreneurs, and MBA students. Predicated on the belief that motivated inmates will “thrive on challenge and opportunity,” PEP students engage in a rigorous curriculum culminating with the presentation of their business proposals. Over the course of the two-year program, inmates learn how to finance a business, how to market products, and how to sell themselves and their stories.

The course work is sufficiently demanding that Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business awards a certificate of entrepreneurship to each graduate.

And what happens when those inmates are released? Since it began operating in 2004, PEP has graduated more than 1,100 students. About 165 have opened businesses, and at least two are grossing more than $1 million. Within 90 days of their release, nearly all the ex-inmates have found jobs.

“We’re on a mission to stimulate positive life transformation for executives and inmates, uniting them through entrepreneurial passion, education, and mentoring,” states the PEP website.

PEP’s success rates so far are astonishing. Not only have the vast majority of its graduates found jobs upon release, but PEP graduates also have a recidivism rate of less than 7 percent. The national average rate of recidivism is more than 60 percent.

The well-known Christian ministry Prison Fellowship also boasts a much lower recidivism rate compared with the national average—about 17 percent. While not explicitly Christian, PEP shares many of the fundamental beliefs of Prison Fellowship and numerous other Christian prison ministries: That individuals have worth, that lives and their trajectories can change, and that hard work and discipline bring rewards. The PEP website states, “We believe empowering inmates to strive for total life transformation is the only answer for the problem of recidivism—it is the only answer, period.”

Those similarities to a Christian worldview are no accident. PEP’s founder, Catherine Rohr, launched the program as a Christian ministry venture. PEP found nearly immediate success, earning Rohr and the program many public service awards on the state and national level. The work was demanding, though, and in 2009 Rohr found herself in the midst of a scandal that included her divorce as well as accusations of improper relationships with some of the PEP program graduates. Barred from working in Texas prisons, Rohr resigned her role with PEP and eventually moved to New York City. There she found renewed purpose, according to Inc. magazine, and not unlike the inmates in whom PEP sees so much potential, she launched a new nonprofit focused on prisoners who have recently left prison.

Fortunately for Chavez, PEP continued to thrive under new leadership.

Chavez’s instructors encouraged him to incorporate his personal story into his business plan. Though painful and littered with the debris of his legal and personal transgressions, they convinced Chavez that his story had a purpose in his future as an influencer.

“I’ve realized I have to give that away,” Chavez says. “It’s not meant for me to keep. It’s meant for me to tell.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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