SP2 program teaches ex-offenders entrepreneurial skills

Formerly incarcerated individuals must contend with a barrage of social barriers, including the stigma associated with being an ex-offender, and a lack of money, job skills, social skills, and communal ties.

“They face more obstacles than we scholars would be able to imagine,” says Charlotte Ren, a visiting assistant professor of strategic management in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) and a senior fellow at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School.

SP2’s Goldring Reentry Initiative (GRI) has been working for years to break the recidivism cycle for men and women in the Philadelphia Prison System, and address impediments to successful reentry. After working with the GRI for a semester, Ren says she was “really amazed by the great work they have been doing,” and came to realize the potential of those formerly incarcerated, and the difficulties they endure.

“I kept asking myself, ‘What can we do to help them?’” she says. “‘How can we, as scholars, help them become potential assets to the community?’”

Ren’s answer is the Penn Restorative Entrepreneurship Program (PREP), an outreach effort designed to help formerly incarcerated individuals become socially responsible entrepreneurs. PREP, which launched in February, is made possible through a partnership with the Rescue Mission of Trenton, the GRI, and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

“There is research that shows that formerly incarcerated people and business entrepreneurs have much more in common than most of us would imagine,” Ren says. “One feature is that both of them have a very high risk-taking propensity, which is a very important component for successful entrepreneurs.”

Clients in the program are recruited from the Rescue Mission of Trenton, a 100-year-old social service agency in the New Jersey capital. Applicants are  required to fill out a short survey and questionnaire.

The survey was sent to 70 individuals, and based on their results, an interview with Rescue Mission COO Barrett Young, their business idea, and their passion for it, 15 people were identified as possible PREP clients. Ten of the 15 were selected for the program. They are all men, although Ren says they are trying to recruit women as well.

Ren says the most important selection criterion was a detailed business idea and the motivation to make it happen.

“Motivation is something that’s most important for studying entrepreneurship,” she says. “Motivation is something we cannot really teach effectively in business school.”

Phase one of the program offers PREP clients 10 weeks of intensive entrepreneurial training, specifically, how to start and run a small business. Clients are paired with Penn students, recruited from various schools, who serve as mentors and help the clients turn their ideas into a reality.

PREP workshops are held on Saturdays at the Rescue Mission in Trenton. The first formal training session was held on Feb. 28. Ren, Jenna Goldstein, a student in the Annenberg School for Communication, and Allison Herens, a master’s student in SP2, taught a session on how to write a business report, deliver an elevator pitch oral presentation, how to write business emails, and the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur.

Ren says one client, Anthony, is interested in opening a chocolate shop; a second has dreams of being a florist. A third wants to open a restaurant named after his mother.

Nicole Schneidman, a second-year student at Penn Law School, is helping Anthony get his chocolate shop off the ground.

“He actually had this business idea in the past,” she says. “He has a bunch of the equipment; it’s really us working together to formalize some of these concepts and figure out how to get it going.”

Schneidman began working with Ren to devise the PREP program last fall. She has a background in social enterprise and plans to pursue a career in the field after she graduates.

“[Ren’s] vision for using entrepreneurship as a tool for community development and reintegration really resonated with me and my own professional goals,” she says.

Some of the PREP clients, Ren says, were recently incarcerated, while others were imprisoned some time ago. Their level of education varies as well—one client has a bachelor’s degree in criminal law; others have a high school diploma or less.

For the final session, the clients will come to Penn to submit their business reports and deliver presentations to the PREP evaluation committee, which consists of Wharton professors, business executives, and experts from SP2.

Clients who excel in their business report presentation will be selected for Phase two of the program, during which they will receive continued support, business counseling, funding opportunities, and civic engagement activities to help them launch their businesses.

Ren says she hopes to make PREP a sustainable and replicable model.

“I think this idea has great potential, and Penn has already been offering strong support to our program,” she says. “If we can leverage the knowledge and passion of Penn faculty and students and make a large contribution to community issues, I think that will be good for the University. The program has tremendous growth potential and can make a large social impact.”