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Seattle University


Unlocking Potential

Written by Mike Thee
November 8, 2011

Earning a living has become a widespread concern in these troubling economic times. For inmates preparing to reenter society, the challenge is even more daunting. But thanks to a program involving Albers students, a great many incarcerated men and women are learning what it takes to succeed as small business owners when they get out. 

For the past five years, seniors in the Albers School’s capstone course and students in the Students in Free Enterprise Program have been working with inmates at Monroe Correctional Complex to develop plans for ventures the inmates hope to launch when they’re released.  

The partnership was forged by Albers Professor of Management Harriet Stephenson, and Pat Donnelly, founder of the NulLife Reentry Program at Monroe. NuLife, which has been recognized by the governor for its impact in reducing recidivism, is a training and education program that takes a multifaceted approach to assuring successful reentry. The business plan program is a way for many inmates to take control of their own financial destinies. 

Albers Professor Harriet Stephenson (far end of table) and her students meet with inmates at Monroe Correctional Complex to discuss the inmates' business plans. (Photo courtesy of "Impact," State of Washington Department of Corrections Newsletter)
Donnelly is grateful for Seattle University’s involvement. “(Our program’s) ongoing success relies heavily on the support that student teams from Albers provide to the participants,” he says. So far, Albers students have worked on about 20 business plans. The ventures are as varied as a greeting cards producer, green janitorial service and cosmetology start-up. 

The process begins with the inmates doing preliminary outlines of their plans. Donnelly then pitches the businesses to the Albers capstone class, which considers these as well as other ventures brought forward by other potential clients in the community. If the Albers students choose a Monroe plan, they work with Donnelly as an intermediary to create in-depth plans. Each student typically devotes anywhere from 70 to 120 hours to the project.  

Part of the value SU’s students bring to the process is the ability to do research online. The inmates don’t have access to the Internet, which is no small obstacle—“Especially for marketing issues, if you’re trying to have any realistic idea about the demand for your product, you’re doing a lot of by guess and by golly from the inside,” explains Stephenson.  

Of course, the students’ expertise is just as important. “They add a very valuable piece to this,” Stephenson says. “They help make the business plans more realistic and focused on what is needed to actually use self-employment as a job-creation device.” 

Because the inmates’ ventures continue to develop long after the capstone courses are over, Stephenson enlisted the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) group at Albers to advise the inmates for the long haul. With faculty sponsor Leo Simpson, the Lawrence K Johnson Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, SIFE helps the inmates refine and implement the plans. One SIFE team won a national award in 2009 for its help with a Native America art business launched by a former Monroe inmate. 

For Stephenson, the partnership with NuLife continues her longstanding work on inmate reentry initiatives. She has worked with inmates on a volunteer basis and was part of a group that founded a nonprofit, Prison Education Network (today known as University Behind Bars). Her perspective on prisons was shaped by a visit she took to a correctional facility during her undergraduate years, and she hopes the experience at Monroe similarly makes SU’s students “more sensitive to the issues (facing inmates) and more aware of the solutions, especially the role of education and entrepreneurship.” 

“There’s that whole thinking that (inmates) shouldn’t have any rights and they should be locked up and punished, and yet when they get out they should be productive members of society. But with what?” 

Albers students are now helping to provide some of the “what.”