Move to help ex-of­fend­ers launch their own busi­nesses

As­set man­ager Merid­ian agrees to un­der­take pi­lot pro­gram in Mary­land

Baltimore Sun - - BUSINESS MARYLAND - By Car­rie Wells

While serv­ing a stint in prison for drug dis­tri­bu­tion six years ago, Robert Wil­son be­gan de­vel­op­ing his plan. He would form a non­profit to buy a few va­cant houses, ren­o­vate them and turn them into tran­si­tional hous­ing for ex-of­fend­ers, with coun­selors and other em­ploy­ees to help them read­just to so­ci­ety.

Out of prison for about a year now, Wil­son, 69, plans to pitch his plan soon to Merid­ian Man­age­ment Group, an as­set man­ager that typ­i­cally in­vests in mi­nor­ityand women-owned small busi­nesses with the help of state fund­ing.

Mary­land law­mak­ers passed leg­is­la­tion last ses­sion re­quir­ing the Depart­ment of La­bor, Li­cens­ing and Regulation to de­velop a pi­lot pro­gram to help ex-of­fend­ers start their own busi­nesses. But the ef­fort was never funded, and in­stead Merid­ian, which gets about $1.5 mil­lion from the state each year to in­vest in small busi­nesses, agreed to un­der­take a sim­i­lar pro­gram.

“We spe­cial­ize in deal­ing with en­trepreneurs and com­pa­nies that can’t fund them­selves through con­ven­tional means,” said Stan­ley Tucker, the pres­i­dent and CEO of Merid­ian. “They can’t go to banks for their needs. That’s our niche.”

Ex-of­fend­ers face bar­ri­ers to em­ploy­ment be­cause of their crim­i­nal records, and state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments re­cently have at­tempted to ad­dress the is­sue with leg­is­la­tion. For in­stance, in 2014 Bal­ti­more’s “Ban the Box” leg­is­la­tion barred em­ploy­ers from ask­ing about a can­di­date’s crim­i­nal his­tory un­til af­ter a con­di­tional job of­fer was ex­tended.

State Sen. Cather­ine E. Pugh, who spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion passed last year, said she was in­spired by an ex­pe­ri­ence she had five years ago while cam­paign­ing. She stopped in an au­to­mo­tive re­pair shop at the cor­ner of Gwynns Falls and Tioga park­ways and asked the owner if she could put a sign up in his win­dow. The owner told her he re­mem­bered her be­cause she spoke at his grad­u­a­tion from GED classes while he was in prison. She had told his grad­u­at­ing class that they should start their own busi­nesses if they had the ca­pac­ity to do so.

“Rarely does some­one walk into a busi­ness and ask about your back­ground,” said Pugh, a Bal­ti­more Demo­crat who is now run­ning for mayor. “They want to know about the qual­ity of ser­vice.”

While the Depart­ment of La­bor, Li­cens­ing and Regulation was re­quired by Pugh’s leg­is­la­tion to start a pi­lot by Jan. 1, 2016, agency of­fi­cials said they never got the needed fund­ing.

“She had a great idea, but we haven’t heard back about the fund­ing so we can’t move for­ward,” DLLR spokes­woman Mau­reen O’Con­nor said.

The agency is com­mit­ted to help­ing ex- of­fend­ers and over­sees an ar­ray of other pro­grams, in­clud­ing an in­tern­ship for in­mates at Ve­hi­cles for Change, a non­profit that fixes up cars and sells them to those who can’t af­ford to buy one. Af­ter hear­ing about the leg­is­la­tion, Tucker reached out to Pugh and of­fered to help. Merid­ian, which man­ages a mix of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and pri­vate equity funds, has a $20 mil­lion fund made up of state money and the re­turns from 30 years of in­vest­ing in small busi­nesses.

The com­pany agreed to run what would serve as a de facto five-year pi­lot pro­gram that could serve as a guide for more per­ma­nent pro­grams later, Pugh said.

Kelly M. Schulz, the DLLR sec­re­tary, said she was open to that.

“I’d be will­ing to say it may not take five years in or­der for them to come to us and say this is plan where we can pro­vide a valu­able ser­vice to ex-of­fend­ers,” Schulz said.

Wil­son, who said he spent seven years in prison, said many peo­ple he was in prison with don’t think about the pos­si­bilty of start­ing their own busi­nesses.

“You’ve got a lot of peo­ple that jump over en­trepreneur­ship and be­come em­ploy­ees, and they don’t even think they can ac­tu­ally do that kind of stuff,” he said. “Some peo­ple don’t have the en­ergy or the mo­ti­va­tion to be­come en­trepreneurs.”

Wil­son said his cir­cum­stance was dif­fer­ent be­cause he’s owned sev­eral busi­nesses in his life, in­clud­ing bar­ber­shops, a bail­bond com­pany and a cor­ner store.

Tucker said Merid­ian is work­ing with Mor­gan State Univer­sity’s En­tre­pre­neur­ial De­vel­op­ment and As­sis­tance Cen­ter to iden­tify po­ten­tial can­di­dates who have busi­ness plans and will make pitches to Merid­ian. Tucker said they hope to have a group of 10 can­di­dates and in­vest in about seven of those.

“If it makes sense and we feel com­fort­able with it, we make an in­vest­ment,” Tucker said. “We want to help th­ese folks be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens where they can de­velop a busi­ness, to hire, ideally, other of­fend­ers.”

Tucker said Merid­ian also will train those ap­ply­ing on how to put to­gether busi­ness plans and ex­e­cute their strate­gies.

“They think th­ese guys won’t give them a chance,” Tucker said. “You want them to be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens, and they need the ap­pro­pri­ate train­ing to do that.”

“We want to help th­ese folks be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens.” Stan­ley Tucker, Merid­ian Man­age­ment

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