From B-School to the Big House

Chelsi Pohlmeier still remembers the butterflies she felt in 2007, when she first saw the barbed wire fences surrounding the Cleveland Prison Unit in Cleveland, Tex. After she passed through security, a guard escorted her down a hallway to a classroom full of former gang members and convicted felons awaiting Pohlmeier and her classmates from the honors program at Texas A&M Mays Business School (Mays Full-Time MBA Profile). She'd come to observe a marketing class given to the prisoners by the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a Houston-based nonprofit group that equips inmates with business and life skills. "I just remember being terrified. I had never set foot in a prison before and I was really nervous," says Pohlmeier.

Her fears dissipated as inmates in navy jumpsuits greeted her and shook her hand before participating in such team-bonding exercises as group hugs and an obligatory round of the "chicken dance."

"I didn't expect such a warm welcome and to feel so accepted in that environment. My fears just went away immediately," says Pohlmeier, now getting a master's degree at Mays. Since that day, she's paid dozens of visits to the prison, advised inmates on business plans, and helped develop curricula for classes.

Under ordinary circumstances, business school students and prisoners wouldn't have much opportunity to intermingle. That's starting to change as business school students take a growing interest in helping inmates acquire business skills to help them ease into the job market upon release from prison, whether by starting their own companies or finding new careers. While such programs are rare, dozens of MBA students from business schools around the country are participating in them—and in some instances, creating their own programs. Students are drawn to the opportunity to mentor and coach the inmates on business plans, pass on basic business skills, and give them career advice and tips on job-hunting, say career services officers and administrators.

"Every student I've ever worked with who has gone to work with the prisoners just can't wait to go back," says Cynthia Billington, Mays' associate director of MBA career education and advising, who helps recruit MBA students for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. "It really gets into their system."

Emory's Goizueta: prison career fair

At some business schools, grassroot movements are emerging to help assist the prison population. Last winter, Evan Levine and Robert Sigman, then juniors in Emory University's Goizueta Business School(Goizueta Undergraduate Business Profile), decided to see if they could expand a volunteer SAT tutoring service they'd been running at a local high school and bring the concept to a nearby prison. They got in touch with the superintendent at the Atlanta Transitional Center, a facility run by the Georgia Department of Corrections. He agreed to let the students come in several times a week to help the inmates prepare for the high school equivalency diploma test.

The program has been such a success that the students are now expanding the program to include job skills. They are organizing a career day to take place later this month, with sessions on job selection, interview preparation, and professional skills development. To participate at the career fair, they've recruited Goizueta career services advisors, administrators, and local employers with a history of hiring convicted felons, says Levine.

"These are people who've been incarcerated for 10 or 20 years and they don't understand what they need to do to market themselves," says Levine. "We're hoping we can give them some real-life business skills that will help reacclimate these individuals to the business world, get jobs, and prepare them to succeed once they get there."

One of the most unique programs geared towards educating prisoners is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program founded in 2004, which from the start has relied upon participation from MBA students and more recently, a select group of business undergraduates. The nearly six-month program teaches participants many basic business concepts covered in an MBA program, encouraging them to become entrepreneurs. Over the years, the effort has attracted students from more than 35 different MBA programs. They advise inmates in Texas, mostly via e-mail, on business plans for companies they hope to start after they are released from prison. The volunteers do everything from helping the participants conduct market research to giving them feedback on the viability of their business plans.

Crime is, after all, entrepreneurial

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program appears to be working. Of 550 graduates, nearly 60 have started companies, according to the program. Within 90 days of release, 100% of the 2009 graduates had jobs. Even more impressive, inmates who have been through the program rarely end up back in jail, says a program spokesperson, Andrew Kramer. The recidivism rate is 10%, compared to as much as 60% nationally and 30% in Texas, says Kramer.

Many of the inmates are already familiar with the concept of entrepreneurship from their criminal past, and the concepts covered in the program help them hone those skills for another purpose, says Kami Recla, who oversees special projects for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

"A lot of them were in gangs and some of them literally had a marketing strategy for drugs. In the gang world, it's all about rising up and achieving things and managing people, so there is a lot of cross-pollination for what we do with them," says Recla, who was a volunteer for the program back when she was an MBA student at Texas A&M and was later brought on staff. "We tell them: 'There is a business term that corresponds to what you were doing back when you were breaking drugs into kilos for your customers.'"

In the program's most recent class, which started in January, 61 MBA students from 16 programs are advising 76 inmates. The business school advisors come from a wide variety of MBA programs across the country, including Texas A&M's Mays School, Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business (Hankamer Full-Time MBA Profile), Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile), University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile), and others. Most communication is conducted via e-mail. Students at universities close to the prison, such as Texas A&M and Baylor, are able to visit the inmates, stopping by for etiquette dinners, business plan competitions, and other workshops.

plans: car restoration, eco-lighting

"It is amazing when I found out there are more MBA students and more schools that keep signing up for this advising program," says Phi Tren, the interim chief executive officer of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and a former inmate who graduated from the program's first class. "When we first started, we'd have maybe two or three participants assigned to one MBA student. Now for every inmate, we have two or three advisors."

One of the recent MBA advisors is Jacqueline Simpson, 25, who graduated from Baylor's MBA program last spring and was involved with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program while a student. Over two years, she advised three inmates. Of these, one who had been charged with murder wanted to start a car-restoration business. A second, in jail for felony firearms possession, planned to open an eco-friendly lighting company upon release. Simpson did everything from helping them polish their résumés to giving them advice on their business plans, even attending their graduation from the prison program.

"I tried to give them any suggestions I could because I knew how important it was for them to get a job once they got out of the system," said Simpson. "Between their history and the economy now, everything is just going against their odds, so they need all the help they can get."

Beyond the satisfaction that comes with helping a prisoner fine-tune a business plan, there are tangible benefits for student volunteers. The program helps MBA students build mentoring and coaching skills, making them stronger candidates when it comes time to look for a job, says Billington, Mays' career services director.

"my plan really had value"

"I think it makes them better managers because they have to advise and mentor someone about business concepts who, for the most part, has no business education," she says. "They can then say to an employer: 'If I'm doing this out in the community and not getting paid for it, just imagine what I'm going to do for you if you hire me for your business.'quot;

The long-term benefits of the programs are perhaps felt most keenly by its graduates, who take MBA-level skills they've learned in the program and apply them to the real world upon graduation. Jeff Offutt graduated from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in April 2008 and last summer started his own printing company, Houston-based Jita Printing. Offutt worked with two MBA advisors during his time in prison, as well as with other MBA students who came to visit the prison and gave him feedback on his plan during "pitch" nights. The students' advice and guidance helped him build up the confidence to start his own business, he says.

"The fact that they would come by on a Friday night and spend time with me made me feel that my plan really had value and that people cared," Offutt says. "The love that I felt from the program was for me the main ingredient. All of the business concepts we learned were just icing on the cake."