Giving Entrepreneurial Guidance to our Troops in the Brig

Published in UT San Diego, June 9, 2014

Except for the fact that the men and women were dressed in fatigues, they looked like one of our classes at UCSD.

Eighty prisoners (25 percent of whom were women) were seated in last month’s class at the brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, eager to listen to some thoughts on entrepreneurship, reinvention and renewal, as they anticipated re-entering regular society.

What was thrilling was their palpable desire to learn something about business.

Now some of my “students” already knew something about business. A few had been active in drug trafficking where the margins are high, the product demand is deep, the market is unlimited, there is price elasticity and you can get a customer for life. Unfortunately that business is also illegal, so I suggested they consider applying the same basic business principles to an opportunity where they would not end up in jail or dead. There were smiles. This group was cool.

During the Vietnam era, I was a member of the armed services, and I pointed out that they already knew a lot about teams, about determination, about discipline, about integrity and courage.

In fact, the military is an outstanding training ground for entrepreneurship. These young men and women were already in the problem-solving business. I tried to remind them that what they had learned as soldiers were exactly the characteristics necessary to succeed in any business adventure.

I showed them an introductory PowerPoint presentation — the same one I show to the students in our UC San Diego class. I did not dumb it down. And their questions were the same as I have heard before.

I challenged them with the “rich vs. king” puzzle, and they instinctively got it right. There are no kings in the military.

One young lady broke my heart when she said, “I don’t want to be rich or king, I want to make a difference.” Wow.

They asked about franchises vs. starting from scratch. And they were deeply hungry for mentors. Certainly Score San Diego is one such resource, but I am ashamed to tell you that I had never really focused on the magnitude of the problem that “the re-entry into society soldier” faces. And many of these men and women will re-enter with a dishonorable discharge. You try to explain that to a potential employer.

They asked about co-founders (I feel strongly about the importance of having one), and I told them to find someone with complementary skills. Your company probably does not need two demolition experts.

So here comes the ask. They begged me for reading material, for business books, for management books, for leadership books — for anything that could give them some entrepreneurial guidance. They were hungry for education in this area.

The military has rules. It cannot accept donations, so you cannot send money.

So, I have picked out seven books — “The Black Swan,” “The Lean Startup, “The Hard Thing about Hard Things,” “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “Crossing the Chasm,” “The Art of the Start” and “Getting to Plan B.” I am buying several copies of each and sending them to the brig.

I am going to ask our readers to do something similar.

Please either send copies of those books or send copies of any business book that has been important to you, that has elevated or inspired your thinking.

As I mentioned previously, this is a captive audience with time to read and study. Currently, 300 prisoners are in the Miramar Brig. You do the math.

You can send the books (no money) to Michelle V. Davis, Re-entry Coordinator, Offender Workforce Development Specialist, Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, 46141 Miramar Way, San Diego, CA 92145.

Rule No. 1

Return every email and every phone call.

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