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Charlotte group trains those formerly incarcerated to start businesses

Jeremy Danner pulls out a packet with a needle that is used for surgeries at Atrium Health.
Elvis Menayese
Jeremy Danner pulls out a packet with a needle that is used for surgeries at Atrium Health.

People leaving prison hoping to find a job and start a new life have a lot of challenges. They’re 10 times more likely to be homeless and five times more likely to be unemployed, according to Mecklenburg County statistics. In Charlotte, City Startup Labs works to make the transition easier by showing them how to start their own businesses.

Close to a dozen men and women gathered in a classroom at Central Piedmont Community College on a recent evening to learn how to be their own bosses. That’s a steep learning curve for anyone, but for people trying to get on their feet after doing time, it takes training and encouragement. That’s why a motivational speaker started the class with some uplifting music.

Jason Brown, 51, is one of many people in the room who either have a job or an income stream they would like to build on. He’s changing his life after spending nearly six years in federal prison for white-collar crimes.

"When I came back into society, it was right in the middle of the COVID pandemic when businesses were shut down, and it was a real struggle to get on my feet,” Brown said.

Brown initially heard about another City Startup Labs program that trains people for entry-level jobs in the health care industry — and registered. Atrium Health takes many of its graduates. He’s now a nurse aide in one of the hospital’s emergency departments. Brown said he’s keen to learn the skills required to open his own business. City Startup Labs focuses on developing businesses that benefit the community.

“Now it’s a chance to give back and be of service to others, as opposed to previous chapters of my life where I was only taking from others,” Brown said.

Jason Brown (foreground) is one of the participants in an entrepreneurship program held at Central Piedmont Community College.
Elvis Menayese
Jason Brown (foreground) is one of the participants in an entrepreneurship program held at Central Piedmont Community College.

City Startup Labs was founded in 2014 to address the challenges young Black men experience with gaining employment — by focusing on entrepreneurship training. In 2018, City Startup Labs shifted its efforts to support formerly incarcerated people and started this program.

Reentry programs usually train and place people with jobs. For many just leaving prison, even the lowest-paying jobs can be hard to find. City Startup Labs aimed to show entrepreneurship can be a viable pathway.

Travis Williams directs the entrepreneurship program. He said about 75% of people who have participated end up starting their own businesses, and those who don’t still gain essential skills.

“No matter where you're at, where your skill level is at, whatever you think about business and entrepreneurship, this is something you can benefit from,” Williams said.

Graduates of the program have gone on to develop a variety of businesses, including those dealing with flooring, transportation, e-commerce and food trucks. The program lasts about four months and covers a range of areas, including digital literacy, communication, teamwork and team building.

Williams said the aim is “kind of cultivating the mind, understanding how to negotiate and work with others.”

A group of people participate in an entrepreneurship program at Central Piedmont Community College.
Elvis Menayese
A group participating in an entrepreneurship program at Central Piedmont Community College.

Jeremy Danner graduated from City Startup Lab’s health care training and entrepreneurship programs. He’s been working at Atrium Health for about two and a half years. He currently works in the room where the sterile equipment doctors use for surgery is kept.

Danner's job consists of ensuring items, such as needles and syringes, delivered to the hospital are properly stored and ready for surgery. His day-to-day tasks sparked an idea for a business — a transportation business that helps deliver those items.

“Being able to help Atrium get their supplies quicker, faster, in a more cost-effective and efficient way,” Danner said of his business plan.

Danner has received some money from City Startup Labs to start the business. He’s in talks with Atrium about becoming a client.

A North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission report found that nearly 13,000 people released from state prison had a 44% re-arrest rate within two years. Danner said that to help formerly incarcerated people stay out of prison, reentry programs like City Startup Labs are essential.

“In order to change a product, you got to change its environment,” Danner said. “So those types of programs are able to help people not recidivate because if you don't help a person change their thought process, they're going to go back to what they know is basic instinct.”

Danner spent nearly two decades in federal prison and credits the programs with turning his life around by helping him enter a career field where he sees people doing meaningful work. He also understands how he can contribute.

“You're able to see you learn in a new career field, and how it impacts others’ lives is fulfilling; it's a fulfilling job and career," Danner said.

So far, City Startup Labs has provided 70 people with the skills to start their own businesses through its entrepreneurship program.

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.