Entrepreneurship Moves Ex-Inmates from Prison to Prosperity

Ex-offenders in New York are starting their own businesses, and advocates say they’re uniquely suited for entrepreneurship.

By Brianna McGurran

Raul Baez was always a savvy businessman. He pointed out the window of a South Bronx pizzeria on a recent Wednesday night toward the Sleepy’s where he sold mattresses in the ’90’s.

“One day I broke the record in that store,” he said. “A $5,000 day for that store is incredible.”

But Baez, 51, said that despite his success as a salesman, his addiction to heroin cost him that job – and others at retail stores in the Bronx. He started to rob jewelry stores instead, and in 1999, at 37, he was arrested for armed robbery and sent to Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

The first six years in prison weren’t easy, Baez said. But half way through his 12-year sentence, he got an idea. He watched fellow inmates released at the end of their prison terms only to return soon after.

“They’re all leaving with $40, a ticket, and a nice, chiseled body. No tangible skills. They kept repeating the cycle. So I said, ‘I gotta do something about this,’” Baez recalled.

Baez started teaching other inmates how to budget, invest and build credit. He drew on his background as a store manager and the business books and magazines he read in the prison library. He started working with one student, a fellow prisoner who reminded him of his son who was killed during a drug deal years earlier.

“That turned into five, that turned into 10, that turned into hundreds,” Baez said. “That was the genesis of the business I came home to.”

Released six months early in 2010, Baez started his own financial coaching company in the Bronx. And he isn’t the only ex-inmate who has used entrepreneurship to move beyond prison life. Later this month, entrepreneurs who have been behind bars will present their business plans at the NYC Prison to Prosperity Fair and Business Competition. Former New York Times journalist Sheila Rule, who organized the fair with her nonprofit Think Outside the Cell Foundation, said ex-offenders are uniquely suited for entrepreneurship.

“They’re used to hustling to try to get by, to make ends meet, to do whatever they need to do to take care of their family,” she said.

Nicole Lindahl, former assistant director of a prisoner reentry think tank at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed.

“Almost every single person has some kind of small business that they were running within the informal economy of the prison,” she said, including distributing tobacco, fixing radios or cutting hair. “One of the hurdles is coming up with a business idea and going through the formal stuff.”

Baez got help starting his business from the Think Outside the Cell Foundation. Sheila Rule co-founded the organization in 2006 with her husband Joseph Robinson, who is serving a 25 years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Their goal is to give formerly incarcerated men and women practical skills that will reduce their rate of recidivism.

They developed the Prison to Prosperity Fair and Business Competition to give former inmates resources and mentoring for building businesses, and they published Think Outside the Cell, an entrepreneurship manual for inmates, in 2007.

Baez read the book six years ago in his prison cell.

“That’s one of the things that propelled me to do the curriculum that I do,” he said. He said he plans to start his own nonprofit that will help men and women prepare for life after prison and start their own businesses. He asked Sheila Rule to be on the board of directors.

“I came home as prepared as anybody can get, and I was paralyzed when I came home the first two weeks,” he said. “So imagine the guys that are not planning. They’re doomed.”