Drs. Jean Kabongo and Jessica Grosholz teach an entrepreneurship class each week to prison inmates.

USFSM researchers visit prison to teach weekly business classes

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: April 14, 2017

SARASOTA, Fla. (April 14, 2017) – Once a week, two USF Sarasota-Manatee professors trade in their campus classrooms for an entirely different educational experience: They teach entrepreneurship at a maximum-security state prison.

Since September, Dr. Jean Kabongo, an associate professor of business, and Dr. Jessica Grosholz, an assistant professor of criminology, have spent three hours each Monday teaching business skills to 15 inmates at Hardee Correctional Institution, an hour and a quarter east of the USFSM campus.

The class, “Introduction to Entrepreneurship,” teaches how to launch, grow and maintain a small company, but it also delves into lessons the professors hope will impact the inmates in positive ways during their incarceration and after their release.

The idea, the professors explained, is to encourage the inmates to develop entrepreneurial mindsets to recognize opportunities and generate ideas for startup businesses, to research the market for those businesses and develop strategies to fund, grow and keep them going.

Indirectly, the inmates are learning to focus their energies in a positive way on a single goal, to take responsibility for their venture and to recognize that it’s OK to stumble and start again – the fate of many first-time entrepreneurs.

“Once they serve their sentences in prison they will come out, and when they come out they must be prepared to do something to be reintroduced to society once again,” said Dr. Kabongo, who teaches strategic management and entrepreneurship at USFSM.

“As an educator, it gives me satisfaction to know that through our program they will learn lessons to help them, hopefully, to become productive citizens and economically independent,” he said.

The course runs 10 weeks and concludes with a graduation ceremony where the inmates make a minute-long “elevator pitch” describing their company and product. Afterward, they receive certificates of completion and a book by a former inmate turned entrepreneur, Joseph Robinson.

One of the most popular courses ever at Hardee, about 900 of the institution’s 1,500 inmates signed up to take the spring course, which includes lectures, classroom discussion and homework. Prison officials narrowed the class to 15 to make it manageable.

The professors said the dedication shown by the inmates was evident at the start. Although many lack a formal education – the course’s only requirement is the ability to speak English and to read – they pored over the material, arriving to class each Monday prepared to learn.

“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my career because of how appreciative they were that we were even offering the class,” Dr. Grosholz said. “They were so grateful to us.”

The class this past Monday proved especially moving as it represented the inmates’ final class where they gave their elevator speeches and received their certificates.

As the prisoners came to the front of the classroom, many offered heartfelt thanks to Drs. Grosholz and Kabongo, as well as to Dr. Jane Rose, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, who was also in attendance.

Some, among them Derrick Johnson, struggled to keep their emotions in check. “Prison is a hard place, a hard place, and the fact that you come out every week from the university, it means a great deal to all of us,” he said before receiving his certificate.

Making their elevator pitches, the inmates described a gamut of potential businesses, from a landscaping venture, to a barbershop to a mobile car-detailing company to a mixed-martial arts (MMA) training program for women.

The impetus for that business is that the MMA community apparently lacks skilled trainers for female fighters. As the sport’s popularity surges, it’s only a matter of time before more women clamor for expert trainers to up their performances.

Dr. Kabongo agreed the MMA plan and others he heard could become going concerns: “Many could work.”

However, the two researchers did not launch the class to help the inmates get rich after their release. The class was organized in an effort to evaluate the impacts of entrepreneurship training on the inmates. Because the professors couldn’t locate studies relevant to their ideas about the positive influence entrepreneurship brings, they decided to conduct their own program evaluation.

Next fall, they expect to have a research assistant, likely a student, after receiving a $10,000 grant from the USF System to aid their research efforts.

The professors’ classroom sits in a non-descript, one-story concrete-block building across a large compound rimmed by chain-linked fencing topped with razor wire. Once inside, however, it might resemble any other class, with a white board, rows of desks and a water fountain in the back. One difference sets it from most others: The room lacks modern technology, such as a video projector and computers, which forces the inmates to write everything by hand on paper – not that they seem to mind, though.

“I like anything that develops my mind,” said Johnson, explaining that he signed up for the course because, “It’s nice to focus on something positive in here.”

Another inmate, Richard Meissner, said he appreciated learning something, anything, to help on the outside. If he is released, he said, he hopes to launch a landscaping business.

He’s up for parole in May 2018 and figures a landscaping company is attainable with minimal up-front investment. He said the 10-week class encouraged him to streamline his business plan and contemplate how the company might differ from his competitors. He theorized that he might focus on customer service and niche markets.

“For an ex-con, I think it’s something that I can do right out the door,” he said.

Other inmates said they also enjoyed the challenge of developing a business, although many confided that just the fact that they were studying something relating to the outside world was enough.

“I like spending my time learning and doing something that’s different from everything else in here,” said Robert Anderson, 57, who proposed selling natural, organic beauty products.

He said he thought his proposition might find a niche audience as both an online retailer and wholesaler to health food stores and beauty suppliers. “Between the two of those, there’s a market for these products,” he said.

The professors said they have never felt anxious or endangered during their teaching experience, which was preceded by a safety course and came with devices that attached to their belts and go off by pressing a button.

In fact, if not for the location and the students’ matching light-blue uniforms, they might seem like any other students – except for another noticeable difference. The Hardee students welcomed homework assignments. The professors explained that they wanted the assignments to enable them to contemplate something besides prison and to eat up the hours of down time there.

“They were like sponges, absorbing as much information as we could give them,” Dr. Grosholz said. “They want an opportunity to change, and if we can give them some skills, an aptitude or mindset to be successful, that might help them to be better than when they went in.”

USFSM’s affiliation with Hardee has resulted in another productive exercise involving its inmates.

On Monday, the prison’s debate team will face off against a student-led team from USFSM. Two teams of four students will travel to Hardee on Monday morning to challenge its all-inmate debate team. The topic: whether to reinstate the draft.

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