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How One Entrepreneur Gives Those Coming Out Of Prison A Chance At Owning Their Own Business

November 9, 2020

By Walter Pavlo - Forbes - Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out his website or some of his other work here

In 1998, Brian Hamilton and Sarah Tourville founded one of the country’s first fintech companies, Sageworks, which developed financial analysis and risk management software for commercial lenders. Hamilton sold his part of the company to a private equity firm in May 2018 to pursue his passion for helping those who were incarcerated develop their own businesses. Inmates to Entrepreneurs was founded by Hamilton with Reverend Robert J. Harris in 1992 after the two visited a prison near Oxford, NC.

Brian Hamilton co-founded Inmates to Entrepreneurs - BRIAN HAMILTON FOUNDATION

Hamilton told me in an interview that his interest in doing something to help inmates was almost immediate as he listened to the issues they would face when they emerged from prison. Hamilton recounted the visit as one that stayed with him because what he saw there was hope and a connection he felt with those he met. “It struck me,” Hamilton said, “that gravity tended to always fall down on the poorest people. I felt that I had to do something.”

Each year, hundreds of thousands of men and women emerge from a period of incarceration. While they may enjoy the fruits of freedom, that is short-lived when it comes to the reality that getting a job with a criminal record is a challenge. Background checks and social media both combine to exclude someone from a job for which they may be otherwise qualified. With so many people today looking for work, it is easy to rationalize disqualifying someone with a record when there are so many candidates who do not have one.

“One solution,” Hamilton said of the challenge, “is for those coming out of prison to work for themselves.” Focusing on small, service-related businesses, Inmates to Entrepreneurs has programs in prison and many outside of prison to help those who have been incarcerated start a business. Working with small amounts of capital, a few hundred dollars, the organization can set someone on the path of owning their own business. “You can start with a lawnmower,” Hamilton said, “and then with a little skill you can turn that into a business.”

From my discussion with Hamilton, I learned that his is not a program that just hands out some money, but teaches men and women to make decisions that lead to long term success. Hamilton wanted to not only tell me about someone his organization worked with but he wanted me to speak to one man about his life since participating in the program ... that’s when I spoke to Alton Lukas who lives near Raleigh, NC.

Lukas was involved in drug trafficking crack cocaine when it was an epidemic in the Raleigh, NC area. At the age of 32, looking for extra money and never having been in trouble before, he was arrested and sentenced to 58 years in state prison. I spoke with Lukas who told me, “I was looking at spending pretty much the rest of my life in prison when I saw two guys arguing over a piece of paper in the prison yard. As they started to fight, I scooped up the piece of paper which referenced a way that first-time offenders could earn credit for release through a rehabilitation program.” Lukas said he showed the paper to his case manager and within a few years, earned a second chance at freedom.

From a life in prison, Alton Lukas now runs Sunflower Landscape in Raleigh NC - ALTON LUCAS

Life, once he was free was difficult. Lukas said, “I took my first job on the outside as a dishwasher at a pizza shop figuring, ‘there can’t be a long line for that kid of job.’” He was right and started work until the owner found out about his criminal past. After that Lukas said, “I’d get work, but then I went to work each day worried that it would be my last and someone would pull me aside and tell me, ‘we know about your past.’”

Lukas found work at a non-profit that helped him counsel inmates coming out of prison. However, even as he tried to help others, he found that he too was limited in what he could do. Then, in February 2019, having been out of prison many years, Lukas found out about Inmates to Entrepreneurs. “I figured if I could just find a way to learn how to be an entrepreneur, I could control my future,” Lukas said. He completed the program and started Sunflower Landscape.

As his business grew, he set aside a little money for tools and additional equipment for his business. Lukas told me, “I worked out a deal with National Pawn Shop who not only gave me a good deal on tools, but they would call me when they came across something that they knew I would need.” Before long, he needed more than hauling around equipment in his car, he needed a truck.

“I remember walking into the bank,” Lukas said of seeking a loan for a small used truck, “I was nervous.” After completing the loan application, checking his credit score and showing his income tax returns, he was approved. “It was an eye-opener because nobody asked me about my prison past. I was a businessman,” Lukas said.

Lukas says that there is not a day that goes by that he does not use something he learned in Inmates to Entrepreneurs. “I learned so much about marketing, service and how to not only grow my business,” Lukas said, “but have a life balance where I do more than just work. Every day I think about something I learned in those classes.”

Now, at 53 years old, he has a home, wife, children, and a new truck. Sunflower Landscape does contract landscaping work with contractors in the Raleigh, NC area as well as with a few private homeowners. “I’m managing this business and I can tell you that I want to be a small business, not a really big business.” Lukas told me, “and right now I’m right where I want to be.”

In the past three years, Inmates to Entrepreneurs taught entrepreneurship to more than 4,500 individuals in correctional facilities and through online courses. With a course graduation rate of 77 percent, graduates have started businesses that include HVAC, event planning, catering, cleaning services and more. Recent speakers for the organization include Eric Schurenberg, the CEO of Inc. and Fast Company magazines, Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and General J.R. Gorham, the first African American General for the N.C. National Guard. 

One lesson we all have to learn is that the people we put in prison will most likely come out of prison one day. When they do, we have to find a way to show them the way to a more rewarding life. Those who have experienced prison are worth saving for their own good and for ours. My congratulations to Brian Hamilton, Reverend Harris, the team at Inmates to Entrepreneurs and the hard work of those who commit to his program.