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Courtesy of Victor/Creative Commons

Credit: victor

The brains behind the next big start-up may not be computer science prodigies or Wharton graduates, but former inmates.

On Saturday, two Penn students presented the basics of entrepreneurship to nine formerly incarcerated men — referred to as “clients” — at the Rescue Mission of Trenton as part of a new program aimed at helping ex-offenders start their own businesses.

Partnering Penn with the Rescue Mission, the Penn Restorative Entrepreneurship Program provides entrepreneurship training and also pairs student-mentors from various Penn schools with clients for one-on-one assistance in formulating a business plan.

Penn students in both undergraduate and graduate schools participate in the program as an independent study course, creating weekly lesson plans, giving and grading clients’ homework and ultimately preparing the client to present a business plan in April to potential investors — members of the Penn community and business owners.

“It’s a great opportunity for these clients, because when they first come back to the community they face a lot of obstacles,” director of the program Charlotte Ren said, who is also a Social Policy & Practice professor. “They are often viewed as a problem rather than a potential asset to the community. So what we are doing here is trying to find these peoples’ talents, motivations and dreams, and help them turn their potential business ideas into reality.”

Ren along with Rescue Mission’s COO Barrett Young started the program as an innovative approach to reducing reincarceration rates and reintegrating ex-offenders. PREP is currently one of the only programs of its kind, but Ren is hoping that will change.

“We offer an innovative approach to addressing a very important social problem. That is reincarceration,” said Dr. Ren, also a senior fellow at Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management. “The U.S. government has spent a lot of money to address this issue. The annual expense is about US $60 billion.”

For Anthony P, PREP is an opportunity to re-launch his chocolate business. When Young first presented the idea to Rescue Mission clients, “I raised my hand right away; I was one of the first ones,” he said. “So this is perfect for me, absolutely perfect.”

“Everything’s going to be unique in the Cocoa-Nut, that’s the theme and the name; It’s Cocoa-Nut because I make crazy flavors, like curry and cayenne pepper ... then you’ve got your plain flavors too, but I like the Cocoa-Nut because I’m a cocoa nut. Crazy for chocolate and crazy flavors.”

Passion like this was common among men at the meeting. Recognizing his hiring disadvantage looking for a job in his former field of security, Brian D hopes PREP will help him start his own firm.

“If I have trouble getting back into my industry that I truly have a lot of passion for, you know, I’d like to open up my own shop,” he said. “I know a lot about the industry, it’s easy work, I love to do it, it’s something for me to wake up and want to go to work. That’s what I look forward to doing.”

During Saturday’s lecture College senior Jenna Goldstein and SP2 student Allison Herens talked email etiquette and elevator pitches, discussed a case study of a former inmate turned successful entrepreneur and had them practice networking with each other.

“Being in a controlled environment for so long, I lost some of my socialization skills,” Anthony F. said.

Still, the class remained motivated to learn and engaged with the lesson and student mentors.

“They were super receptive to what we were saying, which was very encouraging,” Goldstein said.

Although this is PREP’s first session, the clients are optimistic.

“This time around will be the last time I open, I hope, and I am going to know how to do it,” Anthony P said.

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