Unlocking the Power of Entrepreneurship: Starting a Business after Prison

Unlocking the Power of Entrepreneurship: Starting a Business after Prison

Meet Kyle J Smith, communications coordinator at KCSourceLink. Okay, yes, I realize I write much of the content here on the KCSourceLink blog, but I’m coming into this post with a different agenda. I want to share with you my personal journey of entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. Like many entrepreneurial stories, it begins with a big problem, and a question:

More than 30,000 people are currently incarcerated in Missouri prisons. More than 19,000 people are released each year and face major challenges as they return to their neighborhoods: it’s hard to adopt a healthy lifestyle, transportation is nearly impossible and they lack any sort of community, just to name a few.

Often, the biggest problem for returning citizens is finding a job.

This seems like a great place for entrepreneurship to help—if you can’t find a job, create one. But the reality of starting a business after returning from prison is much, much harder than it sounds. But still potentially worthwhile.

This idea struck me for the first time at the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Summit, a three day intensive on building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems, in the summer of 2017. The central question emerged straightaway: can entrepreneurship help to reduce recidivism? Can starting a business stop someone from going back to prison?  

From my vantage point at KCSourceLink, looking out at KC’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, I saw that no entrepreneurial support organizations were specifically focused on serving returning citizens.

Organizations in the entrepreneurial community offer programming that is open to anyone, but don’t facilitate connections to social services to ease the reentry process. And reentry organizations help folks get back on their feet and secure jobs, but don’t have entrepreneurship training.

This gap in the marketplace is where my venture began to take shape. In the method and mission of KCSourceLink, I saw a missing piece in the ecosystem and wanted to do what I could to fill it.

To help find its form, I did exactly what we encourage others to do at KCSourceLink, I plugged into Kansas City’s entrepreneurial community.

Kansas City is a great place to start a business, for most

In the fall of 2017, I joined the Entrepreneurship Scholars (EScholars) program at the University of Missouri–Kansas City to research this social entrepreneurship idea.

EScholars is a two semester-long class that meets on Saturdays, a great complement to my full-time job and a good opportunity to nurture my venture. Here’s how:

  • In order for this venture to have any chance of succeeding, I need to carve out time in my life to learn, strategize and focus on its success.

  • Through discussions with my classmates and the lecturers, I am learning a lot about what it takes to start and sustain a new venture.

  • My EScholars mentors (a hallmark of the program) are tremendously supportive as I formulate how to create an efficient and effective reentry program.

The regular classes have been a sturdy structure on which to build my venture. Already it has grown from a line of inquiry to a minimum viable product in the marketplace.

Listening to your customers, in and outside of prison

When I started EScholars, my goal was to build a program to teach entrepreneurial skills to currently and formerly incarcerated people.

Through conversations with people in the reentry community and returning citizens, I learned that for entrepreneurial endeavors to succeed, returning citizens need the stability and means that only a job can provide.

That is why my new goal is to create a program that hires returning citizens in the business of fighting blight in Kansas City, while teaching them entrepreneurial skills so they can become job creators.

With that long-term goal in mind, my current pursuits focus on interfacing with returning citizens more in an effort to understand their needs, and to begin to build a coalition in KC and beyond that believes entrepreneurship can help reduce recidivism.

Here’s what that looks like in real life:

  1. Be the Boss: Business support group for returning citizens: I held the first meeting at the top of February at the UMKC Innovation Center. Be the Boss meets twice monthly throughout the spring.

  2. To keep learning and to market my venture, I launched a podcast called Prison or ESHIP where I have a conversation with a new guest every two weeks about the power of entrepreneurship to reduce recidivism.

  3. In 2018, I plan to host convenings between the entrepreneurial and reentry communities so they can learn from one another. You can stay updated in this Facebook group: #StartupKC for Returning Citizens.

An entrepreneurial journey begins when you start

It turns out that what we preach and enable at KCSourceLink is true: entrepreneurs are better, connected. Kansas City is overflowing with people who care deeply about this city and believe wholeheartedly that entrepreneurs are vital to its success.

I am confident that we can harness this passion and spirit of innovation to support returning citizens. Because together all of us, even people with criminal histories, can make Kansas City better and more entrepreneurial.

Start fixing problems and grow your business

If you believe that through entrepreneurship you can improve your community and leave the world better than you found it, we want to help you get started. Reach out to KCSourceLink for your Personalized Action Plan, a step-by-step guide of the resources you need to grow and succeed.

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