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USFSM Professors Teach Weekly Class at Prison

Along with anger-management, computer classes and other self-improvement fare, one course at the Hardee Correctional Institution stands out, and it’s taught by professors from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

Early each Monday, Dr. Jean Kabongo, an associate professor of business, and Dr. Jessica Grosholz, an assistant professor of criminology, travel an hour and half east of the Sarasota campus to teach “Introduction to Entrepreneurship.”

The 10-week course covers the basics of launching a company, from initiating a business plan and identifying seed funding to learning about market analysis, promotion and sales. At the end, the class’ 15 inmates take turns making pitches for their startups.

“Some of the ideas are actually pretty good ones,” says Dr. Grosholz, who has taught the class since September 2016 and calls it “one of the most rewarding experiences” of her career.

The idea, the professors say, is to encourage the inmates to develop entrepreneurial mindsets so they learn to recognize opportunities and generate ideas. Indirectly, they’re learning to focus their energies in positive ways, take responsibility for their ventures and recognize that it’s OK to stumble and start again – the fate of many first-time entrepreneurs.

“Once they serve their sentences in prison they will come out, and when they come out they must be prepared to do something to be reintroduced to society once again,” says Dr. Kabongo, who teaches strategic management and entrepreneurship at USFSM.

“As an educator, it gives me satisfaction to know that through our program they will learn lessons to help them, hopefully, to become productive citizens and economically independent,” he said.

The professors spend three hours a week covering the basics of launching and growing a business. As the course progresses, one hurdle remains before the inmates are able to graduate and receive their certificates of completion. They must deliver prepared talks about their companies in front of their classmates and any visitors to the class.

Dreaded by the inmates, the so-called “elevator speech” is important because it forces them to contemplate exactly what their companies are about and how, if the opportunity arose, they might give successful marketing pitches to potential investors and customers.

As graduation day arrived this past month, the inmates were greeted by administrators from the USFSM campus: Regional Chancellor Dr. Karen Holbrook, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Dr. Jane Rose and Dr. Sandra Stone, chair of the Department of Social Sciences.

One by one, the inmates nervously shuffled to the front of the class, most with notes in hand, to give their pitches.

While some were effusive in describing their companies, others spoke quietly and quickly. The businesses ran the gamut, from a cleaning company to a health supplement retailer to a fishing charter that caters to handicapped individuals and the elderly.

Some inmates remarked how they’ve been thinking for months or even years about their ventures and were hoping to implement their plans in two, three or five years, whenever they get out. Elijah C., due for release in 2027, said he was inspired by his mother, who worked hard cleaning houses and businesses, and he thought that he might do the same when he’s released.

“I hate dirt,” he said in his pitch. “I’ve always been like that. Whenever I see trash I want to pick it up.”

One of the most popular courses at Hardee, hundreds of the institution’s 1,500 inmates sign up each semester to take the class, which includes lectures and homework. Prison officials narrowed the most recent class to 15 to make it manageable.

As they accepted their certificates, many of the prisoners were emotional, expressing how grateful they were to the university and the professors.

“I look forward to this class every week,” said Rene C., a former drug dealer with 14 months left on his term. “This class has taught me how to create a business the right way. And when I get out I’m going to use what I learned here to start my own business.”

Dr. Rose, who has attended each graduation ceremony since 2016, said the course is important because through it, Dr. Kabongo and Dr. Grosholz are “furthering scholarly understanding of prisoner reentry challenges.”

“Whether these men ever become entrepreneurs or not, they are learning tools for better addressing challenges and managing their lives,” she said.

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