Inmates Show their Business Acumen

The Deer Ridge Correctional Institution offers impressive entrepreneurship program. 

If the men had not been dressed identically in blue denim and sitting in a building surrounded by fences topped with razor wire, their business plan presentations would not have indicated their current residence — prison. Each presentation was organized, thoughtful and delivered with polished ease.

On September 16, inmates, instructors, and guests at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras gathered for a graduation ceremony celebrating the inmates completion of an entrepreneurship program offered through Central Oregon Community College’s Small Business Development Center.

The inmates participate in an eight-week course, which ends with some of them offering their business plans to a panel of business leaders for feedback on graduation day. The course combines instruction with small group advising providing foundational principles in how to start and run a business. In its third year, the program has expanded from one group of 24 individuals to two groups. The second group was composed of nine inmates who are U.S. Veterans.

Instructor Maureen Quinn said completing the course and developing their business plans instills confidence in the inmates.

“They’ve done the work and they can see that running their own business is doable and that they can eventually succeed,” she said.

One of the guest speakers was a former graduate of the program who owns a successful auto mechanic business.

“Pete” (not his real name) told the graduates that they would need to “stay focused and driven,” to succeed. He cautioned them not to expect overnight success or count on a wage in the first year.

This was Pete’s second address to the graduates having completed the first year’s program. This time he said he felt more a part of the “outside” community than the Deer Ridge population.

Pete served almost 13 years in Oregon prisons before his release several years ago. He had owned an auto repair business prior to his encounter with the criminal justice system.

One of the most important skills he gained from the entrepreneurship program was how to write a business plan. He said learning about resources to support his efforts also played a significant role in helping him start his new business.

His 1967 Mustang Fastback, valued at $13,000, became the collateral for a startup loan from Mercy Corp Northwest.

Michael, a graduate of last year’s program, said it was important for the inmates to see that Pete had made it on the outside.

“We hear about failure walking out,” he said. “It’s few and far between that we see success stories.”

Michael already has his financing secured for the food cart he plans to open in Portland upon his release in November 2015.

Like Pete, all of the businesses the men proposed relied on expertise they had before entering prison. Christopher said he would use his finish carpentry skills to start a custom woodworking business. On display was an oak file cabinet he had built which was slated for the Prineville Chamber of Commerce office.

Kelvin and Danial, who both had information technology education and experience prior to their incarceration, plan to begin their business in January 2016. Their brochure, which lists their services and accompanying prices, states that they intend “to create a safer, easier internet that enhances productivity and security for the end user.”

Frank said he was 26 when he “joined the department of corrections.” In addition to a landscape maintenance business he plans to start, he’s also going to help launch Taste of Freedom, a coffee cart venture located at Deer Ridge. This enterprise will offer opportunities for graduates of the program to practice the skills they are learning. “I want to be a provider and not a taker,” he said.

Larry told the audience his business would be a “felon-friendly employer.” A former sheep farmer, he’d managed and sold three businesses over 30 years before ending up at Deer Ridge. Larry wants to put his farming background to use running an organic dairy farm. Of the $450,000 he estimates he’ll need, he has $150,000 for the down payment on land.

Daniel loves diesel engines. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do is work on diesel engines. His brochure said he is a “third generation diesel mechanic.” When he gets out, he and his dad will open Dunes Diesel Performance on the Oregon coast, offering “honest, affordable diesel repair and performance upgrades.”

After making their presentations, the perspective business owners received feedback from a panel of three businesspeople, Eric Strobel with Barrett Business Services, James Gentes from BendTECH and Nate LiaBraaten of the Cascadian Group. In addition to advising the presenters on their business plans, the panel members praised the quality of their presentations.

“They told us about their businesses in a really creative, interesting way that drew us in and that’s what pitching is all about; that’s the name of the game,” said Strobel.

Those polished performances are a result of coaching from members of the Spirit Trackers Toastmasters Club located within the prison, which is under the guidance of Area 10 Governor and inmate Michael who will start his Portland food cart business next year.

In preparation for talking about their businesses, the inmates spent three weeks, one hour each day for five days working on their speeches. Michael said the presentations were really rough in the beginning with a lot of awkward pauses. But on graduation day, there was no sign of that “roughness.”

The entrepreneurship program has given the men the confidence to act upon what they have learned Michael emphasized. “Before,” he said, “we didn’t think we could be worthy of owning our own businesses.”