Katie Bailey/Courtesy Brian Hamilton Foundation
Entrepreneur Brian Hamilton’s life changed in a prison. He wasn’t incarcerated; he was accompanying his friend, Reverend Robert J. Harris, who frequented local prisons to do ministry work. During the visit, Hamilton started talking to one of the inmates and asked what he was going to do when he got out.
“He said he was going to get a job,” Hamilton recalls. “I thought to myself, wow, that’s going to be difficult with a criminal background.”
The conversation made Hamilton consider how the incarcerated population could benefit from entrepreneurship, something he thought about for years. Finally in 2008, 16 years after that initial conversation, Hamilton created Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit that helps people with criminal backgrounds start their own small businesses. “Reverend Harris and I taught our first course at a minimum security prison called ‘How to Start Your Own Business When You Get Out,'” he recalls.
At the time, Hamilton was building his own company, Sageworks, a software technology company for the banking industry. As Sageworks grew, so did Hamilton’s time commitment to teach entrepreneurship courses. He averaged three to four courses a month at prisons throughout North Carolina. (He says he’s visited most of the state’s prisons by now.)
Eventually, Hamilton decided it was time to shift his focus to his true passion. “I thought about the fact that if we did it the right way, we could expand the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program nationally,” he says. In May 2018, he sold his stake in Sageworks to a private equity firm in California, solidifying his commitment to Inmates to Entrepreneurs.
His plans to expand the nonprofit as well as shift the model to include online options for curriculum will be set in motion next year. “By March 1, 2019, anyone will be able to access the curriculum, either to become a certified instructor to go into prisons to teach it or to access it for themselves as an inmate or part of the general population,” Hamilton explains. In addition, he visits middle schools and presents the curriculum to at-risk students as a preventative measure against incarceration. Check out these 12 millennial entrepreneurs who started out with nothing and made a fortune.
The free curriculum is funded by the recently established Brian Hamilton Foundation, which also offers assistance to military members as they transition to civilian life and provides loans to small businesses. “Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, but if we make opportunities available, then we’ve done right by people,” Hamilton says. “You’re giving inmates something they can do independently of a system that isn’t working for them. The jobs they’ll get out of prison are minimum wage. Disadvantaged populations rise by entrepreneurship. If you can let people know that other people care about them, it makes a difference.”
Hamilton insists he’s not a good person—he just did what he knew to do. “As an entrepreneur, there was a problem, and I wanted to find a solution.” Next, find out how you can make a difference in your own community.