The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program Tale

One member of the group, Alvin Hammons, served 19 years in prison for attempted murder. Another, Edward Tobar, spent 12 years behind bars for manslaughter. Others were drug dealers, gang leaders or burglars. Indeed, name the offense, from aggravated assault to murder, and they have committed it.

These are some of the 440 men who have graduated thus far from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP, a nonprofit group created more than four years ago by a former finance executive, 31-year-old Catherine Rohr. When she was invited on a Texas prison tour, PEP says, Rohr found that "executives and inmates had more in common than most would think Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers inherently understand business concepts."

So Rohr quit her New York job in venture capital and private equity, moved to Texas with her husband, and founded PEP, deliberately recruiting gang leaders, drug dealers, and other inmates nearing parole who she thought had instinctive business smarts.

Catherine Rohr gave up a lucrative job as a venture capitalist to create the Prison Entrepreneurship Program
She created a four-month business course that includes mentoring by others from the business and finance communities (who sometimes become the inmates' post-prison employers) and MBA students. The course includes not only classroom work but a "Selling Night," in which inmates test two-minute pitches to executives, venture capitalists and business students, and a final two-day Business Plan Competition.

Not all inmates can handle the program, which includes a long application, interviews and tests before they are accepted. Some drop out or are kicked out, but those who make it through love the program and Rohr. Ex-con Hammons, who now has his own business making and selling leather goods, told a Houston TV program that PEP was "the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life." Similarly, Tobar, who now works for a commercial and residential air conditioning service, told NBC-TV News that Rohr was "like an angel to us."

All of this produces impressive PEP results. Graduates so far have started 47 of their own businesses. More than 95 percent of the ex-cons are employed within four weeks of their release. And while the national recidivism rate is commonly above 50 percent a year, fewer than 7 percent of PEP graduates are rearrested and returned to prison.

Cheering inmates during an October 2008 "Selling Night," when convicted murderers, drug dealers, gang leaders and others in the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program make two-minute business pitches to executives, venture capitalists and students from leading business schools.

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