First class of entrepreneurs in prison program graduates

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 23, 2017

In the past four weeks, I have attended multiple pitch fests — the Tech Coast Angels, the San Diego Venture Group and a couple of others not so famously sponsored. But the pitch fest that rocked my world was a week ago at Donovan State Prison, where the first cohort from Defy Ventures graduated.

On Jan. 27, 2016, 62 inmates — soon to be known as EITs (entrepreneurs-in-training) — started the Defy Ventures program, which advances the principles of entrepreneurship INSIDE the prison. Only 22 finished. It is not a gut class. The course is taught by Stanford and Harvard professors who lecture on video, along with a comprehensive workbook. The program is over 100 hours long and takes about five months.

It is not all gross margin, cost of goods and financing. In fact, about 70 percent of the program is about life skills, behavior modification, self-image resurrection, resume preparation and interview techniques. The balance is devoted to developing a business plan.

This was the first graduation for a Defy group at Donovan and as you can imagine, completing the course work took longer than anticipated, and there were speed bumps along the way. It took tremendous discipline, courage and perseverance to finish and receive the graduation certificate.

The graduation was heartbreaking. Family members attended and watched the graduates walk in a classic processional parade in a blue cap and gown to receive their diploma. I can make a safe bet that not one of those EITs had ever seen a cap and gown before that day.

So let me share a little of the pitch-fest competition. The business plans ranged from landscape services to cross-breeding of snakes with fish (that one was way out there). The two that made the finals were marvelous in their simplicity and their ability to execute. Each needed to raise less than $20,000 to get rolling and start to create cash flow.

Nota bene: To all the entrepreneurs who darken my door, pause and ask yourself, when does positive cash flow start?

One of the pitches was from Abe Stapleton. His plan was to take his old truck, make a few modifications and create a mobile tattoo parlor (piercings available as well). He is an artist who has created unique designs. The problem he solves is that you do not have to go into the “gang-banger sleazy neighborhoods” to get a tattoo. He comes to you. Simple and effective. By the way, the rate for a tattoo is $150 per hour. He ran the numbers, and he can clear $75,000 in the first year.

Now, hang in here, reader. The reason to promote entrepreneurship inside a prison is because when they get out they are felons. Not a great item on the resume you send to the human resources department. So entrepreneurship is not a choice, it is the default option.

Another pitch came from Steven Webb. His idea is to be a plumber. His unfair advantage is that his dad was a plumber and has a successful plumbing business, is 64 years old and is going to retire. Steven worked as a plumber up until the time he stumbled and had to serve some time. Currently, he does plumbing work in the prison. In Webb’s world, he can also go to ABC — Associated Builders and Contractor, a trade organization that is desperate for construction workers in all categories

I know these two ideas do not win the Connect Most Innovative New Products award, but I love that they are simple and create cash flow. They bring dignity to the founder and allow him to hire other EITs as the business scales.

The next Defy cohort starts on C yard in November. And E yard gets a chance in February. Nice stuff, if you ask me.

And now, the next half-baked idea. I have been asked to be the CEO of a new prison project — specifically to create a prison record label. It is sort of Johnny Cash 2.0 with the inmates doing the singing. If you happen to know anyone who has skills in music-talent management, record streaming, producing, etc., feel free to give them my email. We are hiring. And as for the tats — well, no problemas, we will come to you.

Rule No. 535:  That was a pitch fest.

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