Program Turns Incarcerated Women into Entrepreneurs

One year after launch, the ASPIRE MO women’s business program is thriving

VANDALIA, Mo. – Two years ago, Missouri had the nation’s fastest-growing population of incarcerated women, more than 90 percent of whom were entering prison for technical probation or parole violations or substance-use treatment — not for new crimes — creating a revolving door of re-incarceration.

It was time to do something different.

For the past year, the ASPIRE MO entrepreneurship program has been a force for change. When the newest participants leave prison in the coming months, they intend to re-enter their communities equipped with the professional skills, solid business plans and confidence they need to become entrepreneurs.

The 10 women have been fellow travelers on a 20-week journey to self-discovery and employability, from inside the visiting-room-turned-classroom at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia. There they have gathered each week to learn what makes them tick and then figure out how to turn their strengths, skills and passions into careers.

Launched in collaboration with the Missouri Women’s Business Center and the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Missouri Women’s Council, the ASPIRE MO entrepreneurship program is rooted in the LaunchU curriculum, a nationally recognized intensive business training course developed at Southeast Missouri State University. Students complete assignments designed to help them learn not only how to start a business but also how to get and keep a good job.

Missouri women who are business owners and industry experts give guest lectures on topics such as business etiquette, résumé building, cost projections and marketing strategies. For each student, the coursework culminates in a finished business plan and a pitch delivered before graduation. Business ideas cover fields such as disaster site cleanup, warehouse support, cosmetology, personal training and tutoring.

Rachael Hall, who plans to start a motorcycle repair business after release, said the experience has been life-changing: “This program has given us an opportunity to realize that our past doesn’t define our future.”