Darden School Class Turns Felons Into Entrepreneurs

30 November 2012

Thirteen felons nearing release from prison plan to launch their own businesses after graduating from an intense course on entrepreneurship taught by University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Greg Fairchild.

The inmates, incarcerated at the Dillwyn Correctional Center in Buckingham County, Virginia, graduated from the pioneering program on 4 August 2012, sporting caps and gowns and carrying detailed businesses plans with which to open shop after they are set free.

Kirk Smith, one of the graduates, will be released in less than 18 months. “I am scared,” said Smith of the daunting process of making a living in a tough economic time as an ex-inmate. “But now I have more confidence.”

With Professor Fairchild’s help, Smith wrote a business plan to launch a custom painting business. He’s also learned about networking, finances and marketing. The business plan, the culmination of the course, has been vetted not only by Fairchild, who taught the course with help of Darden students, but by Smith’s fellow inmates.

“At times I was pulling my hair out,” Smith said. “But now I believe I can start this business. I know I would have failed miserably without this class. It’s changed my outlook.” The two-hour class was held at the prison three times a week for 11 weeks. Subjects taught included, values and concept development, marketing and advertising, operational effectiveness, partnerships and alliances, and the pros and cons of business expansion.

“I believe people can change,” said Fairchild of his incarcerated students. “I believe educational institutions can make a big difference. Darden is a top business school and that kind of thing is our stock in trade. We usually get the most prepared, the most advantaged students. I believe we can use our skills to teach the least prepared and the least advantaged. I believe this is possible.”

The inmates range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. Two have college degrees. All are remarkably well-spoken and thoughtful. All have committed serious crimes ranging from robbery to burglary to murder.

“This can be a story about redemption and new beginnings,” said Fairchild, who has made a career out of helping the disenfranchised. “The inmates have inspired us with their eagerness to start up the next chapter of their lives and a new business. What we don’t know is how many will pass the ultimate test.”

That test asks one simple question. How many of the graduates will succeed and stay out of prison? The answer may take up to three years to determine, said Fairchild.

When they are released, these men will face a daunting challenge: With the help of the program, they will try to build a new life and a new business and to overcome their blemished record. Currently about 13,500 inmates are released from Virginia’s prisons each year, with about 29% returning to prison within three years. Recidivism is expensive, said Fairchild, and unemployment is a major cause of it. The Virginia Department of Corrections has given full support to his entrepreneurship-based Reentry Program — one of only two in the country. The second one, the Texas Prison Entrepreneur Program, is based in Huston.

The newly minted entrepreneurs seem determined to succeed. Their graduation was an emotional one. About 60 people, including relatives, prison staff, Warden Earl Barksdale and Fairchild cheered on the inmates at the ceremony. There were also speeches and refreshments.

“I noticed a couple of folks were visibly moved,” said Fairchild — including himself. “It was quite a morning and the journey has just begun.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Sophie Zunz
Director of Media Relations
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia