People who have been incarcerated routinely struggle with employment barriers, including a jobless rate that hovered around 25 percent before the COVID-19 crisis hit, according to the Prison Policy Institute.  Faced with unemployment rates the nation has not seen since the Great Depression and employer policies tilted against hiring people with a criminal record, thousands of formerly incarcerated people are turning to entrepreneurship to attain financial security.

But for those who have a criminal record, starting a business can present some unique challenges. Lending institutions can be hesitant to extend credit to someone with a criminal record. States might decline liquor licenses, occupational or professional licenses needed to start a business. Government programs, such as the recent small business loans through the federal coronavirus CARES Act, were unavailable to people with a criminal record. Those hurdles do not stop people determined to start a business, but they do require determination to overcome.

While entrepreneurs who have been involved in the justice system face unique challenges, a panel of CEOs and business owners who were previously incarcerated managed to find success despite facing all of those barriers and their stories of success stand in stark contrast to the usual narrative shared about formerly incarcerated people across the United States. They are not overcoming those barriers — they are shattering expectations many people have of what formerly incarcerated people are capable of doing.

“Business Beyond Barriers: Formerly Incarcerated CEOs Pave the Way” was hosted by Safe & Just Michigan, and co-sponsored by Nation Outside, a Michigan nonprofit led by justice-impacted people, on Wednesday. It featured Catastrophic Creations Founding Partner Gabriel Blauer, 70 Million Jobs and Commissary Club CEO Richard Bronson, Flikshop Founder and CEO Marcus Bullock, Safe & Just Michigan Outreach Director Troy Rienstra as moderator and Washington state representative candidate Tarra Simmons as convener.

Issues discussed include:

  • Struggles panelist faced in seeking traditional forms of employment.
  • The stories of what inspired each panelist to create their own business.
  • Tips for formerly incarcerated persons to find employment
  • Idea for what could be done better in prisons to prepare people for release and employment.
  • Personal stories of the importance of family, friends, and community support during incarceration and upon release.


You can watch the entire conversation below:

You can also watch a TED talk given by Flikshop’s Founder and CEO Marcus Bullock here.