Business as a Force for Good: Making Bad Guys Good Again

On a sunlit Saturday, TCU Neeley seniors boldly walked into prison. They spent six hours in windowless cement-block rooms sharing their business knowledge with men eager to change their ways.  

February 16,  2017

By Elaine Cole

[Excerpt from Neeley Magazine] – Inside the Estes Unit, dozens of seniors from Dr. Garry Bruton’s strategy courses listened as the director of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), Bryan Kelley, gave them pointers on prison etiquette: Don’t ask the inmates what they are in for. Remember that technology may have changed since they have been in prison. Model good business behavior.

Then Kelley lead them down the hall to meet the inmates – vetted members of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas – and listen to their business ideas.

Accounting major Keli Dunn briefly wondered if the inmates would be scary as she entered the room.

“There was no fighting, no handcuffs, no orange jumpsuits,” Keli said. “To my complete surprise, there was a mass group of prisoners holding up TCU signs and cheering.”

After the high-spirited welcome, the students and inmates were put into smaller groups so the inmates could pitch their business plans and get feedback.

Elisabeth Diamond, accounting major, talked with a man who wanted to start a pest control business. He wanted to know how to network and grow his business. Elisabeth told him word-of-mouth is one of the most important ways to build a reputation.

Luke Hopfinger, accounting major, heard plans for a food truck, moving company, social platform, airline electrical systems company and solar panel installation.

Listening to the inmates’ business ideas reminded Luke of himself. “I have a dream of starting my own business in the service industry, and many of the inmates had similar business ideas,” he said.

As the students gave advice on everything from marketing to financials, the inmates took notes and asked questions.

“I have never seen a group more thankful for the opportunity to learn from someone 10 to 15 years younger than them,” Andy Thelen, finance/real estate major, said.

Why teach entrepreneurship to prisoners? The national three-year recidivism rate is nearly 50 percent. PEP graduates have a recidivism rate of only seven percent.

Since 2004, more than 1,300 inmates have graduated from the PEP and more than 200 businesses have been launched, including six that generate more than $1MM in gross annual revenue.

Within 90 days of release, 100 percent of PEP graduates are employed, and almost all are still employed after 12 months.

“As I approach my graduation and starting my own business, I can only hope to be half as driven, inspiring and passionate as they are,” Andria Esponda, entrepreneurial management major, said.

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