New York Bookends

This is the last blog from my USA travels, but the end of this experience is just the beginning of the next phase.

My travels began and ended in New York so I wanted to share my first and last meeting in this blog.

A month ago I had the pleasure of being able to meet up with Coss Marte, the Founder and CEO of Conbody. Whilst in prison he developed a personal workout that he was able to do in his 9ft x 6ft cell. Over a 6 month period he lost 70lbs and realised that he could use this insight to set up a business upon release. He has gone on to set up Conbody which employs high quality trainers utilising their skills and his business model. All of his staff were formerly incarcerated and since release none have re-offended and are a valuable asset to his business.

He is a graduate of the Defy Ventures “CEO of your New Life” program. It is an employment, entrepreneurship, and personal development training program that supports the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to become successful, legal entrepreneurs and employees.

Coss is a humble yet driven individual and has plans to expand his business and has recently launched an on-line subscription service to reach a wider audience. It was an honour and a pleasure to meet him to learn of his amazing progress.

My final meeting was with Tommy Safian, the Founder and Executive Director of Refoundary, based out of the Old Navy Yard in Brooklyn. Fefoundary have piloted a 18 month paid fellowship in Los Angeles and New York to develop life skills, financial education and craft skills in a fully supported pathway to a crime free future.

The program aims to create long term career opportunities utilising their artisan fellowship in upcycled furniture, craft goods, entrepreneurship and skills. Their model enables the candidates to be employees of the company in the first three phases, being able to earn a regular wage whilst learning “on the job” how to develop their business skills. Over the first 12 months the candidates continue to be an employee and by selling their own upcycled and craft products they generate revenue for the business they are gaining a greater insight and a track record for the future.

The model allows the candidates to then decide to take up their incubated business fully or seek employment drawing on their 12 month experience to be an asset to a company. The success of these 2 pilots has enabled

10 businesses to be incubated in LA and NY

125 people are now employed


One of the incubated business is Cambui Custom Craft. I had the privilege of meeting with Gene, the founder who owns a joinery workshop producing high quality furniture. He has been able to hone his skills and turn them into a means of earning a living.


Gene is a great advocate for the program and states

“As I work with materials other people have thrown away, I FEEL I’M RECLAIMING MYSELF. When others see I’ve made something of beauty and value, and they buy it. I feel like they see the beauty and value in me, too”

Clearly Gene has been on a tremendous personal journey and I was humbled and privileged to learn of his story first hand and see some examples of quality of his craftsmanship.

check him out on instagram: genemanigo

The success of the program is a credit to Tommy and the drive and passion of the team to provide a high quality and intensive supported re-entry program. It tackles head on the key reasons for recidivism: secure employment, financial literacy and personal development to gain a strong foothold back in society and showcase their value and worth.

So to finish..

This experience has been one that will live with me forever. I have been astounded, humbled, excited, informed, inspired and met people that I hope I will be able to develop stronger bonds with, even from afar. People that are willing to grasp a better chance when presented with it will succeed with the unwavering support of these individuals and organisations.

In my opinion we are all human and deserve the best life we can have.

I’ll finish with a quote from Winston Churchill

“The true guide to life is to do what is right”

Reflections from Raleigh

The second to last stop  on my travels was to Raleigh / Durham in North Carolina. Fortunately Hurricane Florence had passed by and everyone that I saw had escaped any effects.

My first stop was to meet up with Inmates to Entrepreneurs (I2E). Jaclyn Parker is the Vice President of Programs and was an excellent point of contact in enabling me to connect with the organisations that I met later in the week. I had the pleasure of spending time with her and Kristin who is responsible for community relations, as well as being able to speak to AJ Ware who is the Co-Chair of the organisation and been involved since its inception back in 2009. I2E have been supporting returning citizens by running community courses over 8 weeks and cover a wide range of topics including sales, marketing, finance and legal requirements. They provide a wide range of videos to provide additional resources to support their program. They currently operate in 4 locations, and I was able to attend a class run in the Durham Rescue Mission that was facilitated by Lawrence Carpenter who is a mentor and has been running a successful cleaning business since 2002. He was able to draw on his considerable business knowledge and experience to make the class a lively and interesting space.

I2E support over 100 participants a year with these programs and area looking to expand to the New York area. They had a advert running in the airport terminal so looking to attract a wider audience.


My next stop was to meet up with Community Success Initiatives. Their mission is:

To help make the world a better place through programs that help individuals and communities be aware of personal growth and “success” principals, inspire others to reach their potential, and help to build vibrant and healthy communities.

I was interested to learn of the their work as was able to spend time with Dennis Gaddy (Executive Director) and Ho Haraydi who has developed the “Project Managing Your Life” which is a workflow driven life coaching base. This includes a practical workshop and a tailored coaching package to support the coachee to achieve the goals they set.

If you want to be a successful project manager – Dr Ho’s mantra for success is “Get things done, make things happen”

They provide the opportunity for second chances and use the coaching, entrepreneurial training and their network of other re-entry specialists to enable people to move forward with their lives.

My last stop in Raleigh was to meet up with Anthony O. Vann and his team at Correction Enterprises.It works within the North Carolina Department for Public Safety and it is a not for profit organisation that provides the opportunity to develop jobs skills for men and women in 30 prisons across North Carolina. 2600 people daily are in their workshops learning valuable skills in 18 different industries that can be utlised upon release. This includes laundries and sewing as well as re upholstery, furniture manufacturing, signage and specialist training such as braille. They receive the standard prison wages for being employed.

They also offer propriety products for sale to state employees and organisations (such as cleaning products) that offer competitive pricing due to its buying power from its suppliers.

They also offer an apprenticeship pathway as well as running an initiative called PIE. This is where companies can partner with Correction Enterprises and use the talent pool to provide additional capacity when seeking to expand their production output. The employees are paid prevailing wages and get other worker’s compensation coverage. The companies cannot displace their own employees. It is an opportunity to gain a living wage whilst in custody to reduce the financial barriers upon release.

There is a first class re-entry team run by Michael S. Lockamy that utilises a network of companies to match candidates with vacancies that lead to a sustainable career.

Correction Enterprises is one of the top 3 organisations in the sector in the country has a turnover in excess of $90 Million per annum. It was a privilege to meet such a dedicated team and learn of the work they do. On the way out I was taken to their showroom to see examples of their workmanship.

My next and last stop is back to New York. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences in Raleigh and will post a blog in the coming days.

THE Washington Post

I started my experience of Washington DC by attending the opening event of DC Start Up Week. Drinks and nibbles on a hotel rooftop terrace..don’t mind if I do! Took the opportunity to meet one of the founders Steven A. Rodriguez who has expanded the event to over 120 seminars and workshops to showcase the DC entrepreneurial landscape.

My first event was to attend the DC Gov Open Day to network with the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD). In particular I got to meet Kate Mereand-Sinha who was my primary contact in DC and just so helpful in connecting me to re-entry organisations that I would meet later in the week. Connected CJ Meenan who co-founded Open for Business Ventures who runs re-entry and business support programs out of New York.  Will definitely be researching this further to understand the work they do supporting incarcerated individuals and returning citizens to start up a business.

I took the time to attend a couple of seminars organised by Techstars. Ryan Kuder was the facilitator and I learned how to give a great 30sec elevator pitch:

Who I am

What I do

Why it’s important

What’s next?

Sounds simple, but surprising how many people start with a life story / company history and lots of numbers. (Sounds like my first attempt!)

I learned about the Super Mario analogy. Super Mario eats a “power flower” and becomes Awesome Super Mario. Sell the outcome not the product!

I also bumped into Marcus Bullock from Flikshop again (not really stalking him) and learned about their education program. Worth a closer look.


So onwards to the next meet up: Brian Ferguson – Director of the Mayor’s Office for Returning Citizens was generous with his time to enable me to learn of the programs on offer to support re-entry. There was clearly significant similarities with the UK in that housing, finance, education and family were the cornerstones to build a firm foundation on. The third sector plays a major role in this area, and work closely with his office.

One of the many highlights of my stay was to connect with Changing Perceptions. They run the Aspire Program on behalf of DSBLD and I was fortunate enough to be invited to their graduation ceremony. More than a dozen men and women had completed an intensive 6 month program to develop their entrepreneurial skills and work towards staring their own businesses. All the graduates also received their business licences as part of the program and were either in pre-start up or growth phase. Some were also employed as part of their journey to self-sustainability.

Over 50 formerly incarcerated men and women had successfully graduated over the last 4 programs, and to their knowledge less than 2% (that’s just 1 person) has re-offended. Kimberley Nelson (The Director of Program and Operations) was able to walk me through their program, which included a significant element around personal reflection, analysis of behaviours and how to grow and develop themselves in the future in a supportive environment.

Out of the first program Will Avila started up Clean Decisions. Now in its third year of trading, and some steep learning curves navigated it is a successful company employing only formerly incarcerated citizens in its cleaning, landscaping and event support business. Will leads his company by example and is a great advocate of the program. It was great to meet up with him at the event.

I was told by the team and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to keep some time spare in my itinerary as you never know who you will meet on the way. This tip was most useful as through the networking events and connections I was able to talk to Katie Leonard who is a Founding Partner of ZERO Model: NoVa which is a social enterprise business incubator providing life changing employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. After a quick chat on the phone Katie was able to free up some time so I hopped on the subway and headed over to meet with her. I learned of their model to enable people to pursue their goals of employment, entrepreneurship and independence.  Her Talent Director Lisa D’Alonzo works with returning citizens to place them within organisations seeking highly qualified and experienced employees that are motivated to add value to their business. Their model also encourages entrepreneurship and have supported successful enterprises in painting / decorating and landscaping.

They were currently in the process of relocating to new offices, so were using their skilled workforce to convert their premises into a welcoming environment that can showcase the skills. A truly talented team right across the board.

My DC travels took a detour down on a greyhound bus to Charlottesville to meet with Whitney and Scott from Resilience Education. This organisation runs 3 programs in correctional facilities:

1: Financial Literacy

2: Entrepreneurship

3: Foundations in Business

I had the opportunity to attend an evening session in Dillwyn Men’s Correctional Facility. This session was to bring together the applicants that had been shortlisted to attend the final interviews to start one of the three programs above. Over 50 men had applied to be part of the 2 cohorts due to start the following week.

The interview were carried out by Whitney and Scott as well as 4 second year MBA students from the Darden School of Business that are going to be the volunteer tutors as part of their studies. The programs will be running for 2 evenings per week, 2 hours per session. They also allowed me to participate in the process which led to some interesting conversations with the potential participants.

Resilience Education programs are accredited by the Darden Business School (part of the University of Virginia) and is seen as exemplar practice in this sector. I was privileged to gain in depth knowledge of their programs and plans for the future.


My final event was fittingly the Business Pitch Competition for DC Start up Week. 6 entrepreneurs had 4 minutes to showcase their business to try and secure some hard cash and in-kind support. Twenty Tables founder and CEO Alex Cohen won out in a hard fought yet friendly battle showcasing his app that connected price conscious customers with high quality lunches and dinners. His business also has a social mission with donations equivalent to 5 meals given to charity partners for every 20 meals ordered by the customer.

(Alex is second from the right)



So my final thoughts as I leave DC and head off to Raleigh in North Carolina:

  • There is a change in the perception of organisations that formerly incarcerated individuals have a value that can be utilised and the importance of the work by the non-profit sector cannot be underestimated.
  • Enabling and supporting men and women to understand themselves so they can grow and develop into a version on themselves they can be proud underpins everything being achieved.
  • I have learned a lot and have a lot to learn. what a week!

After a varied and interesting week in San Francisco I headed off to be welcomed by Defy Ventures Nebraksa, based in Omaha. They currently operate in 4 correctional facilities and are expanding to a fifth facility later this year. They also have a re-entry program that works with graduates of their CEO of Your New Life program to find employment or become fully fledged CEO’s of their incorporated companies.
Through the dedication and generosity of their time the team enabled me to engage with many elements of the program. I attended a pitch practice event at York Correctional Facility for Women and was able to meet with their class that were making final preparations for their pitching competition and graduation the following day. There was an opportunity for me to talk to the EIT’s and learn of their plans for the future and how Defy had enabled them to transform and change their hustle. They clearly had a passion for their futures being able to give some business coaching was very rewarding.
The next day was the big one. It was the culmination of 7 months of hard work and dedication. The EIT’s were to pitch their business ideas to panels of volunteers trying to secure up to $500 of start-up capital upon release. They had 3 minutes to pitch and be grilled by the volunteers. At the end of the first round of pitches 8 were selected to go through to the semi-finals. A further 3 pitches to different panels resulted in a final 5 being selected. At this point a well-earned lunch was provided and it gave a chance for a little light relief.
After lunch, family and friends were welcomed with the traditional high five welcome. After some emotional welcomes we settled down and the final 5 made one last pitch to everyone. All were welcome to vote for their favourite.
The event was also the graduation day, so the EIT’s put on their caps and gowns and proudly walked around the chapel waving to their loved one and stepped on stage to receive their certificates, including 2 from national and local colleges. It was an emotional time.
After all that, it was time to reveal who had won. The winning pitch was to set up a therapeutic dance studio which was greeted with jubilation and generosity from the others. In all, $1500 was pledged by Defy to support the ideas upon release. It truly was a great day for all.
The week concluded with a visit to Omaha Correction Facility where I had the pleasure of volunteering with 15 others to support EIT’s who were nearing the completion of their program. They were put through their paces in delivering personal statements, taking part in mock interviews and having their business ideas evaluated. It all of course was done with honesty, humility and the unique Defy culture. The level of appreciation of the EIT’s was clear to see.
During my time in Omaha, I also had the pleasure of meeting with EIT’s that are studying the program in the community, either as learners on work release from Community Corrections or signed up after release. The ability have that support is invaluable.
Defy also lead by example. Their newly appointed Re-entry specialist is a Defy Graduate and was part of the first cohort at Omaha Correctional Facility. Jason has been employed to support released graduates to find their path to employment or start up their business. Re-entry can be daunting with housing, finance, family and probation all impacting on the person. For Jason to go back to the place he graduated at and for the peer mentors to see him standing alongside his Defy team members was as powerful message to say Defy works.
So as I look to move onto Washington DC what are the key messages?
You can be entrepreneurial both as an employee and the CEO.
The line between volunteers and EIT’s is closer than I thought.
You have to know yourself, forgive yourself and believe in yourself to transform as a person into someone that can be loved and valued.

PS..A few pictures from the Defy Northern California have been made available..see below

San Francisco..gone but not forgotten

My week here in San Francisco has been really great. I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people and organisations along the way courtesy of my Winston Churchill Travelling Grant. If you are not aware I am in the US for a month exploring how Prisoner Entrepreneurship can be used as a way of reducing recidivism.

I met up with Rebecca Charles, the new CEO of L’Chaim Foods, it produces artisan Kosher food for corporate clients such as Google, as well as private events such as weddings. It was started by Alex Shandrovsky as a company with a social mission. The company supports returning citizens by developing their culinary skills and providing employment opportunities. Rebecca was generous enough to enable me to spend a few hours with her (over a nice beer and lunch) to learn of the challenges faced and the exciting plans to open the L’chaim Academy to enable support for even more returning citizens.


Next stop was a day at the Soleadad Correctional Facility for Men. I was fortunate enough to have the day alongside 20+ volunteers supporting Entrepreneurs in Training (EIT’s) half way through their CEO of your New Life program run by the amazing Defy Ventures Northern California. We spent the day listening to business ideas, EIT’s personal pitches and how they intend to have a new life on release. It was really humbling and inspiring. This was all set within a back drop of being greeted by a “high five tunnel”, whoops and cheers and having to introduce myself after busting some “dad dancing” moves to get to the lucky no evidence of this exists… YET. I am told their may be some official footage.

Next on the agenda was attending the Reinventing Re-entry Conference held at Googles’ Community Space. It bought together a significant number of organisation involved in Criminal Justice from Not for Profits, Lawyers, Advocacy Groups and CEO’s of many organisations that had used entrepreneurship as a way to change their former lives.

Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop gave a rousing speech on his journey where he now runs a business that uses technology for families to send in postcards to their loved ones in custody, keeping up the family link which is so important.


Staying on this theme, I also met with Hayley – the Business Development Co-ordinator from The Last Mile. We talked about the coding workshop and development centre they have based INSIDE San Quentin jail (and others). The men are able to learn valuable skills that can be used to gain employment in the technology sector or consider becoming freelance. The great thing is that graduates can access paid work in the development centre to further their skills and showcase their work. I was told that ALL graduates that have been released are now in further training or have secured employment with NO recidivism – That’s AMAZING.

So my final stop was to meet with Delancey Street Foundation. They have been in existence since the 1970’s and enrol participants on a two year supported living program. They gain vocational, administrative and retail skills whilst being supported to overcome their re-entry barriers. These include tailoring, car maintenance, art, removals, gardening services as well as culinary skills in a cafe and restaurant. They are proud of their work and I had the opportunity to see some of the products.


It would have been rude not to sample their culinary skills, so I had a delicious Blackened Swordfish followed by Summer Fruits Meringue. Yum!


So as I head off to Omaha for a week with Defy Ventures Nebraska, there is much to learn and bring back to the UK. I am sure the men and women who are touched by the criminal justice system would much prefer to be looking at the picture below on the left, rather than the one of the right (OK it is Alcatraz but you get my point)


Thanks for reading


Less than a week to go!

So, heading off on my travels to the US next Wednesday morning. Up nice and early to be at Manchester Airport for 6.30. My itinerary exploring prisoner entrepreneurship is pretty well sorted, always a small space for something exciting to add that I come across.

My month long trip will take me from New York to San Francisco to Omaha (Nebraska) to Washington DC to Raleigh (North Carolina and then back to New York for the final leg before heading back to Manchester on the “Red Eye” Sat night / Sun Morning arriving back home on the 7th October.

Really excited to meet with some amazing organisations and people that have made my trip possible by being generous with their precious time so I can learn of the great programs and initiatives they run to support prisoners and returning citizens to develop business skills and have a crime free future.

I’ll send posts and updates here and on my twitter / linked in feeds in each place to share my experiences.



The Journey Begins

This is my first blog post about my travels to the US in September to explore Prisoner Entrepreneurship and the journey men and women undertake to lead a crime free life on release from prison.

My travels will take me to New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Omaha, Raleigh and back to New York.

I’ll be updating my blog from now on with my planning and preparation so far and the excitement and anticipation of my upcoming travels.

My travels would not be possible without a travelling grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and my employer Novus.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton