Small businesses: Building community through hiring

Many entrepreneurs choose to use their businesses to become building blocks to help improve their community, taking steps like hiring rehabilitated convicted felons.

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    Finding employment for former offenders significantly reduces the probability that they will return to prison in the future. Small business can play a key role in this process, the author argues.
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Owning a business gives entrepreneurs the freedom to pursue more than simply income and wealth from their businesses. Many choose to use their businesses to become building blocks to help improve their community.

Several students at Belmont University are participating in a program addressing one challenge faced by every community: Inmates are released from prison every day back into the community and face a difficult transition back into society. TRIO, which stands for Transformation Reconciliation from the Inside Out, uses education as a tool to help build a path for successful reintegration of former offenders from prison back into the community.

One important partner in this process is local employers. Finding employment for former offenders significantly reduces the probability that they will return to prison in the future.

In the first phase of this program, TRIO brings together college students and inmate students in classes that are offered at the Charles Bass Correctional Complex Annex in Nashville. The goal of the classes is to engage the inmates jointly with college students in education to help foster understanding and reconciliation through community support.

Some of the students are trying to help with the next step in this program by identifying employers who are willing to hire the offenders. This is not always an easy task.

"I am especially discouraged when employers see only a crime rather than an individual working toward reconciliation," said Lindsey Ricker, an entrepreneurship major at Belmont who is participating in TRIO. "Many employers take one glance at a checked felony box and throw a job application in the trash."

"I have confidence in our guys," added Eliza Hemmings, a sociology and French double major from Belmont. "I have confidence that given support and the right opportunity that they will be successful in their re-entry process. It is not possible to change the past -- what's done is done. But what we can do as a larger community is support their will to change, their will to contribute to society in a positive way and rebuild their lives. We as community members have a choice as well, and I choose to support my inside friends on their journey toward success."

Employers who are participating find benefits from hiring men from this program.

"Which Wich (a sandwich shop franchise) has found the employees re-entering society to be hard-working, determined and bringing a positive attitude to the other employees and customers," said Tracie Maybaum, a Which Wich general manager. "One of the most beneficial assets they bring to work is their attitude. Theirs positivity influences other employees, and their gratitude is motivating."

The government can assist employers who are willing to hire former offenders. The U.S. Department of Labor insures qualified former offenders bonding for a range of $5,000-$25,000 for six months. And those who hire a qualified former offender within a year of release may be eligible for up to $9,000 in tax credits.

Hiring former offenders certainly brings with it some risks. But accepting these risks can help contribute toward building a stronger community. And after all, isn't entrepreneurship all about taking risks?

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