Dozens of guests arrive by the carload from Houston and Dallas just before sunset on Friday night. After showing ID, they’re escorted to a carpeted room with leather couches, warm lighting, and OutKast’s “Hey Ya” blasting.
Among the new arrivals, about 15 percent are MBA students and professors from graduate degree programs like one at the University of Dallas, a private Catholic liberal arts school. The other 85 percent are business professionals recruited by their peers, social entrepreneurship programs, and guest speakers at their churches.
All are welcomed in a receiving line with firm handshakes, warm smiles, and hearty bear hugs from students in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). Soon, about three dozen of 90 inmates initially selected for Class VIII will graduate from the four-month program and be released from Texas’ Cleveland Correctional Center, less than an hour’s drive from PEP’s Houston headquarters.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program is unique in the United States, helping people with felony convictions break the cycle of incarceration by starting their own sole proprietorships. During its first four years, PEP training and support have enabled more than 10 percent of its graduates to launch their own businesses—some with outside funding. Most inmates know how to hustle and possess employable skills. (Drug dealing, after all, requires an understanding of sales and distribution.) Several PEP students also earned associates degrees while incarcerated.
Outside MBA candidates not only volunteer as mentors, they actually pay tuition for credit hours earned while visiting the prison. The first grad school to affiliate with PEP was Harvard. Since then, mentors have visited Texas from around the country, and PEP has formalized relationships with several business schools and sponsor churches.