Our Next Startup Founders – Inmates and Ex-Convicts

(Image from Riverside County Sheriff’s Department/CBS San Francisco)

Back when I was a teenager, I have a friend who lives near our house. Occasionally we went to school together, and his family was well-respected within our community as his father was a religious leader.

He was not particularly a bright or smart kid, but he was very athletic especially in football (soccer if you’re a in US). I think I can safely say that even though he’s not very good in academic, if he keep polishing his football skill, he can go far. Very, very far. Unlike me, where I always struggled to play almost any competitive sports especially football. Well I guess different people has different talent. All is fair.

Then after our high school, we lost contact as I pursued my study at the university and only came home during holidays or semester break. Not much news about this friend of mine as somehow he got a new circle of friends which, let’s just say, some of them are less than honourable. That’s what been told by my mother and few of my friends.

Suddenly in one fine morning circa 2001/2002 I saw the breaking news on the television. There was a shootout between cops and a gang of bandits. One of the bandits was shot and killed while the rest were apprehended. And one of those apprehended was my friend mentioned above. To cut the story short, apparently he was part of the group that robbed few banks before and they had even shot and killed one of the guards who worked in one of those banks. Justice came swiftly for him and his fellow gang members as they went to prison for several years and only got released few years back (from what been told by my ex-schoolmate).

(Image from Getty Images)

So what he’s doing now? He’s driving a bus. A school bus. And no, I’m not insulting him. Far from it.

First, I felt sad because he picked a wrong circle of friends and wasted his talent. Imagine if he really went into football and succeed. His name could be mentioned in the same sentence  with Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He could win few trophies and play with some big clubs in EPL or La Liga. But it wasn’t meant to be I guess.

Second, I’m glad that he finally found his footing again and returned back to society. And since I heard no negative news about him ever since, I assume all is well with him and his new life. Everybody made mistakes, and deserves a second chance, right? And in this case, I’m glad that he realised his mistake, got what he deserved and our local community welcomed and accepted him again after that.

An opportunity that’s rarely given to most ex-convicts.

(Frank Abagnale Jr. Image from Abagnale & Associates / Wikipedia)

I know several stories of either ex-convicts were negatively perceived by society to an extent that they got no choice and no second chance that they returned to their old way of committing crimes or they lost hope and dream about life beyond bars that they think returning back to prison is their best option (again, by returning to their old ways of committing crimes).

But what if we as society can accept them, giving them a second chance and let them show their talent or skills that’s so far might be limited to either running from cops during shootout or hijacking a car during a chase scene? If Frank Abagnale can have that second chance and helped authorities using his past experience, why the same chance can’t be given to hundred or thousand others? Why should we just lock them, throw away the key and pretend that they don’t exist anymore?


Current Programs for Inmates


(Image from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations)

Contrary to what Hollywood wants us to believe, the daily life as inmates weren’t involved with fighting, planning to escape from prison using some meticulous and creative ways or hijacking a plane and fly to some other country. I know several prisons near me has a program to train them in skills like handcrafting, mechanical or machine works, knitting (especially for women) and food preparation. I even saw a signboard outside one particular (albeit small) prison near my mother’s hometown that boasted products manufactured by inmates inside that prison itself like local traditional food, artisanal handicrafts and even a BBQ set! And from the information that I managed to glean earlier, those inmates did get few bucks from each of the products sold, but the money will only be handed over to them once they completed their time there, which I think is great since not only inmates could get new skills and prepare themselves once their term is over, but with some dough as well to start their new life.

(Image from Prison University Project)

Another program which caught my attention is the prison education. Yes, maybe there a no program yet for inmates to take medical or engineering degree while serving their time, but few prisons already offered a diploma or degree programs under the cooperation and partnership with several universities.

One good example is Prison University Project, a non-profit organisation founded in 1996 that supports an on-site educational program at San Quentin State Prison. Although only offers an associate degree and limited to courses like calculus, biology and chemistry, the program  is accredited by Patten University. The program enrolled about 300 inmate students for each semester and so far 162 of them has graduated.

Another example in Malaysia, an inmate not only managed to get his degree while behind bars, but also graduated in Master of Business Administration. His next objective? Getting a PhD. And he got his support not only from his family and university, but also from the correctional officers and the state’s king. And he’s already thinking about starting his own business if and when he get out. If an inmate and ex-convict can achieve such feat, it’s should be a wake up call for us normal person (including me) to do something even better than that.

Why Ex-Convicts Could Be Our Next Startup Founders


(Image from Inmates To Entrepreneurs)

But why stop there? Why should we only give inmates some skills and degrees? Why can’t we train them to start their own business? Why should (or would) they want to start a business anyway instead of getting a proper job once they served their term? Some of them got proper degrees already, right?

As any ex-convicts would tell you, trying to get a job while having such record that they served their time for few years in prison will sticks out like a sore thumb. And let’s be honest, how many companies would ignore such record when they try to find their next employees, regardless how good those ex-convicts are? Nowadays, even one small mistake or negative news of any normal person that got viral on social media could jeopardise his or her employment opportunity. What makes an ex-convicts would stand better chance than that?

So that kind of dilemma has put some of them into a negative spiral. They want a decent job, but not many will accept them. They don’t want to go back to the old days of committing crimes, but sometimes it’s the only option available. We as society might hate the crimes that they committed, but not many of us willing to give them opportunities or second chance that they’re looking or begging for.

So what’s the next best option for them? Start their own business. Start something new where they would be judged by who are they now rather than whom they used to be.

But what kind of skills ex-convicts has and can hold their own if they want to start their own business? What do they have that we the normal mortal person might be lacking compared to them? Well, I don’t have all the answers but I can think a few.

They Are Hungry For Success


What’s one of lowest point in your life other than getting thrown into prison, especially for a long-term sentence? Ex-convicts knew that once they’re out, it’s up to them to chart their new life. For those who really wants to change, it’s like getting out from a deepest pit with the opportunity to hit reset button. They’re eager and hungry for success and to prove others what they can actually do.

When you’re hungry for success, you will do anything to achieve it (within legal norms of course) and ignore distractions. Yes, it’s not easy for them to prove their worth straight away, but who ever said that entrepreneurship is easy? Those ex-convicts are survivors in the high-risk prison environment with its own internal politics which can led to infighting, riots, possible social isolation and might even death. If they can survive that, then definitely they’re eager to prove that they can survive again in the cutthroat world of startups and entrepreneurship. No silver plate would be handed to them as they have to work for their success.

And a hunger for survival and success could be the thing that motivates them the most. Never underestimate what a hungry (literally and figuratively) person can do to get what they want.


They Know How To Start Small 


Unless their prison very much like Pablo Escobar’s, most of their prison environment are limited in number of ways. Rationed meal. Small toothbrush. Limited number of toothpaste and toilet rolls. A pair of shirt. Maybe two. A pair of pants. No words yet if there’s any prison on this planet that offers massage seats or gaming console.

(Image from mikeswick.com)

So inmates have to be creative on how to accumulate more ‘resources’. They might involved in few activities like participating and winning a weightlifting contest among them, drawing portraits of other inmates or tattooing some of them, all in the name of getting more and more resources. They were forced to be creative and start their own business at a small scale before expanding. If that’s not similar to entrepreneurship, I don’t know what is.


They Are Comfortable With Risk


OK I didn’t mean to insult any inmates or ex-convicts, but I believe one of the reason they got into the crime in the first place was because they were ‘comfortable’ with the risks that they took. Whether that risk is hijacking a car or bank robbery, each of them have different level of risks tolerance and how comfortable they were. It’ll be foolish for them if they never touched any revolver before but willing to commit a gun robbery at some banks.

(Image excerpt from the 1995 movie Heat)

Ex-convicts knew what kind of risk they’re willing to take to succeed, and what’s the limit of it. And not only they have to consider their own appetite for risks, they also need to consider their team members’ skillsets and risk level that they can fathom. That’s why there were always an assigned team members whom actually do the crime and another that took the role of i.e manning the getaway vehicle. Some people might have cold feet with pointing a gun at someone’s head, so it’s best not to let that person get any closer to any hostage.

Some of those ex-convicts already risked their lives for committing the crimes that they did, and taking another (non life-threatening) risks in business should be their key strength. After all, what kind of entrepreneurs or businesses that never involved in risks on a daily basis? We’re talking about financial risks, operational risks, regulations risks and slew other factors that may make or break any startup.

Second Chance

So we need to ask ourselves whether we want our future entrepreneurs are only filled with some whizz kid whom barely legal to drink when they started their business. Yes, they may have the talent that’s valuable, but so as the ex-convicts. We just need to have faith that some of them really need a second chance from us to prove what they can actually do and they won’t squander it. Not all skills can be taught during 4-year degree program at Stanford University or 10 years working with some Wall Street investment banks. Who knows maybe our next billion-dollar IPO is a company that was founded by an ex-convicts. Maybe they have the skills and knowledge that can solve our problems that we overlooked.

After all, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

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