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 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.
“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 re-entry 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 and welding vocational classes offered at Dillwyn. Matthews also works in the prison cafeteria for 10 hours a day, six days a week.
It is mandatory that all offenders applying for the entrepreneurship program have at least a GED, can pass an eighth grade-level math Standards of Learning test that requires a basic knowledge of algebra, and have taken a vocational education program such as welding, contracting, cosmetology or food-service work. They must also receive a positive report from the counseling and correctional staffs, be infraction free and in an interview with the Darden folks, they have to be serious about completing an educational program and getting a job after their release.
Several entrepreneurship classes of 15 to 25 students run each semester. At one time, about 70 people will be in the program. In each facility, entrepreneurship classes meet twice a week, for two and a half hours at a time. In total, the classes meet for 34 sessions.
The Fairchilds ask the Virginia Department of Corrections to recruit offenders, or “returning citizens,” who have at least 25 months of their sentence left because the entrepreneurship class takes a full year, and the financial capability and the foundations of business course each take one semester. Ideally, a student would take all three.
Standing before his classmates and holding a packet of notes that he doesn’t need to refer to, Matthews confidently pitches his business, Glorious Landscaping. It is a company that specializes in lawn care, mulching and power washing, and offers a three-cut lawn service with free bagging for $50 an hour and is projected to make $40,000 in revenue in its first year.
Matthews plans to “bootstrap it,” he says, which means he’ll start his business without any bank loans. He anticipates a $6,000 startup fee for a quality riding lawn mower, leaf blower, power washer and a few other supplies. And at first, he’ll have a one-man crew, consisting only of himself.
His main competition, he says, will be big-name landscaping companies with several crews and company vehicles, but he plans to capitalize on the fact that, while running a one-man show, he can be flexible with his prices and “add that personal touch” that only a small company can.
After his first year in business, Matthews hopes to expand from a residential to a commercial business, he says, which will allow him to give back to his church by doing charity yard work. He also hopes to provide free or discounted prices to the elderly, all in the name of “providing not just good work, but glorious work.”
After his presentation, his classmates erupt in applause. “Why did you have to set the bar so high for the rest of us?” someone asks. Matthews grins.
“I think you hit all the high notes of the business plan,” Jones says, adding that Matthews spoke clearly and was precise in his delivery. He asks Matthews to identify the biggest challenge of the company, to which he replies, “Myself: Continuing to have that drive to pursue my business when things aren’t going well.”
Afterward, when asked if he expected his presentation to go so smoothly, Matthews admits he practiced. He says he has no doubt that he’ll be able to start his business after he’s released from prison in December, and though he’s always had the ambition, he never actually thought he’d be able to reach his goal.
“I never really had the right tools to plan,” he says. “The things I’ve learned in this class are the necessary skills.”
Matthews says the most important thing he’s learned is how to plan for the future. A wrong projection could cost “big business.” And with the skills he’s gained in the entrepreneurship class, he’s ready to start a new life and provide for his family “legally,” he says.
“People deserve a second chance. Everyone makes mistakes and, given an opportunity, a person who has once made bad decisions can become successful,” Matthews says. “Darden School of Business gave me a chance.”
He thanks his instructors, like Jones, who have volunteered their time to teach what they were once taught at the Darden School. By primarily using the Socratic method, which encourages class discussion, inmates spend each session discussing case studies they’ve previously read on their own.
The instructors say that’s how they’re taught in the Darden MBA program, too. For Jones, a Mississippi native, volunteering at Dillwyn is about more than a line on his resume.
“A decent number of my family members, especially males, have been a part of the system,” he says. “For me, it’s a way to give back and try to break that cycle.”
Volunteers compete for jail time
Second-year Darden students’ growing interest in instructing the three prison programs is unexpected, says Fairchild.
“There’s this bridge that’s being created between the MBA students and the folks that are incarcerated,” he says. “It’s, in some ways, the oddest of couples.”
Graduating Darden MBA students can expect to make a starting salary of $130,000 per year, on average, Fairchild says. “Yet that same group of individuals who come from all over the world are applying [to teach] because they really want to go to prison,” he says.
None of the instructors are paid, and only about half choose to receive university credit for teaching. But after Fairchild and four MBA students taught the first entrepreneurship class at Dillwyn, and “people [found] out it’s not dangerous” but it is rewarding, interest grew quickly, he says. This year, which will end in mid-May, 43 Darden students applied for 28 volunteer spots and 45 attended an interest session for the next academic year. So far, 80 instructors have gone through the program.
“This is the bad news,” Fairchild says, joking. “The students really want to teach.” His wife, Tierney, agrees.
“We don’t get to teach anymore,” she says, adding that she and her husband were more involved with instructing the programs when they started and fewer Darden students were participating. At that time, she had a strong connection with the students in class at Fluvanna and her husband, likewise, knew all of the men in class at Dillwyn. Over time, she says more than 70 instructors have come through the prison program, and after graduating from Darden, some have gone on to hold major roles in companies such as CarMax, Danaher and several large banks, like Capital One.
“Over time, I’m hoping that sort of the secondary impact is that [former instructors] will be able to speak up in their companies about who gets hired and what those human resource practices are,” Tierney says. “Because those fears that sometimes people have, those go away.”
Kelly Gerhardt, a Darden MBA student and instructor, teaches classes in the Fluvanna women’s facility. Though she was a little apprehensive the first time she walked through the prison yard by herself, without an escort, she says she has never felt unsafe around the offenders. She enjoys having the opportunity to work with people who are in a different place in life, she says.
“Darden, or any school, can become a little bit of a bubble,” she adds. “It’s been very helpful to get outside of that and apply what I’ve actually learned in Darden.”
She says the entrepreneurship course she teaches is like a “snapshot” of her own Darden curriculum. “It’s just not as deep of a dive,” she says.
One of the first case studies she taught had components of finance, probability, analysis and general business management.
“The women in our class are very bright and they have phenomenal ideas,” Gerhardt says. “My favorite part is being able to encourage them.”
A few notable business plans have come out of her class this year, she says, but she’s reluctant to give away any spoilers. She does mention, though, a plan for a higher-end puppy service created by former Fluvanna inmate Casey Toney.
Toney was released from prison April 26.
In one of Gerhardt’s recent classes at Fluvanna, Toney, who was still incarcerated at the time, had a front-row seat to listen to guest speaker Katrina Didot, owner of A Bowl of Good, a locally sourced restaurant in Harrisonburg.
“I admire everyone who has the resilience to keep putting one foot in front of another,” Didot told the class. “I hope you feel like I’m being vulnerable and honest with you. And I want you to know it hasn’t always been easy.”
Prior to her visit, the students had read a case study about Didot’s business—one of her two Bowl of Good locations failed and Didot set out to help the inmates learn from her mistakes.
Didot won Darden’s Tayloe Murphy Resilience Award in 2012 for having a resilient business, and she worked with volunteers to create the case study for the prison classes. The Fairchilds then invited her to participate in the Fluvanna entrepreneurship program.
Enthralled with her stories of success and failure, the women shifted in their chairs to get a good view of the business owner.
They asked Didot about her competition. “Is this similar to what they call Panera Bread?” one inmate, who has been incarcerated for the past 10 years, asked. Several questions about wholesalers, catering and product naming were lobbed at the restaurateur.
Didot told the women to “ABCD,” or Always Be Connecting the Dots in their businesses, and while many women nodded their head at the acronym, Toney jotted it down in her notebook.
Incarcerated since 2006, Toney earned her associate degree from Piedmont Virginia Community College while in prison and ran the prison’s re-entry program, which consisted of managing 60 other offenders.
Her big idea, and one she wants to implement soon, is called Pure Paws, a company that combines the quality of a high-end dog breeder with the convenience of a pet store. Though she plans to start her business with just one storefront in Louisa, an online retailer and only three breeds, she eventually hopes to breed and sell 10 different types of pups and become a “household name.”
Toney is a certified veterinary technician and she plans to go into business with her brother, Brandon Baker, who has more than seven years of veterinary experience. She intends to acquire an SBA loan for the $10,000 startup cost.
While Toney says her main goal is to profit from selling safely bred pedigree dogs, which would, in turn, limit the number of pets being bought from puppy mills, she says she also hopes to “get out and show society that I can give back to the community and be productive given my circumstances.”
And the fact that she’s an ex-offender? Toney says she’ll use that to her advantage.
“When you’re living out there day-to-day, you don’t realize how precious life is until everything is taken away from you,” she says. “I feel like I have the upper hand because I’m willing to work that much harder than the average person.”
Her biggest concern for Pure Paws is financial stability. But Toney realizes it’s all about who you know and who they know, and says she’s working to get her foot in the door with the right people.
She looks forward to continuing the relationships she built with those she met in the entrepreneurship program and she has plans to meet with Tierney and Gerhardt in the coming weeks so they can look over her résumé before she begins her job search.
“I just want to do something I’m passionate about,” she says, adding that her interests include sports, food and, of course, animals. And now that she can add that she studied at the Darden School of Business to her résumé, she says she shouldn’t have much trouble finding a job.
“Darden changed my life,” Toney says, and she thanks the program’s leaders for treating her like a person—not just a prisoner.
Recidivism rates and expanding the programs
While there’s plenty of interest in expanding the Darden programs into other prisons—state and federal—and the Fairchilds have already had some assistance through grants and other university professionals who want to get involved, they admit that expansion has been no easy feat.
“As the program continues to grow, we’re coming to the realization that we’re going to need help to meet the demand the people have out there,” Fairchild says. “We know that there are lots of people that believe in this and we know that there are people who would be inspired to get involved. We’re ready to start talking to people about how we do that.”
The Fairchilds talk of the scale of the Darden programs, meaning the potential to expand into other facilities—including talk of searching for an instructor to teach classes in a Petersburg prison—but they also mention the depth of opportunity for classes besides business. Subjects other professors have pitched to them, including coding, mindfulness and health care opportunities, barely scratch the surface of what they could provide, they say.
There are plenty of opportunities within UVA for other professors or volunteers to teach courses that could be “really, really impactful” in helping returning citizens get jobs and transition back into the community, the Fairchilds say.
Barbara Hurst, an inmate who calls herself “the biggest cheerleader for Darden on this campus,” says there are some women in Fluvanna who have never paid a bill, had a loan or learned how to budget money. She is currently enrolled in the entrepreneurship class, and after completing the financial capability class, she proposed to the prison’s warden that everyone in the facility, even those who don’t qualify to study with Darden, should have access to that type of course.
In her pitch, Hurst stressed that many of the offenders already owe significant amounts of money in restitution, and the class could reduce recidivism by teaching them how to make a financial plan that doesn’t include the criminal thinking they may have once relied on.
Hurst is currently working to condense the financial capabilities course into a program that could be delivered in a shorter amount of time to a larger group of offenders, and into one that doesn’t have any math requirements.
Overall, a main goal of the programs, and a pitching point for Fairchild, is keeping the offenders from returning to prison and saving the state money.
In Virginia, about $28,000 is spent per year to house one inmate.
“I think that’s stark because for every person, every year, that doesn’t go back, well that’s another $28,000 the state saved,” Fairchild says, adding that the reincarceration rate in Virginia is about 28 percent—one-third of offenders will return to prison within three years. “If you thought about that further, then they get a job and they [pay] taxes and they are contributing to their family and maybe bad stuff doesn’t happen to their kids.”