A prison sentence has an end, but the effects are lifelong. For many former inmates, the stigma of a criminal record stands between them and their ability to obtain gainful employment and housing. Lack of these basic needs can lead to desperation, which can lead back to crime. A revolving door in and out of prison takes shape, with 50% of former inmates being reincarcerated after 3 years.*

That’s where REACH! comes in. Short for Reentry Entrepreneurship Assistance CoHort, REACH! first began as a collaboration between KeyBank and Ohio’s Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. Both organizations put their resources together and recruited the Montgomery County Office of Reentry to join their efforts for a common goal: to teach those reentering society from prison how they could start and grow their own business. Being their own boss wasn’t just an accomplishment—it was a life raft.

Those who join the REACH! program take a six-week course on subjects like starting an LLC, putting together an operating budget, and applying for a loan. Then there are lessons that go beyond the logistical. “One of the bigger things that we had to kind of deal with was just the psychological aspect of having committed a crime,” says Donerik Black, business coach. “There were quite a few people in our class who we had to work on for them to let it go, because that was a barrier that they kind of built up for themselves.”

This out-of-the-box approach works. REACH! has a whopping 95% success rate spanning a variety of industries, from catering services to beauty to used car dealerships. Instead of a final exam, participants showcase their knowledge the real-world way, by presenting their business plan from the previous six weeks to a board of judges. Whichever participant is judged to have the strongest pitch wins first place and $3,500 to fund their business.

“You don’t have to be the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

We spoke with one pitch winner, Audrey McLemore, about her experience. Through the program, Audrey turned her knack for organizing into a full-fledged business plan for cleaning services. When it came time for the pitch, she grew doubtful. “I saw another contestant’s PowerPoint... it shined so much that I was like, oh, I’m going to be second place to her.” But Audrey’s insight blew the judges away. She won, and her winnings went on to create Touched By Grace—a cleaning business with over 30 customers. The financial stability of owning a business allowed her to pursue other goals too, like enrolling to become a certified family advocate and buying a home.

Audrey remarks that “you don’t have to be the worst thing that ever happened to you.” Looking back on the achievements she’s reached in the past eight years as a returning citizen, it’s hard to imagine that a prison sentence could ever come close to defining her.

*

Benecchi, Liz. “Recidivism Imprisons American Progress.” Harvard Political Review, 8 Aug. 2021, https://harvardpolitics.com/recidivism-american-progress/.