Have been volunteering for a non-profit called Venturing Out for the last 8 months or so. Venturing Out teaches a course called Entrepreneurship 101 to incarcerated people, with the goal of helping them start their own small business upon release. The idea is that these former offenders, who tend to struggle in the job market, will create their own jobs, stay out of jail, and get a second chance at life. The benefits to society are twofold – 1) people who start small businesses are logically much less likely to commit a crime 2) it costs Massachusetts taxpayers roughly $40,000 per person, per year to incarcerate someone, so the cost savings are potentially enormous.
Having already graduated 300 people from the three month Entrep 101 course at a number of different sites, Venturing Out has proof of concept in the bag. What is amazing to me is that there are so few other similar programs in the U.S. The most famous and successful is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program just outside of Houston, TX. PEP’s results are pretty extraordinary. The program started when a Texas based private equity executive, Catherine Rohr, visited a prison with a friend who had donated to a prison focused ministry organization. When speaking with the inmates, many who were behind bars for drug related offenses, Rohr realized that they had a strong instinctive grasp on the fundamentals of business. She quit her job and went to work for the Texas Department of Corrections. To date, PEP has graduated 440 students. 47 of them have started businesses, and another five have jobs paying $100k+/yr. Though 105 students have been re-incarcerated, PEP’s recidivism rate of around 24% compares favorably with DOJ’s observed rates, which vary but hover above 60% in most cases.
So, what does all this have to do with me? Well, I was looking for the right volunteer opportunity. There are a number of project based, volunteer organizations in the Boston area. Through these, people can help at a soup kitchen or help paint a house on an as needed basis. I was looking for something more long term, and VO’s focus on business was a good fit. Additionally, I spend my days working with students who in most cases have every advantage, so the opportunity to help people who really needed it was compelling for me. Finally, VO is not just some bleeding heart liberal cause – I think these sorts of programs retain that stigma in the national debate. Saving $40,000 per person per year and lowering crime rates are both things that even the most strident small government conservative should be able to support. It has been rewarding to help VO with fundraising and curriculum development, and I look forward to contributing to continued success.