Grantee Spotlight:  Kent State University (Part 2)

Pivoting in Prison: Finding New Entrepreneurial Perspectives

In Fall 2021, Kent State University launched a pilot program in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and University that provides individuals incarcerated at Trumbull Correctional Institution with the opportunity to complete courses toward a bachelor’s degree with an embedded certificate in entrepreneurship.  In addition to completing program coursework, students are connected to LaunchNET Kent State, which provides venture advising services, mentorship, and workshops to help participating students explore the viability of business ideas.  KSU is engaged with community resources to ensure pathways are developed that allow released students to access internships and other resources that may help them eventually work for a business or start their own business.  There are currently 17 justice involved learners enrolled in the program.

Burton D. Morgan Foundation is proud to support this program and to share a blog provided to the Foundation by Zach Mikrut, Director of LaunchNET Kent State, and Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology and Director of Kent’s Prison Education Program Kristenne Robison that provides programmatic updates and pivots with program implementation thus far. 

This is the second blog post in this series.  The first post can be found here.

LaunchNET Kent State University is a resource that assists students, faculty/staff and alumni with new and current businesses and ideas. LaunchNET’s main service is one-on-one advising with clients, which often includes working through a business model canvas, connecting to other entrepreneurial resources on campus and in Northeast Ohio, assisting with pitch decks for funding, and assisting in next steps towards business formation. Meetings often end in ‘homework’ assignments in which the entrepreneur is challenged to create a website, list inventory on an online store, or to compete in a regional competition. Each of these pathways is based on where the entrepreneur is at in their journey, but more importantly, are contingent upon the ability to access these resources.

As we stated in our previous blog, access to resources is limited for our students in Trumbull Correctional Institution (TCI). We have provided various textbooks, business planning and canvas templates, and ongoing advising, but these resources can only take advising so far without the runway to work on a startup. It’s frustrating for both sides of the advising process to know the next steps, but for those steps to be restricted or prevented from being pursued. In this frustration, the justice involved learners began to inquire about subject matter experts to augment LaunchNET advising. They asked for the opportunity to connect with entrepreneurs, those with nonprofit experience, app developers, funders, in other words, essentially, those with lived-in experience within these entrepreneurial worlds to share and answer specific questions.

Many of our students have ideas around creating nonprofits, social enterprises, and other support functions. To share experience in these areas, we connected with a local leader in nearby Niles, Ohio, CEO of Cadence Care Network Matt Kresic. Cadence Care Network is a nonprofit agency focusing on the behavioral and emotional well-being of children and teenagers, as well as the treatment and placement of youth in compassionate and qualified foster care homes. Kresic shared his story of how he started in social work and has spent his career assisting teens and children in-need within the foster care system.

“Speaking to the students at TCI was an honor and privilege”, said Kresic.  “So many of the children we serve are impacted by having an incarcerated parent.  I viewed this opportunity as a way to advocate for our own clients by potentially helping some of the TCI Students learn about the nonprofit world and the opportunities that exist within it.  My hope is that they can utilize what they have learned to make a positive impact on their children’s lives upon their release.”

Kresic also discussed being an intrapreneur and finding new opportunities within your work. In his case, this meant launching Cadence Coffeehouse and Creperie, a coffeehouse in Niles that employs kids and teens with developmental disabilities to empower them through training programs and create a sense of community.

While attending entrepreneurship support events in the region, we were also able to connect with Sterling Braden, Founder and CEO of Friend A Felon.  Friend A Felon is an app that aims to end recidivism through successful community reintegration of convicted felons. It is available on both iOS and Android app stores and provides job postings, a housing marketplace, and general support throughout the reentry process. A true entrepreneur, Braden recognized an opportunity while experiencing problems in supporting formerly incarcerated individuals as they attempted to reenter society.  Braden is a formerly incarcerated individual and connected with our students on a personal level.

"I was super excited to have the conversation with the group of amazing entrepreneurs,” said Braden. “Hearing everything that they want to accomplish upon release motivated me like no other to keep pressing on with my venture. The LaunchNET program at TCI is helping show that you are not defined by your situation. All people can change and become a productive member of society."

Additionally, Braden shared both his struggles reentering society and his tenacity and perseverance as he taught himself to code so that he could begin to develop Friend a Felon. Braden was also able to share experiences of utilizing several different resources and events for entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio.

Hearing these stories and experiences has been incredibly impactful to our students. Several responded with reflections on the presentations:

"Sterling Braden gave great examples of how to bootstrap your business, including using available tools to learn to build your app."

“I applaud that they came into the prison, spoke to us with respect, and shared their knowledge. I really enjoyed their honesty and approach when they spoke to us. I really learned a lot of good facts and different ways to structure and achieve my goals."

"Matt Kresic provided realistic insight to the world of non-profit organizations and grants available to entrepreneurs. Most important was his statement, 'No money, no mission - manage your bottom line.'

There is no substitute for being able to directly work on your business but knowing that there are others willing to share their struggles, successes, and keys to building a business can be extremely helpful to those with limited resources. We are excited to continue to offer these opportunities as we move into the next year of this program.