By Verne Harnish
Unemployment among former inmates is notoriously high—one recent study pegs it at 27%. Scaling Up certified coach Bob Lobos aims to change that with a program he founded in Baton Rouge, La., that helps people with felony convictions launch startups. Many have trained in fields such as cosmetology, electrical work and welding but can’t get a job.
“People talk a great game, but when it comes down to hiring convicted felons, they don’t want to do it,” says Lobos, who has been a Scaling Up certified coach since 2007.
Lobos, who has no plans of slowing down at age 78, conceived of the roughly three-year-old “ENT” (short for entrepreneurship) program as a member of the Workforce Investment Council of Louisiana and runs it in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Corrections. ENT offers a 60-hour, 10-week video course on how to start a business, plus reading materials. “This is a commitment,” he says. The program assigns mentors from SCORE to teach leadership and soft skills, like communication. “We thought that was important, because they had trouble relating to people,” he says.
Currently there are about 20 students, including both pre- and post-release candidates, who have written business plans. The first cohort of 10 men and women during the 2021-2022 year had an 80% success rate in business plan completion. “We’ve got them moving in the right direction,” says Lobos.
Some of the graduates of the program have become entrepreneurs . One woman took the reins of a welding business her uncle, who was retiring, had started; another woman, who has artistic talent, is trying to build a business around creating murals. One man, a skilled carpenter, created a crew that renovates properties his father owns.
Others have gone to work. “Our thought is if they don’t start their own businesses, they will make better employees,” says Lobos.
Lobos’s BHAG is to have a statewide presence with 250 startups in five years. It is working with the Department of Corrections to refine the selection process for the program and to improve the success rate of the startups. Currently the focus is on entrepreneurs who will be getting out of prison in six to 18 months.
Lobos expanded the program to serve people with disabilities in 2022, working with the Louisiana Rehabilitation Council, which oversees rehabilitation services for the state. Three future entrepreneurs have signed up so far. One man, who has expertise in rocks and gems, is working on a plan to manufacture jewelry.
Because drug addiction is classified as a disability, the program can help former inmates who were incarcerated because of drug-related crimes. “I have a fellow who wasn’t using but he was selling,” says Lobos. “He got put in jail. He’s a certified electrician. He’s running his own business.”
In 2022, Lobos organized a nonprofit called the Wolf Creek “Second Chance” Foundation in September, 2022, to formalize his work. “I’m not one of those bleeding hearts but I believe everyone makes mistakes,” he says.