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For inmates, a new plan - legalizing their street skills

Aided by a Wellesley nonprofit, ex-inmate Mark Gibson has his own business. Aided by a Wellesley nonprofit, ex-inmate Mark Gibson has his own business. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2011

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Mark Gibson stood in front of a judge, about to go to prison for the third time, and felt powerless. Court documents reduced his life to a record of his mistakes.

“You can’t let one act define you for the rest of your life,’’ he says today. But there he was, facing incarceration, unable to tell a different story.

“Something had to change,’’ he said. “I have to take my life in my own hands. Not sulk about it and not complain about it.’’

So after he got out of prison in 2009 for what he’s determined will be the last time, he did something that no one expects an ex-con to do: He started his own business.

He managed it with a huge assist from Venturing Out, a Wellesley-based nonprofit that offers inmates about to be released from prison a 12-week course called Entrepreneurship 101. It teaches them how to start their own businesses in an outside world where steady work will be hard to find, especially for someone with a criminal record.

Gibson, the proud proprietor of OnthaMark, an online talent and marketing agency, is not the only one to benefit from the program.

A young woman who was an early graduate went to cooking school and is now well on her way to starting her own restaurant. Another has become a motivational speaker at women’s shelters, and some Venturing Out graduates want to start their own nonprofit organizations.

According to US Justice Department statistics, about 730,000 prisoners were released from state and federal prisons last year; just about half will end up back inside within three years. At least a third of former prisoners can’t find employment in their first year after being released, according to the Urban Institute. Many turn to drugs and alcohol, and their lives unravel.

“We can either teach them to be better learners and taxpayers, or they can go back to prison,’’ said Larry Buckley, a Venturing Out instructor. “It costs $45,000 a year to imprison someone, and you get nothing back. But if the same person is running a business, they pay taxes and create jobs. And if they’re doing that, then they’re not selling drugs to your kids.’’

Venturing Out students learn how to assess competition, price their services, keep overhead low, negotiate effectively, and hire the right people. They graduate with complete business plans that will help them launch small, practical businesses: housecleaning, auto repair, landscaping. Businesses that require little startup cash and don’t take long to start making money.

“Venturing Out doesn’t give you a fish, it teaches you how to fish,’’ said Gibson. “It says, ‘Here’s something else, you are worth something. You can leave your mark in this world.’ ’’

Gibson spent his early career in marketing. Later, he worked as a concierge at 4-star hotels in Miami, ferrying stars like Beyonce to clubs and recording sessions and hobnobbing with A-list entertainers, he said. But he got into drugs, wound up in jail, and struggled to find work.

“I’ve held a job running the American leg of a marketing strategy for a Fortune 500 company,’’ said Gibson. “And now I can’t get a job.’’

When he found Venturing Out, though, his life opened up.

He’d always been great at networking, Gibson said, and he loves art, music, photography, anything avant-garde. He’d always dreamed of running his own agency, but had never quite gotten it off the ground.

“Venturing Out lit the fire in me to really pursue this,’’ he said. “It’s always been a dream, I’ve always dibbled and dabbled in it, but Venturing Out helped me put it into fruition.’’

Venturing Out started small, as a single class at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston in 2008. The founder, Baillie Aaron, was then a volunteer GED tutor, and discovered one of her students was running a business behind bars. He made greeting cards that he traded for items from the commissary.

“I thought: If you could create a product inside this closed environment, where you have no access to goods and services, you have no money - why can’t you do it on the outside?’’ Aaron said.

A lot of the students in Venturing Out’s classes have entrepreneurial backgrounds. It’s just that their businesses were illegal.

“They just need to transfer their street skills to a legal business,’’ said Laura Winig, Venturing Out’s executive director. “That’s actually easier than you think.’’

At a recent class in the Middlesex County House of Correction in Billerica, Winig and Buckley asked their class of 12 how they would convince buyers to invest in their product.

A young man named Suguie grinned. “You learn - and the reason I’m in jail - is good product sells itself,’’ he said. The class laughed and nodded in agreement.

With a volunteer staff of 42, Venturing Out operates in the South Middlesex Correctional Center in Framingham and the Northeastern Correctional Center in Concord as well as the Suffolk and Middlesex houses of correction. It officially obtained nonprofit status in December.

It’s too early to tell how many students that graduate from Venturing Out will be successful in their businesses, or how many will end up back in jail. Starting a business takes time, and Venturing Out is still a young organization.

“There’s a lag, it’s a slow burn,’’ said Winig.

But statistics from other programs suggest that Venturing Out could have a dramatic impact on the lives of its graduates. In Texas, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, started in 2004, has graduated 710 prisoners who have started more than 100 small businesses. Of those, 65 have survived for at least two years. Each year, graduates pump $8 million into the state’s economy and generate $4 million in payroll, sales, and income taxes. The recidivism rate hovers at just below 10 percent.

“I know that this has value,’’ Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said of Venturing Out. “But we can’t quantify that yet.’’

Koutoujian points to a study by Northeastern University that showed a 27 percent drop in one-year recidivism rates at the Middlesex House of Correction between 1994 and 2007 as a result of improved educational and vocational programming.

He calls it “trickle-down corrections’’ - get someone on the right track, get them clean and sober and give them skills to get a job and live a good life, and you’ll never see them again. Their children will benefit. Their grandchildren will benefit. Their communities will benefit.

“This is a no-brainer for Middlesex County. This is a no-brainer for me,’’ Koutoujian said.

And, it appears, at least anecdotally, that the game plan is trickling down. Gibson mentors at-risk urban youths. More than half of his work for OnthaMark is for free.

“What I found out about myself at a young age is that I’m able to take somebody’s idea or dream and bring it to fruition. So I decided to do it for a lot of people,’’ said Gibson. “It’s like giving back what Venturing Out has done for me.’’

Two of the young men he’s mentored are finding their own success: 21-year-old Nelson Summers just launched a T-shirt line, Boss/Don Apparel, with Gibson. The two are planning another line called Alpha Male to help raise money for Venturing Out. And 18-year-old James Avenue, an aspiring rap star, has more than 3,000 Twitter followers and an upcoming album, “The Prelude.’’

The trickle-down effect: Gibson, clean, sober, out of prison, making his way in the marketing world and bringing at-risk youth along with him. He’s living the life he always wanted.

“I’m able to take anybody’s dream and bring it to fruition,’’ he said, “but I never brought my own.’’