PEP: Breaking the cycles of generational poverty and incarceration through workforce development and entrepreneurship training.

Uniting business executives and inmates through entrepreneurial passion and servant leadership to transform lives, families and communities.

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  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Man

Where are you making a difference?

Texas: Austin (78741) Texas: Dallas (75231) Texas: Houston (77092)

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise
  • Civic Engagement
  • Development & Prosperity
  • Human Rights & Equality

Date Started


Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)


  • $1m - $5m

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)

Twitter URL

Facebook URL

LinkedIn URL

1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

“What if you were known in every situation only for the worst thing you’ve ever done?” That question, posed to me by the founder of PEP, haunted me. She had recently started PEP in an effort to help convicted felons reboot their lives. “If nobody will hire these guys, at least we can teach them how to start and run honest businesses.” Supporting themselves and their families would help them avoid returning to crime and to prison. I had never thought much about prisoners, but as a taxpayer transforming tax takers into taxpayers was something I could get excited about! And I did. In only one trip inside to judge a business plan competition, any skepticism I had was transformed into a deep respect for them. --Bert Smith, CEO Emeritus

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Formerly incarcerated men and women are labeled “ex-cons” for life. This stigma reduces their chances to find gainful employment that pays a livable wage and to secure safe housing. The systematic effect of this perpetual punishment is that 75% of these individuals return to prison. These challenges are not limited to individuals. Their families face significant challenges, and children of incarcerated parents are especially vulnerable.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

PEP’s services begin inside prison with a rigorous application and screening process that selects the top 900 applicants from a pool of 10,000 eligible men and women. Participants enter a three-month character development program. This phase precedes our core business curriculum: a six-month, in-prison “mini MBA” program. PEP’s in-prison business course is taught by PEP staff, board members and business executives. The phase culminates with a Business Plan Competition. Each student conceives of a business to start upon release, researches the industry, writes a full business plan and pitches this plan in a “Shark Tank” format to groups of executive volunteers. In-prison services are followed by comprehensive post-release services. PEP has dedicated re-entry case managers who help participants with our transitional housing and navigating parole and social services. PEP also provides a weekly continuing education program and business start-up support services. According to a recent study (see attached ICIC report), PEP graduates create an annual economic impact of $122.5 million from their businesses, and the estimated annual savings provided to taxpayers is over $4.3M.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

I Was Determined to Change: A Participant's Journey, Rocky A. I began to pursue transformation in books, classes and numerous studies. But until PEP recruited me I had no hope. PEP provided me with the tools of 10 Driving Values, effective leadership skills and character assessments to apply and stand on. I made the decision to be released to a PEP transition house in Houston instead of going home to my comfort zone. As promised, PEP met me at the gate; my transition coordinator was waiting for me. The PEP family and network helped me with my basic needs for living, transportation, proper paperwork and employment leads. I soon landed a position with Building Products Plus, became a supervisor and recommended nine other PEP brothers for employment. Today, I am married and have my own business selling and installing generators and doing electrical work.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

Our population of incarcerated and recently released citizens has been unaddressed for a long time. About two-thirds of PEP participants are African-American or Hispanic who grew up in LMI neighborhoods, and ALL are lower income by virtue of not being able to work for compensation while they were incarcerated. Our work brings together well-connected and successful business executives to befriend, serve and empower our participants.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • work status
  • race/ethnicity
  • socio-economic class
  • other (please specify on question 5a)

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Other organizations, including Defy Ventures, The Last Mile, Prison Insight Project, Opening Doors, Hudson Link and Prison University Project focus on either inside OR outside. We are unique in focusing on an "inside out" strategy. We believe the journey to re-entry and economic stability begins when a person is locked up and NOT on the day he or she walks out the gate. Our approach combines character and leadership development, business education and the creation of a new positive peer group--a network of graduates and executives.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

We have over 2,100 graduates, and more than 1500 have been welcomed home. Our graduates achieve 100% employment within 90 days of release and an average starting wage 137% above minimum wage ($17.70). Our graduates have launched more than 360 businesses with several grossing over $1million per year. The ICIC Study demonstrates the tremendous economic and fiscal impact in Texas. Most released graduates open checking and savings accounts quickly to improve their credit scores. Of those individuals out for three or more years, about 40% own their own home. Most importantly, fathers are in touch with their children at least once a month, if not on a daily or weekly basis. "I had a small CD from a tax refund before I was locked up. I had no other banking relationship and didn't understand why I wouldn't just have my money in a pocket or my drawer." Class 10 Grad

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

We successfully expanded our program from Houston to both Dallas and Austin. We are in discussions with Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania regarding a PEP-type program in those states. These are high-level conversations with state legislators, Department of Corrections officials, and business leaders. We have also had talks at the federal level about a program focused on workforce development and entrepreneurship before prisoners are released. Consulting and franchise models to bring the PEP model to other states are being developed.

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizational Growth
  • Organizing Conferences
  • Other

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

PEP leverages the work of volunteers to meet critical needs and impact our mission. We also developed social enterprises to bolster earned income and expand our job placement and business ownership opportunities for graduates. These for-profit enterprises include Auto Lab of Texas, a franchisee auto repair shop. Also, participants living in our transition houses pay modest amounts for rent. We believe in the near future these revenue streams will generate 40-50% of our annual budget.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

We fulfill our mission with a full and part-time staff of 28, 75% of whom are graduates of the program and uniquely qualified for this work. In addition, we have a governing board of 9 members and 56 advisory board members in Dallas, Houston and across the US. These board members are empowered to tell our story and recruit volunteers and donors. We will continue to hire graduates to serve in many roles and may develop a dedicated national team to support our expansion to other states

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French)
  • Hispanic, Latino/a, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)
  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian, etc)
  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
  • Native American or Alaska Native (for example: Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupial Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income community
  • Other

If you replied "Other" in the question above, please specify. (optional)

Incarcerated men and women.

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Participated in previous Ashoka challenges
  • Ashoka page or contact

Organization name

Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Program Design Clarity

In Prison Leadership and Character Development and Workforce Development and Entrepreneurship Training. Our work is done in 4 prison units in Texas and is a 35 hour per week program, 5 days a week. The program is delivered by staff, volunteers and servant leaders, who are graduates of the program that have not yet been released from prison. Upon release, our case managers work with our participants from our offices in Austin, Dallas and Houston. On a daily basis, our participants are spending their time either securing social services or employment under the oversight of our case managers.

Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?

  • education / literacy
  • entrepreneurship
  • other

If you marked "Other" in the question above, please specify:

Mentoring and coaching.

Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work

  • Process innovation (execution of a new or considerably improved production or delivery method)
  • Institutional innovation (Creation or changes in organizational structures, the setting up of new types of financial intermediaries, or to changes in the legal and supervisory framework)

Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

PEP has formed results-oriented partnerships that allow us to expand our impact in the areas of in-prison leadership (Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Management and Training Corporation), business education (Baylor, SMU, TCU, Univ. of Houston), spiritual guidance (Arborlawn UMC, Gateway Church, St. Martin’s, St. Luke’s UMC), and re-entry services (One Man’s Treasure, Career Gear, Operation ID, PeopleFund (formerly The Plan Fund), Ways to Work Car Loans, Workforce Solutions ).

If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?

We would employ an entrepreneur-in-residence, ideally a highly experienced serial entrepreneur, who could act as a start-up coach to our graduates. He/she would work with the entrepreneurs as they prepare to launch their businesses and would help them with any challenges they encounter.

Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?

In 2007, the program was recognized by the Manhattan Institute for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2007 and 2013, we received the Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award from the State of Texas. In 2018, we received the Community Supporter of the Year Award from Management and Training Corporation, one of our in prison partners.

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 0%

Yes/maybe - 66.7%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 100%

Clarity of Writing - 33.3%

Idea Originality - 66.7%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 66.7%

Impact measurement - 66.7%

Impact Potential - 33.3%

Financial Sustainability - 0%

Team - 66.7%

Partnerships - 33.3%

Potential to scale - 66.7%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 0%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 0%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 0%

Impact measurement - 50%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 100%

Team - 0%

Partnerships - 50%

Potential to scale - 50%

View more

Attachments (5)

Lives Changed E&I.pdf

Stories of how PEP changes and transforms the lives of our executive volunteers and our participants.

Juan Chapa.pdf

Before and After PEP and what a difference it makes in an individual life.

Just the Facts-2018.pdf

PEP Statistics by Demographics, Programs and Impact

34291 by the numbers A8.pdf

2017 PEP Highlights


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