One woman rewrites the rules of entrepreneurship by going behind bars.
Catherine Rohr met me for lunch in Houston. And for the next hour I would discover how this woman went from being a successful Wall Street financial mogul to founder and CEO of Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
"Well, I was invited on a prison visit and I was expecting to go on a zoo tour of wild, caged-up animals. And when I arrived, I was so ashamed by how I had written off this entire demographic." Her candor was refreshing. She said what other people only think.
She unfolded to me how God had spoken to her that weekend in a Texas prison, how she had seen something unexpected in these men and in the process discovered something within herself, as well. She enthusiastically shared her epiphany; "I saw a tremendous opportunity in these men to leverage their strength, to build them up to be leaders in their community." She proceeded to explain how she helped these prisoners discover their "business plan."
The obstacles were many. Her friends in New York thought she was crazy. The prison officials agreed. "These guys need help writing a letter to their mothers. How are you going to teach them to write a business plan?"
But Catherine Rohr did.
After commuting to Texas every weekend for six weeks, Catherine and her husband decided to empty their 401(k) and pour everything they had into this new cause. It wasn't long before they were loading up the U-Haul and moving from Manhattan to Texas.
Ironically, their first night in Houston, their U-Haul was broken into and thieves made off with everything but the clothes on their back.
"At that point, I became a professional beggar on behalf of the organization." Rohr smiled, as a matter-of-fact.
This is the point in the story where most of us would have high-tailed it back to Wall Street and begged for our old job. But not this lady. She was on a mission.
She began knocking on doors and the doors just kept opening up. The rest, as they say, is history.
"The first week, we raised over $40,000. First year, over $230,000. Second year, $680,000. Third year, $1.7 million. This year, we're on track to raise $3 million. That was the birth of PEP." When asking what is the most rewarding part of establishing Prison Entrepreneurship Program was, Catherine smiled.
"I think, the graduations. For half of our classes, this will be their first time in caps and gowns. And we've recruited their families from all over the country to come back to see their son or their father... so they can be proud of him, maybe for the first time. You just don't have moments like that on Wall Street."
Nope. I guess you don't.
Formerly a Wall Street analyst, today Catherine Rohr is the founder and CEO of Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a program that connects senior business executives with inmates to connect them with values-based entrepreneurial training enabling them to productively re-enter society.