The Stringer Bell School of Management

How Ivy League MBA students are turning kingpins into entrepreneurs


Risk assessment? Personnel management? Distribution logistics? Those skills are as key to a successful drug corner as they are to a corner office. That’s the theory behind the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a recently launched nonprofit that teaches would-be Stringer Bells to apply their talents in the legit marketplace.

Based (appropriately) in a privately run prison in Cleveland, Texas, the program has put 370 inmates through a four-month crash course in which volunteer execs and Ivy League MBA students help them craft business plans. The vetting is intense: Prisoners must be within a year of release, renounce gang affiliations, complete a long questionnaire, memorize financial jargon, and submit to multiple tests and interviews. Only about one in five is accepted, and many get kicked out along the way for infractions from cheating to maintaining gang ties.

The selectivity seems to pay off—since PEP launched in 2004, virtually all of its graduates have found jobs, says spokeswoman Kami Recla, and more than 40 have launched businesses ranging from landscaping to leatherwork. More important, fewer than 5 percent are back behind bars so far, impressive in a state with a recidivism rate hovering around 30 percent. It remains to be seen, however, whether this success story is recession-proof.

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  • Vince Beiser, a former Mother Jones senior editor, has reported from more than 30 countries—on troop training in Iraq, natural disasters in Haiti, and prison conditions in California.