If you get Hans Becker on the phone, plan on frequent interruptions. The owner of Armadillo Tree & Shrub in Dallas tends to multitask; he will stop a conversation in midsentence to give his staff instructions in a firm but polite tone. Becker's company, which provides landscaping for businesses and homeowners, is less than a year old but already employs eight and logs $10,000 a month in sales in high season. Such rapid growth has tested the first-time founder's managerial skills. "It's so hard to get professional help, man," he says.
If Becker sounds like any other harried business owner, he isn't. Prior to starting his company last May, he served a five-year prison term (his fourth incarceration) in a minimum-security correctional facility in Cleveland, Texas. Becker was in for a litany of parole violations that included simple assault, forging an ID, cocaine possession, and driving while intoxicated. Having spent a quarter of his 46 years behind bars, he might have passed all his time "watching TV, playing dominoes, gambling -- all that life is in a penitentiary," he says. Instead, in 2007, he joined the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit initiative that works with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to teach entrepreneurship to inmates. Upon his release, Becker took the skills he learned through PEP and started Armadillo.
Success stories like Becker's have been getting a lot of notice lately. In 2007, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City issued a study on the efficacy of PEP and similar programs in California, Illinois, New York, and elsewhere. The report observed that a common cause of recidivism is an ex-convict's difficulty in finding work. Though employers are not supposed to discriminate based on a prison record, many take a pass on job applicants who have served time. As daunting as it is to run a business, a former criminal who chooses that path may encounter fewer obstacles than if he were to send out a hundred resumés, says Catherine Rohr, PEP's founder and CEO.
Five years ago, Rohr gave up a career in private equity after going on a tour of a prison with a friend who had donated money to a ministry that works with inmates. Many of the prisoners Rohr met had gotten into trouble for dealing drugs. To her surprise, they displayed a keen understanding of business fundamentals, such as profit margins, cash flow, and sales. "When I met these guys," says Rohr, "I felt like the best ROI story ever was right in front of my face."
Rohr quit her job and went to work in the Texas correctional system. So far, 440 men have been through her program, which involves classroom time, mentoring, and a business-plan contest. Rohr and her staff also help inmates find housing upon release, set up bank accounts, and keep up with their parole officers. To date, 47 graduates have started businesses and five others now have jobs that pay $100,000 or more a year. (Over the five years, though, 105 other grads have landed back in jail.)
As for Hans Becker, since he left prison, he seems to have made the leap from repeat offender to serial entrepreneur. In November, he acquired an auto-detailing service, which he plans to operate in addition to his landscaping business. An accountant and a lawyer he met through PEP helped him put together the deal. "More than any one skill, PEP taught me that people in business would accept me for who I am, as long as I build a business that is solid and ethical," says Becker. "That gave me hope."