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New Startup Helps Former Inmates Launch Their Own Businesses

New Startup Helps Former Inmates Launch Their Own Businesses

When Teresa Hodge was released after serving nearly five years at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, she was out of work, she’d lost her car, and — approaching age 50 — she had to go live with her mom.

“If you walk out the door, and you’re starry-eyed about your re-entry process, you’re in for a rude awakening,” Teresa says.

The longtime Washingtonian was in prison on charges including money laundering and mail fraud. Four years after re-entering society, she’s living in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and finally starting to feel like she’s back on track.

“This is my new normal,” she says. “My life is not the same. And I had to make peace with the fact that it may never be the same. But this is the new place, and I can build from this spot.”

And that’s what Teresa wants to enable other returning citizens to do, through Mission: Launch. The new program seeks to help former prisoners ‘launch’ their own business.

As Teresa explains, that business could be a house-cleaning company: “What we’re going to do is show them how to clean enough houses to be self-sufficient and hopefully hire other people to do the same thing.”

It could be a coding business: “It might be someone who has great coding skills, and they want to code the next app,” she says.

It could even be construction: “We just are going to be looking at the person who has the ability to really be focused and take advantage of the opportunity,” she explains.

Teresa Hodge developed the idea for Mission: Launch with her daughter, Laurin Hodge.

“We have the mother-daughter business-partner dynamic duo!” Laurin says with a laugh.

While Laurin was visiting her mother in West Virginia, she was enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. With each trip to the prison, she wondered more and more how all these women wound up there.

“And then we did the research and saw that the number of women going to prison had gone up by 813 percent over the last three decades,” Laurin says. “And so, it just seemed like we were loving the punishment system a little bit more than the restorative system. So that’s when we got to the place of: what could we do?”

What they could do, they decided, was encourage returning citizens to apply for a 16-week “Entrepreneurship Bootcamp” — which Laurin describes as “literally hardcore.”

It’s one day a week, including three hours of class time, three hours of homework time, “and at the end of it what you’ve produced is a Small Business Administration-ready business plan, so that you can go out and pitch,” she says.

Laurin and Teresa expect the first Entrepreneurship Bootcamp to start this winter. Mission: Launch will also pair participants with mentors from the local business community, for one-on-one counseling on things like crafting a business model, and securing funding.

With 700,000 people released from state and federal prisons each year — 8,000 in Washington, D.C. alone — Laurin Hodge anticipates sifting through a lot of applications.

“It’s going to be probably a heartbreaking process, because there are going to be so many people who will be good,” she says. “And for us, we don’t want to further damage someone’s ego, because this is a very sensitive time.”

So “sensitive,” actually, that, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 40 percent of returning citizens go back to prison within three years — either for committing a new offense, or for violating probation or parole. In D.C., it’s more like 50 percent, according to the Council for Court Excellence.

Bryn Phillips is Mission: Launch’s Director of Communications and Special Projects. She met Teresa Hodge, Laurin’s mom, while doing time at Alderson for bank, mail, and wire fraud. Prior to that, Bryn was an accountant in Baltimore, doing international finance and treasury.

After nearly four years in prison, she remembers how disorienting it was when she came home.

“You’re first coming out and you’re trying to navigate all these pathways,” she explains. “Do I need housing? Do I need employment? Some people come home and they’re like, ‘I need a new driver’s license. I need to find my birth certificate.’ Everything has been displaced.”

What hadn’t been displaced for her, though, were her skills.

“I did a lot of business communications and a lot of special projects,” she says. “So I can bring that same skill set to this business, tweak it however I need to fit in. So when you come home and you’re transitioning and you have a difficult time getting hired and getting a job, your skill set didn’t go anywhere.”

In the District of Columbia, the unemployment rate for ex-offenders is nearly 50 percent. Bryn Phillips points out that, sure, many re-entry programs teach new skill sets to help returning citizens get hired.

But, she adds, “if you want to own your own company, and you come with some of those skills sets that you already have, entrepreneurship needs to step in to fill that gap.”

And that, says Laurin Hodge, is where Mission: Launch comes in.

“Part of the recidivism, for us, we kind of feel like it’s not creating enough pathways for people,” she explains. “Which is why entrepreneurship is something we’re really excited to push and promote.”

Not that entrepreneurship is for everyone, adds Teresa Hodge. That’s why they’re going to select their applicants carefully.

“We work with a lot of service providers,” she says. “So many of our service providers are going to feed us individuals who they believe are ready. Because we’re not going to case management. This is really for the person who’s come home, they’ve done their work, and they want to take advantage of this unique opportunity.”

And, in doing so, he or she is less likely to be among those caught in that three-year revolving door.

“Having been to prison myself, what I know for a fact is, it’s no way of life,” says Teresa. “And so I can’t imagine that anyone is sitting in prison, thinking, ‘Oh, in three years I can’t wait to come back here!’

“And if they’re not thinking that, then I think the real issue is we have just made the re-entry process so difficult, that a person can’t get back on their feet, to where going back to prison is the only option.”

So with Mission: Launch, she and her team hope to widen such options. They recently received $50,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which helped draw matching funds from four other foundations and companies.

And if all goes well, Mission: Launch will continue bringing in enough grants and investors to blast off in other cities. First stops? Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Mission: Launch is taking part in Social Innovation Festival 2015, a five-day celebration of using business, technology and the arts to promote social justice. Teresa Hodge will be a panelist in a discussion called “Tech, Hip-Hop and The New Jim Crow.”