Amid COVID-19, Formerly Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Find Success in Their Startups

Amid COVID-19, Formerly Incarcerated Entrepreneurs Find Success in Their Startups

Entrepreneurs aren’t one size fits all; the Kansas City entrepreneur community needs programs tailored to unique needs. That’s where Determination, Incorporated comes in.

“When I started working in the entrepreneur community, it was clear there are communities that have interest in entrepreneurship but don’t have access to the resources they need,” says Kyle Smith, founder and executive director of Determination, Inc. “I started to hear about people coming out of prison and having trouble finding jobs – and also people coming out and starting their own businesses.”

Kyle started Determination, Inc. to serve these returning citizens and help them create their futures.

“We are a bridge between the reentry community and the entrepreneur community in Kansas City,” he says.

Determination, Inc. offers three programs:

  • The Back to Business workshop happens in prison. It helps prepare returning citizens with a business and action plan. This means they can hit the ground running upon release.
  • Be the Boss is a group for formerly incarcerated people. Meetings provide the knowledge, guidance and support returning citizens need to be successful entrepreneurs.
  • Rise Up, Get Started is Kansas City’s first entrepreneurship competition for formerly incarcerated people. Applicants compete for grants that will enable them to start or grow a business.

These services are needed, especially now.

“We know in general when unemployment is normal, it’s hard for formerly incarcerated people to find a job,” Kyle says. “In Missouri, 43% of folks on probation or parole are unemployed, and that’s when things are normal. With unemployment so high and people trying to get back to work, we know it’s going to be even more difficult for people with a felony.”

Entrepreneurship is a way for returning citizens to take charge of their lives. This was especially obvious at the recent Rise Up, Get Started Entrepreneurship Showcase.

Sean Gasaway of Jefe LLC

Empowering second-chance entrepreneurs

At the June 2020 virtual event, 15 entrepreneurs pitched to a panel of judges. Determination, Inc. awarded grants of $1,000 to four presenters.

“Our winners are really focused on growing their businesses,” Kyle says. “They’re good examples that if you invest time, talent and resources and are always ready to learn the easy way but willing to learn the hard way, you can make it work.”

Sean Gasaway was one of the grant winners.

“I just went crazy,” he says. “I’ve never won anything, so it was a really happy feeling.”

Sean is the owner of JEFE LLC. His company provides outdoor property maintenance, including landscaping, tree pruning, lawn care and removal of leaves, brush and snow. The grant will enable Sean to purchase a leaf vacuum that will make him more efficient come fall. But this sort of entrepreneurial planning and growth wasn’t exactly what he had in mind a few years ago.

“I used to work at Harley Davidson,” Sean says. “With that job, I thought, ‘Man, this is a career. I can retire from this job; this is a good, union job.’ But when they started laying people off, I knew I had to get back to the basics. I had to find a job that if it’s going to lay me off, it’s going to be on my terms.”

While he was still working at Harley Davidson, Sean set aside money from every other paycheck. And about 18 months ago, he began operating JEFE LLC in earnest.

“I went through a nonprofit called Connections to Success,” Sean says. “My life coach recognized me as being an entrepreneur, and he mentioned Determination, Inc. I’m up for a challenge, and me being curious, I met with Kyle Smith. He was telling me about the program, and I was telling him about my business and what I was trying to accomplish. He explained that I may be able to apply for other loans and, man, he got it. He understood that people who have been incarcerated need a second chance.”

Sean started participating in the Be the Boss support group.

“I started going all the time, and I liked it,” he says. He even convinced his significant other to join him. “She looked at me weird at first, but she went down there, too. Helped me take notes. It worked out real good.”

Samuel Lane, Lane Contracting LLC

Breaking through entrepreneurship roadblocks

Samuel Lane is another Rise Up, Get Started grant winner. He owns Lane Contracting LLC, which provides interior and exterior painting services around Kansas City. And much like Sean, Samuel’s path to Determination, Inc. meant going out on a limb.

“I went to a program at the Innovation Center about the 8(a) program to try to work toward getting eligible for that program,” Samuel says. “We were doing some research and finding resources to help our business. We were right across the hall from KCSourceLink, so as I was leaving, I did what I always do: Be nosy and try to meet new people!”

Samuel stopped by KCSourceLink and ended up having a long conversation with Robin Baer. As a Network Navigator, Robin helps any and all aspiring and established entrepreneurs find the right resources to reach their next milestones. Robin interviewed Samuel and crafted his free personal action plan, which included a referral to Determination, Inc.

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“She went through the roadmap of what KCSourceLink has to offer,” Samuel says, “and I told her where I was at, where I was from and my walk of life so far. Robin said, ‘Considering all of that, you might really benefit from one of these groups that are held in this same building upstairs on Thursdays.’”

Those groups were Determination Inc.’s Be the Boss gatherings. Samuel attended and says he’s benefited from one-on-one support from Kyle.

“Kyle was able to help eliminate some of the roadblocks we’ve faced,” Samuel says. “He’s helped us cut through to our goals.”

This assistance has come at an important time of growth for Lane Contracting. Samuel started the business in 2016 by painting for people around his church community. Slowly but surely, he has added new clients.

Paying it forward

Samuel encourages other entrepreneurs to seek out the resources and people who can help them meet their goals.

“I’d have to say that Determination, Inc. is a team of people who would go to bat and advocate for you no matter how rough it gets,” Samuel says. “A few times I went to Kyle and was quite honestly having a hard time finding a way to move forward. They won’t quit on you if you don’t quit on them.”

Sean also has words of wisdom for folks considering starting a business.

“Maintain what you have. It’s like a relationship – you have to put in the time in order to be successful,” he says. “And make sure it’s what you want before you start. Make sure you can see yourself on down the line working a business because starting it is just the beginning. The real challenge is when this is all over with, when you won the contest, what is your next step? Where do you want to be in the next 10 years? You have to make entrepreneurship a way of life.”

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