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Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Simpson

One Penn program spent the semester “prepping” former inmates to launch their entrepreneurial ideas.

On Saturday, the Penn Restorative Entrepreneurship Program — a partnership between the School of Social Policy & Practice’s Goldring Reentry Initiative, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Rescue Mission of Trenton that teaches formerly incarcerated individuals valuable entrepreneurial skills to help them re-enter society — held final presentations for its pilot year.

Six of the ex-offenders, referred to as “clients,” presented business pitches to SP2 professors, Rescue Mission board members and an evaluation committee of three actual businessmen, who provided them with feedback on their ideas.

Phase One of the program — which culminated in the final presentations — offered 10 weeks of intensive entrepreneurial workshop sessions on Saturdays taught by eight student mentors from SP2, Wharton, Penn Law School and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The PREP program, which was launched in February, is the brainchild of SP2 professor Charlotte Ren, who has been preparing for the program for two years. The six clients who presented were selected from the 10 participants in the program based on various factors such as how well developed their ideas were. Presentations were five minutes each, followed by a 10 minute question and answer session.

Although clients presented a wide variety of ideas ranging from landscaping companies to social media platforms, one theme was common among all of their presentations. They all spoke with confidence and passion and agreed that the experience had been life changing.

PREP client Wallace Brown, who hopes to start a food cart selling Southern cuisine inspired by his mother’s home cooked meals, said “[I’ve felt myself personally grow] tremendously. People have called me antisocial, so being able to stand in front of people I don’t know and present something big has been groundbreaking for me.”

Fellow client Eric Miller, who pitched the idea of a welding company, agreed. “It’s been a great experience. [The program] gave me a great opportunity to incite my business idea, develop it and learn how to get it off the ground. I’ve been welding for over 20 years, and I never thought of owning a business until I took this class,” Miller said.

Client Jeffrey Smith, who presented his idea for a landscaping business, raved about the Saturday classes. “It was such a learning experience. [The mentors] were awesome ... Informative, caring, understanding ... I can’t say enough about them,” he said.

Ren was proud to see her idea come to fruition. “I’m really touched by [our clients’] commitment and capability of dreaming big,” Ren said. ”[Our clients and mentors] have achieved an enormous amount of progress and success throughout this process, so as faculty director of the program, I am incredibly, sincerely proud.”

Both Ren and her partner Barrett Young, chief operating officer of the Rescue Mission, said that the personal growth and newfound confidence and motivation of the clients after the 10 week period was evident.

“I can say for all the participants of the program that there has been a large increase in their self-confidence and their self-awareness... This program has given them that fire in their belly to move their life forward.” Young said.

He shared a distinct memory of dropping into the classroom during a session.

Young recalled that it was the first time in the 13 years he has worked for the Rescue Mission that the clients did not immediately greet him.

“It wasn’t out of disrespect — they were so focused on the class that I don’t think they even noticed I walked into the room,” Young said. “It’s amazing. You could have taken that class and picked it up and put it on any college campus in America and no one would have known that one — the people teaching the class were all students — and two — that the guys sitting in that room were all ex-offenders — and I think that’s a testament to both the clients of the Rescue Mission ... and the students at Penn ... It was very powerful to see that.”

Ren was both impressed by and appreciative of the mentors as well.

“You would be amazed by the quality of their research and their teaching skills,” Ren said. “[Our clients] ask some very specific questions ... that most professors won’t be able to answer well, but our students have done a lot [of research].”

Student mentors opt to participate in the PREP program as an independent study option. Unlike professors teaching undergrads and MBAs, student mentors have to focus on making material useful and comprehensive to clients as opposed to teaching theoretical class concepts. One of the student mentors even talked to her friend in the insurance industry to provide the most relevant insurance information for the client’s company.

The mentors returned the clients’ sentiments, praising their enthusiasm and commitment and discussing their pride in their mentees.

“It’s been incredibly grounding for the mentors to go out to a totally different community and see a nonprofit that’s operating in the manner that the Trenton Rescue Mission is ... It puts what you’re doing every day into a totally different light,” said mentor and Penn Law and Wharton student Nicole Schneidman.

“This was an amazing program ... It’s definitely given me a chance to do something not just for myself but for someone else and I’m excited to see [my mentee’s] business grow and be his first customer,” said College senior Jenna Goldstein, who mentored aspiring landscaping entrepreneur Lester Williams.

Mentors also emphasized their pride in being able to see their mentees’ ideas go from raw to concrete and their appreciation of the opportunity to learn vast information about a wide variety of subjects through teaching.

Ren said that they are currently in the process of discussing both Phase Two and Phase Three of the program. Although plans have not been finalized, the main goals are to expand the program and make it sustainable and reapplicable to other organizations outside of Penn. In addition, they hope to help the clients become socially responsible entrepreneurs and find stable jobs in which to apply their abilities and skills if they cannot become entrepreneurs in the short term.

Phase Two will be launched in late May as a course offered in the summer semester.

“I think PREP is kind of like a call for the attention of prestigious schools like Penn because Penn faculty members and students are people who are super, super smart, but they live in a kind of ivory tower,” Ren said. “This might be a call for them to pay attention to really serious and pressing social issues such as community reintegration issues. It’s a great opportunity to apply what we learn from the classroom and books to address real social issues and help Penn connect better with the community.”

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