Meet the graduating class of Missouri’s new prison entrepreneurship academy

In the visitors room of the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia, nine women stand dressed in bright blue caps and gowns. They’re the first to graduate from ASPIRE MO, a program designed to teach inmates the entrepreneurial skills to start a business once they leave prison.

The 20-week program teaches them various skills like market projections, advertising and feasibility studies. By the end of the course, they make a comprehensive business plan.

Kellie Ann Coats, director of the Missouri Women’s Council, said she came up with the idea during a meeting with the Anne Precythe, Missouri’s director of corrections. Coats was told that Missouri had the fastest-growing female prison population in the country.

Mary Maserang presents her business plan and expresses gratitude during commencement. Maserang wants to take over her family business after she leaves prison. | Zhihan Huang

“That really struck me,” Coats said. “I was like ‘Wow, what is going on, and what are we doing to help them?’”

Coats adapted part of the Missouri Women’s Business Center’s LaunchU program, designed to create business plans for women who are aspiring entrepreneurs, into part of the curriculum. The program also involves a strength-finder test and lessons from business owners. She also received help from private donors, the federal government and state agencies.

ASPIRE MO is the first in-prison program in Missouri that aims to teach entrepreneurial skills to inmates, with the goal to address employment issues and reduce recidivism rates for female offenders.

The Missouri recidivism rate for all prisoners is about 44%, according to a 2016 Missouri Department of Corrections report. Former prisoners often have trouble getting necessities like a job and livable wage. About half of former prisoners don’t have any earnings within a year of their release, and those that do often tend to work less than a full-time job for minimum wage, according to a Brookings Institution study.

Coats said the program gives them additional skills they could use after they are released.

“So we wanted to do something a little bit different than just typical job training per se because we needed them to have another tool in their toolbox when they re-enter into our community,” Coats said. “And that is potentially being their own boss.”

While ASPIRE is the only program within a jail that teaches entrepreneurial skills, nonprofits like Kansas City-based Determination, Inc. also aim to guide formerly incarcerated people through entrepreneurship.

Mary Maserang (from left), Brenda Ramsey, Nigaila Gibbs, Suliana Tonga and Emily Kirchhoff wait for their graduation ceremony to start. They were part of the first class of graduates from ASPIRE MO. | Zhihan Huang

Other states in the country also follow this trend. In Texas, for example, there’s the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. It seems that program has produced positive results. According to an impact analysis of the program, 57% of PEP business formed during 2004-2018 remained open.

Christine McDonald, a speaker at the graduation and advocate for incarcerated women, believes programs like this have the potential to reduce recidivism and make a positive change.

“I mean, we want these women to leave and stay out but be equipped to leave and stay out,” McDonald said. “And this gives them an opportunity to move beyond the barriers society bestows upon incarcerated persons.”

Mary Maserang (left) embraces her mother before graduating from ASPIRE MO. | Zhihan Huang

At the ASPIRE ceremony, graduates gave speeches about their proposed businesses. They ranged from fitness training to dog training and retail stores.

Lauren Avery, a graduate of the program, is looking to go into personal fitness in Wildwood, with her company Zero2Fit. She said it’s taken her 30 years for her to realize her passion for fitness. Taking the class made her consider all the elements of starting a business.

“There’s so much that goes into it that you don’t even realize. The financial part, the getting started, getting your small business license,” Avery said. “Just things you forget about, you think ‘Oh, I’m going to open a business on this time on this year,’ but there’s so much more that goes into that.”

Janiece Moore, another graduate who has been incarcerated for a little more than 21 years, says there’s never been a program like this. Moore said she wants to start a physical training business for the mobility impaired.

Coats says ASPIREMO will have two sessions each year. For now, the program will stay in Vandalia. But she says eventually, the program could expand to men’s and women’s prisons across the state.

“This program has been incredibly impactful not only for the women who completed the program, but for us, the people who are responsible for the care and safety of the population,” Precythe said. “… It’s a reminder of their potential and their abilities when they leave this place.”

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