When it comes to pursuing the American dream of owning a business, everyone deserves a chance—even if you’ve made a mistake or two in your life. That’s the philosophy behind a new program in Wood County that provides inmates with the opportunity to go through an entrepreneurship “boot camp” where they learn the basics of starting your own business to prepare them to give it a try once they are released.
The program, a partnership between the Heart of Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce in Wisconsin Rapids and the Wood County Sheriff’s Department, starts with the premise that those convicted of minor crimes have should have the same opportunity to start a business as anyone else—and that teaching them these skills can set them up to succeed financially once they are done serving their sentences, ultimately reducing the likelihood of recidivism.
“It is sometimes challenging for those emerging from jail to find employment in the community,” explains Melissa Reichert, president of the chamber. “This program gives them the connections and framework to develop a business of their own rather than relying on others.”
The content of the entrepreneurial “boot camp” resembles hundreds of workshops and classes offered around Wisconsin to give non-incarcerated individuals the training and resources they need to start a business. Participants learn from local experts about issues like financing, marketing, management and how to develop a business plan. When the daylong workshop is finished, the would-be entrepreneurs are able to present their business ideas to a panel of experts and get immediate feedback on whether their plans are viable.
In the case of the Wood County boot camp, all of the participants are under the custody or supervision of the Wood County Jail (some as part of the facility’s electronic monitoring or work release programs).
Reichert says the program provides the inmates with knowledge and expertise they are unlikely to get anywhere else. And the hope is that once they’re out of jail, they can put those new skills to use by either starting a business or holding down a family-supporting job. Upon completion of the program, Reichert believes graduates will have more self-confidence, better presentation skills and access to community resources.
The program is being funded in part with a $17,000 Entrepreneurship Support Grant from WEDC. The grants are available to develop or expand innovative programs aimed at advancing the climate for entrepreneurship throughout the state.
“The primary goal of the Entrepreneurship Support Grant Program is to encourage organizations around the state to come up with ideas for promoting entrepreneurship that haven’t been tried before,” explains Aaron Hagar, WEDC’s vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation. “What’s happening in Wood County is something that hasn’t been tried elsewhere in Wisconsin, and we’re hoping it could become a prototype for the rest of the state.”
The Heart of Wisconsin Chamber held its first class in April with about 50 participants. More boot camps are planned for this year, and the ultimate goal is to help participants launch 25 new businesses.
“The response from inmates has been fantastic,” Reichert says. “Boot camp was offered as an optional activity, and many chose to participate because of their interest in becoming a business owner. They are very welcoming of the opportunity, and already are developing business plans for restaurants, food trucks, auto repair facilities, maintenance and other areas of interest.”
The boot camp is just one of the ways the chamber and Sheriff’s Department work together to help inmates pursue their dreams. Inmates who are interested also can receive ongoing individualized mentoring from local business professionals and Sheriff’s Department employees.
“Our goals are simple,” Reichert says. “It’s to spark an interest in small-business development, give people hope and show them that past mistakes don’t have to determine their future.”