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A New Start

Eight people standing with certificates in their hands
The spring 2023 cohort of Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library’s entrepreneurship program celebrates after completing a six-month course to help cohort members start their own businesses.
Photo: Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library

More than 1.8 million people in the United States were incarcerated in a prison or jail at the end of 2021, according to a February 2023 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Research shows that formerly incarcerated people have more difficulty finding employment than the rest of the population, resulting in lower long-term earnings and other lifelong challenges—in essence, a second sentence. Recognizing these statistics and community need, Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library (GCPL) created the New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator in 2021. This six-month course is designed to help community members who have served time in jail or prison to create and sustain their own businesses.

Formerly incarcerated individuals are an overlooked population of aspiring entrepreneurs, often lacking the means, access, and support to launch a small business successfully.

Take, for example, Chartisia Griffin. Her mother was a housekeeper, and Griffin had the idea to follow in her footsteps—but on a much larger scale. She started Diamond Shine Enterprises, a residential and commercial cleaning service, in 2021 after attending GCPL’s New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator (NSEI).

GCPL created NSEI as a free program to provide the fundamentals of business education for formerly incarcerated individuals through in-person classes, online coursework, and a network of ­mentors and community partners.

“Chartisia is a real success story of this program,” says Adam Pitts, NSEI program manager. “She had a clear goal of what she wanted to create, and she’s achieved it.”

After 15 years of incarceration, Griffin said she wanted to make the most of her second chance. Initially she was surprised when she heard about the library program—and that it was free. “It seemed too good to be true,” she says. “I was in a very traumatic place when I was incarcerated. Once I learned that I had options, I realized I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

NSEI is coordinated by a team of five library staff members and drafts a yearly cohort of 15 to 20 students who attend monthly presentations by local business experts on topics such as finance, marketing, licensing, and writing a business plan. Following each meeting, participants complete assigned online coursework and receive one-on-one support from experienced small business mentors. The library lends laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to those who need them while enrolled in the program.

NSEI originated as a grant project funded by Google in partnership with the American Library Association’s national Libraries Build ­Business initiative. The library received $128,000 in total over two years. As of January 2023, 29 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program. GCPL will begin reviewing applications for its next cohort soon.

Businesses started by program graduates include a catering service, a hair and beauty boutique, and a facility providing assisted living for veterans and other individuals transitioning from homelessness. The biggest company that began out of this program is Griffin’s, which now has 14 employees and nearly 40 contracts from Gwinnett and Fulton counties.

As an additional incentive, participants get an opportunity to pitch their business proposals to a Shark Tank–style panel of judges to receive feedback and potentially obtain start-up capital. Since 2023, this program—known as Launchpad—has awarded $5,000 in total to three participants.

NSEI graduates have been the best marketing tool for finding new potential entrepreneurs. Griffin, for example, has referred several ­formerly incarcerated people to NSEI and has been a keynote speaker at its orientations.

She tells new participants to envision a limitless future: “We all had dreams when we were kids. Don’t give up on those dreams.”

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