Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Prison Entrepreneurship Program
T-shirts get printed every day—some in huge warehouses, others in mom-and-pop
startups. On this day, A Perfect Print is delivering an order of t-shirts to the
headquarters of a large corporation in the Dallas area. Sounds perfectly normal,
right? Free enterprise, capitalism, and the pursuit of happiness—so what's the
The big deal is that the entrepreneur in the driver's seat of this van isn't
your typical business owner. In fact, if you look past the ink stains and
lacquer, you'll find that, somewhere in the past, James Gorman, entrepreneur,
was James Gorman, convicted felon.
For James, going to prison was the least likely track to entrepreneurship.
But that ended up being his exact path. Deemed a "career criminal" after
returning to prison for the second time for possession of a controlled substance
with intent to deliver, James knew something had to change in his life—something
in his core. In prison, he began taking steps to create a successful life for
himself—attending faith-based classes, picking up skills, and removing himself
from the destructive behaviors that plagued many of the men in prison. He was
taking action, not waiting for life to cut him a break, and surrounding himself
with productive activities.
Four years of self-examination behind prison walls went by, but James waited
patiently, knowing he was there due to his own actions and that a tough road was
ahead of him when he got out. He used this time to prepare himself for his fresh
start upon release.
That fresh start came in 2004 and from the most unlikely place, in prison.
James happened upon the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).
What I had seen in the news and movies painted prison as the ultimate
bad-news industry. I had completely written off the entire prison population—the
one in fifteen Americans who does time in his lifetime—as being in the "bad
pile." At best, my mentality was described as "lock 'em up and throw away the
key;" at worst, I favored mass executions of these people who wasted tax
dollars. I was prepared to see wild, caged animals when I was invited inside for
the first time. I remember the ugliness I held in my heart—my unforgiving
approach, my labels for men I had never met. I was surprised when I met real
human beings who challenged my beliefs. I embraced the concept of grace for my
own sins, but, with this group, had been unwilling to extend it. It took a
prison visit to humble myself and open my eyes to the beauty of
As a venture capitalist, I had been trained to recognize opportunity and
talent. In that first prison visit, I had conversations with dope dealers and
gang leaders, from whom I learned that gangs are run by boards of directors and
have commissioned sales structures and bookkeepers. They understand distribution
channels and risk management. And the men certainly understood concepts like
execution! I saw the greatest ROI potential imaginable—a completely untapped
pool of great talent.
When I started PEP in May 2004 with my husband, Steve, I knew that
accountability was going to be the key to success. I only took men who were
already leading transformed lives, men like James, and I equipped them with
tools to help them achieve success.
In addition to teaching James every possible skill he would ever need to
operate a small business, PEP challenged him to develop the intangible skills
required to be a servant-leader: live a good life, give and command respect, and
engage in fellowship with accountability.
I realized that providing an education in prison was not enough for these men
who face extreme rejection upon release, so we started building out post-release
programs. PEP provides job placement, housing, medical care, executive
mentoring, continued education, access to financing, weekly social activities,
and a large dose of accountability. We "do life" with these men, and we leave
them with no excuse to fail.
Unfortunately, of the 600,000-plus prisoners who are released in the United
States each year, two-thirds return to the criminal justice system within two to
three years. Since PEP's inception, less than 5 percent of our graduates have
returned to prison. More than forty-three businesses have been started by PEP
graduates—representing nearly 15 percent of the program's graduates, which is a
higher business start rate than either Harvard or Stanford Business School
alumni. Ninety-eight percent of PEP graduates are employed within a month of
release, and one-third of them go into sales and management positions.
More importantly, though, is that these men, like James, who were once
society's worst "takers," now give back—75 percent of our graduates give back
financially to PEP. They also return to prison frequently to share their
experiences with new classes. They mentor each other and are being called upon
by their communities to come forward as examples of positive transformation and
as mentors to the next generation of young men—the positive role models they
The Kauffman Foundation believed in us before everyone else got on the
bandwagon. The Foundation made a generous grant to us in our early days,
when we were week-to-week on fundraising. Kauffman's support brought us
credibility and the capital to begin our journey of scale.
We have grown aggressively ever since. Our revenue has grown from $230,000 in
our first year to $1.7 million last year, our third year. PEP has been, and
intends to remain, 100 percent privately funded. This year (2008), we project
$3.2 million as we touch more lives than ever before. In four years, we've
graduated 370 men in eight classes, but we also get to serve their children and
families through our Family Program. We've also reached 1,000-plus CEOs and
venture capitalists, more than 400 MBA student volunteers from twenty-four
programs, and the prison officials and staff. We have twenty-four staff
members—eleven of whom are our own graduates.
With the permission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, we now exist
only at one facility in Cleveland, Texas (forty miles from Houston), but we
recruit, interview, and transfer men from more than sixty prisons throughout
Texas to the facility where we operate. This keeps us lean and mean. Within five
years, we hope to graduate up to 1,000 men per year, and help them start 500 new
businesses upon release. Sixty thousand men are released in Texas each year, so
we have our hands full for the foreseeable future.
James was released in August 2005. Today he works sixty to seventy hours a
week as a welder and pipe fitter, making $24 an hour. In his spare time, he is
working to grow his t-shirt business, A Perfect Print, into a fully operational
print shop. James lives in Houston, where he recently bought his first home. He
is now a PEP volunteer and serves as an inspiration to PEP's aspiring
Offender, transformed, underdog, success. That's the route James Gorman and
his fellow PEP graduates take. Hopefully that inspires you, as it does me every
day, to believe in the potential of the imperfect.