Unique Entrepreneurship Program Helps People Move Past the Hard Cell

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Want to get in on an unusual program that teaches you how to become excellent at selling? One that helps newcomers to sales master strong interpersonal skills and develop winning lifestyle habits? One that offers every participant the ability to learn from peers, by giving and receiving valuable coaching? One where the students have high energy and great enthusiasm for learning?

If this sounds like the training your team needs, I have some good news, and some bad news. The program is available, but you must go to prison. It’s offered to inmates as part of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), which helps them find a job and build careers when they are released. The program’s entrepreneurship boot camp is as rigorous as any I’ve seen—one reason why “100% of the program’s graduates have landed a job within 90 days of release from prison,” according to the organization’s website.

Many of the students enter the PEP with as much business savvy as an Ivy MBA—just learned in other ways. “Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers inherently understand business concepts such as competition, profitability, risk management and proprietary sales channels.” But the program supplements that knowledge with formal coursework, including lectures on investments, a test on the Human Resources Management Chapter from a textbook, Entrepreneurship: A Small Business Approach, and a discussion on a Harvard MBA case study about Enron.

No entrepreneur can succeed without understanding how to sell, and the program gives students valuable sales skills needed for life outside of prison. Last week, I caught up with Steven Hausman of Advance Business Capital in Coppell, Texas, who leads the sales mentorship program for PEP, and developed the course content. From our discussion, I gleaned insights useful for any sales organization:

Andy Rudin: In mentoring inmates for selling skills, what is the greatest challenge you have encountered?

Steven Hausman: So much to share and so little time. Given the logistical constraints, we lay out the foundation and challenge the men to apply these principles through practice.

Andy Rudin: On leaving prison, many former inmates must re-enter society carrying labels that are stigmatized. When they start businesses, what are the biggest selling challenges they typically encounter?

Steven Hausman: To be honest, I don’t know—but I can speculate. Every small business and/or start-up has more than a load of selling challenges. These guys have all those plus another full measure associated with their pasts. But, they’ve also been tested by a fire that’s hotter than most of us ever experience. I don’t bet against any of these men.

Andy Rudin: From this program, which outcome or achievement has been most personally satisfying for you?

Steven Hausman: Simply convincing them that selling is a not just an occupation but a life skill. Also, encouraging these men that effective sales communication has nothing to do with manipulation, but rather we honor people by presenting ourselves in a manner that the other person can receive.

Andy Rudin: Over the course of training inmates for effective selling, what have you learned that surprised you the most?

Steven Hausman: Not to judge any books by their cover.

Andy Rudin: In your program, you provide participants the opportunity to test their skills and role play. How do you coach individuals when they struggle? Are there situations in which you find a person “just won’t make it in sales”?

Steven Hausman: Again, we’re not trying to develop salespeople as much as impart basic selling skills that we believe can benefit everybody. So, no—each and every one of them can make it. Do they struggle at times? You bet. There’s always a fine line between criticism and encouragement. It’s like any message—best delivered in truth and love.

Andy Rudin: Top sales achievers are often characterized as patient and empathetic, and able to be highly persuasive verbally. But some of the people you work with have had a violent past, and may not have grown up nurturing these skills. How do you help inmates re-channel difficult behaviors when they are in selling situations?

Steven Hausman: It’s an issue we try to tackle head on in our very brief discussion of negotiations. By the time we see these men, their personal transformations are already manifest. Because of the incredible work that PEP has already completed, it’s no longer a “heart” issue—it’s all about life skills.

Andy Rudin: In 2007, Americans spent $49 billion on incarcerating people, which averages to an annual expense of $21K per inmate. In sales, we’re passionate about “making the business case.” What do you see as the greatest economic benefits of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program?

Steven Hausman: Easy question. PEP works. Incarceration is costly indeed, but it’s the exponential costs of recidivism that are broken. On a personal level, I’m in love with the real, substantive life change which PEP produces. The economic return on this investment makes the value proposition undeniable.

You might be wondering why this matters. After all, jail is jail, right? We need this program and others like it because few can argue that as a society, some of what we spend to incarcerate people could be invested more productively. Instead of paying over $21,000 per person per year to incarcerate 2.3 million people, what if we re-purposed some of that money toward education to help some of them become fulfilled, taxpaying citizens?

“Most PEP participants were either dope dealers or violent criminals and many were in raised in disadvantaged situations where education and achievement were not modeled.” With a national prison recidivism rate above 60%, “we need to rethink prison as punishment and begin to utilize it as a place to the end the wicked cycle of crime and addiction.” PEP graduates have a recidivism rate of less than 5%. You do the math. The financial return that comes from every invested dollar provides enormous benefits to society, and a future for those who would otherwise struggle to find a pathway toward a better, more fulfilling life.

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