Business model inmates plan for life after prison.

Author:Baars, Samantha
Position:Cover story
 
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Thirty-five-year-old Russell Matthews, dressed in a denim shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers, enters a small classroom in the Dillwyn Correctional Center in central Virginia and shakes his instructor's hand. He's the first of about 15 prisoners to arrive to class on this mid-April day.

"Good evening," Matthews says to Jonathan Jones, the class instructor and second-year Darden School of Business MBA student who is dressed in a suit and necktie and who replies with, "How's it going, buddy?" while extending his hand.

On the wall behind the inmate, a bright bulletin board says "Congratulations G.E.D. Grads!!" in fat bubble letters. Twenty-five general education diplomas are offset by rectangles of colored paper in blues, greens, oranges and pinks. An adjoining board displays algebra review and diagrams on how to find surface area, perimeter and volume. But the inmates filing into this classroom have come to learn something a tad more complex than basic math.

With the help of a slew of volunteers from the University of Virginia's (UVA) Darden School--ranked second-best full-time MBA program in the world and No. 1 education experience in the world by The Economist in 2015--these prisoners are learning how to make it as entrepreneurs in a big world of small businesses.

As part of the Darden Prisoner Re-entry Education Program, founded by UVA associate professor of business administration Greg Fairchild in 2011 and now co-administered by Fairchild's wife, Tierney, offenders residing in two Virginia prisons--Dillwyn Correctional Center and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women--have the opportunity to earn a certificate of completion in Darden's special entrepreneurship, financial capability and foundations of business courses. For free.

While his wife has focused a great deal of her career on improving education opportunities for people in low-income areas, Fairchild has spent his life working to democratize business and provide financial services for immigrant and low-income populations. Both received their MBAs at Darden.

It All Started With a Letter

Five years ago, then-dean of Darden Robert Bruner received a letter from a prisoner in a southern Virginia facility, who said his release date was approaching, he had a business idea and he wanted to know how the Darden School could help him turn his dream into a reality.

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"Usually that gets a laugh from people who are in the know," Fairchild says, "because, well, the Darden School runs programs at $49,000 a year."

But Bruner insisted on giving the writer an answer, and called on Fairchild to do so. Fairchild met with Jim Cheng, a Darden alum and secretary of commerce and trade under Governor Bob McDonnell, who put him in touch with Banci Tewolde, whom McDonnell appointed as the state's first prisoner reentry coordinator.

"I proposed to her in a matter of 10 minutes that we would begin teaching entrepreneurship," Fairchild says. "Within three months, we were in the prison."

Initially instructing only entrepreneurship at the facility in Dillwyn, Fairchild and four MBA students created a curriculum to show 13 prisoners how to start a small business.

In mid-May, the entrepreneurship program's fifth cohort of offenders will graduate from Dillwyn, and 25 women at Fluvanna will mark the program's fourth group of graduates at that facility, making 137 entrepreneurship graduates since the program's inception, and 265, in total, across all three courses.

Back in the Classroom

The inmates in the entrepreneurship class at Dillwyn have been preparing their final presentations, in which they'll pitch their ideas for small businesses in front of their classmates and instructors, for several months.

For a practice round of presentations, Jones asks for a volunteer to go first, and more than half of the students raise their hands. But Matthews, the most enthusiastic in his answer, is chosen to start.

Standing at the front of the classroom, Matthews formally introduces himself to his classmates (although they already know him). He has a wife and two kids, he graduated from Fluvanna County High School, and took sheet metal...

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