Entrepreneurial program helps former convicts to rise up

| Monday, Aug. 29, 2011

Vincent Bostic is on the verge of running his own company instead of running with the wrong crowd.

"I'm flying high and feel great right now," said Bostic, 37, of the Hill District, who plans this fall to open Tight 'n Right, a commercial cleaning business. "A year ago, I really didn't know where I was going to go with my life."

Today, he and seven other ex-offenders are scheduled to graduate from the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program, a partnership started last year between the Mon Valley Initiative and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh to help train people convicted of nonviolent crimes how to start businesses.

About 700,000 people will be released from state and federal prisons this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Nearly seven out of 10 will be arrested again within three years, either for parole violations or new crimes, a 2006 study showed. Another study determined that nearly 90 percent of those who violate their parole terms were unemployed when they did.

"It's always difficult to address the issue of employment with people with a criminal record," said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They start with a strike against them. In today's economy, it's exponentially more difficult."

The Entrepreneurial Mindset Program is part of an emerging trend trying to help ex-offenders solve that problem by creating their own jobs.

"Some of them have business characteristics many entrepreneurs have," said C.J. Handron, a management consultant at the Pitt's institute who oversees the ex-offender program. "Drug dealers, for example, understand inventory, employees and customers. It's just being applied in the wrong way."

That's a correlation Bostic understands well, although he doesn't like to discuss it.

Allegheny County court records show a string of drug-related arrests led to several stints on probation before an 18-month jail sentence.

"I made some bad decisions when I was younger," Bostic said.

But participating in the program "was one of the greatest things I think I've done to date," he said. "Things that seemed so far-fetched to me don't seem so far-fetched anymore."

The six-month program -- funded by the Heinz Endowments -- offers 50 to 60 hours of training through a mix of educational workshops, one-on-one coaching, guest speaker events and visits to local businesses. Candidates are being considered for the next class, which begins in October.

The program has no specific goals when it comes to reducing recidivism, but Handron said organizers work hard to keep participants from returning to jail. Only one of 18 graduates has reoffended -- "a statistic we are quite pleased with, to date," he said.

Michael Thomas Goosby II, 22, said he is close to realizing a dream of having a day care center with his mother, who owned one in Penn Hills for 16 years before a fire destroyed the business.

Goosby of East Pittsburgh graduated in 2007 from Penn Hills High School, where he was a standout football player. Two years later, he was arrested on drug charges. Court records show he was ordered to spend 18 months as part of a residential program and another year on probation.

"All my past troubles are behind me," Goosby said.

While starting businesses is an admirable goal, Jacobs said that should not be the only measure of these programs. They also teach participants to be more ambitious, have better attitudes and be responsible for their decisions -- all things she said are important regardless of whether they become business owners. The programs also provide support and social capital, she said.

"Even people who've had trouble, it teaches them that they can be somebody," Goosby said. "They can have a career, own a business."

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