While he was studying at New York's Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO), Brooklyn-based business owner Todd Pemberton learned the basics of entrepreneurship, from how to optimize pricing to how to market his services effectively. How to hire an ex-convict, however, was not in the lesson plan.
But since 2008, the 43-year old founder of the pest control company Bugs Are Gone has been visiting both state and federal penitentiaries, mentoring people on how to become business owners. About 90 percent of the people he's employed in his own business over the years have been through the prison system.
It's all part of Pemberton's fierce commitment to giving back. Since the day he graduated from WIBO, Pemberton has been teaching WIBO classes, mentoring WIBO students and he's even planning his own pest control school, which he hopes to launch by 2011.
On May 11, WIBO awarded Pemberton the Walter Geier Inspiration Award for his success as a teacher, a role that Pemberton says has made him a better businessman.
What does it mean to you to win the Walter Geier Inspiration Award?
It means that someone recognizes I'm really just here to help. I live by that. My pastor told me years ago, "Don't expect your give-back to come from those you gave to." It doesn't work that way. You do, and you do, and you do and you're going to get from somewhere. So I do, and I do and I do and I got recognized with the WIBO Inspiration Award.
Why did you start teaching in prisons in the first place?
Most inmates are already entrepreneurs, because most of them are in jail for selling drugs. They have the entrepreneurial spirit already. They need to take that and put it into something positive. These are guys who know they're going to get out soon and they want to be productive.
Teaching is one thing, but why did you start employing people who had been in prison?
I wanted to give back to them what was given to me, not that I've been in prison, but just because you were in prison doesn't make you a bad person. I remember one [prisoner]; we were talking and he said, "I have my pest control license, I worked in the field. I got caught up in some craziness. I'm here, but I'm not a bad person. When I come out, is it ok if I call you?" I was like, Yes! He did come in, and we did hire him. I have high-profile accounts that I can't send them to, but I also have accounts that I can, and everybody needs a chance.
How has teaching and training affected you as a businessman?
You always learn as a teacher. The good thing about going back and continually doing this is it keeps it fresh in your mind. As I grow, I'm bringing someone else up behind me. Some of my technicians wanted to start their own businesses, and I've helped them. I tell everybody, there's enough money out there. I'll never make it all. So if you're looking to start your own business, I'll help you.
So, you're planning to set up pest control classes in prisons?
I want to go into the prisons and teach the inmates who want to learn. It will teach them while they're in there. A lot of them want to learn, because they know that they can get jobs, but they have to wait to get out to learn the trade, so why not bring the trade to them?
What's your motivation to keep teaching?
The responses I get from the people. One thing that no one can ever take from someone else is knowledge. I'm helping them better themselves, and that's a great feeling for me.