Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs
And their mentoring doesn't stop at the prison gate: Gregg told audiences that one of the keys to PEP's success is an inside-out approach in which volunteers continue to work with offenders after their release, and offenders continue to take classes.
"If all we do is train them on the inside, pat them on the back and say, 'Good luck to you,' there's a good chance we're going to train a drug dealer how to leave prison with a better marketing strategy," Gregg said. "And that's not what we want to do."
According to a report on PEP by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, "Studies show that a former inmate's most vulnerable and impressionable time actually occurs in the first 72 hours following release."
That's why every PEP participant is, upon release, met by a case manager who drives him to his family's home, a halfway house or one of PEP's transitional homes in Houston and Dallas. And his studies don't end at the gate, either -- newly released participants are expected to complete 20 "Entrepreneurship School" (or "eSchool") workshops in which they learn sales, marketing and personal finance. Eligible graduates can win a cash bonus for investment in their business.
Sure, it's the nice thing to do. But it's not just designed with ex-offenders in mind -- PEP's directors say it serves the public as well. These guys aren't simply peppered with platitudes and released into society with a cheerful disposition. Every man who graduates from PEP saves Texas taxpayers an average of $21,000 a year, according to the Baylor study.
Individually, that may not sound like much, but the study points out that by 2012, the state's correctional system was sucking $3.3 billion from the budget. Moreover, according to the Baylor study, PEP grads have a three-year recidivism rate of just under 7 percent, compared to the state average of 23 percent.
The heart of PEP is the business plan competition. Over six months and 1,000 classroom hours, participants craft an idea for a business, then pitch it, Shark Tank-style, 120 times, to volunteers. At the end, three winners are chosen, but all graduates receive a certificate of entrepreneurship from Baylor.
These practical ambitions exist within a framework known as the Ten Driving Values. These range from the more grounded -- Accountability and Innovation -- to those of a more touchy-feely sort, like Love and Fun.
Cornish latched onto the tenth one: Wise Stewardship, which states in part, "We will apply donors' funds as promised...We use funds intelligently, efficiently and strategically to achieve maximum benefit for all whom we serve."
For Cornish, this means that when he signs a contract, he delivers.
"If I tell a company I'm going to have ten trucks there [and] we're going to complete this job in five or six days, that's what I'm going to do," he says. "I don't care if I have to drive a truck...24 hours a day for five days; I'm going to do it. I'm going to get the job done."
"There but for the grace of God, in many cases, I could be sitting not in a pinstriped blue suit but a blue jumpsuit."
Nine years ago, Bert Smith, a venture capitalist and Princeton-educated economist (with a JD from UT-Austin tossed in for good measure), was sitting at his weekly Executives Association of Houston breakfast meeting, listening to a woman named Catherine Rohr talk about her strange new prison rehabilitation program. Smith was sold. He told her he'd like to volunteer as a business plan adviser.
"I think maybe I didn't realize it when I went to breakfast that morning, [but] after I heard her speak, I really felt a desire to give back," Smith says. "That sounds very lofty, but it was actually very simple. I just felt like, wow, you know, I've had some ups, I've had some downs; maybe I can bundle up that mess and share it with somebody else where it'll really make a difference."