Pilot program turns women inmates into business owners • Latest publication

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By Anna Skinner and Rachel Greenberg

When inmate Jennifer Bellah leaves Hamilton County Jail, she must follow a detailed business plan to start her own bakery business. She will soon be a graduate of the new Launch HOPE Foundation, which equips female inmates with skills like sewing or entrepreneurship to prepare them for life outside of prison so they are less likely to return to prison.

The Launch HOPE Foundation began in the Hamilton County Jail earlier this year. It is only available to female inmates. The program is led by Butler Professor Kristi Mitchell, who teaches women entrepreneurship skills. Part of the program teaches women tangible skills, such as sewing.

Bellah, serving a sentence for theft, is grateful for the Launch HOPE Foundation’s experience. She said it was hard to get a good job as she had a history of theft, but now she plans to start her own business.

“It’s like a carousel,” she said. “I don’t want to steal. I don’t want to do drugs. But I can’t wait three weeks to get a paycheck because I lived in a hotel. I have to go out there and do this (steal). You’ve never had a hand to get off (the carousel), and now I have that hand to get off. They do. God put me here for a reason, because I wouldn’t be stopped alone. “

Bellah previously worked for Cake Bake in Broad Ripple and is experienced in decorating cakes. As she was going through her business start-up plan with the Launch HOPE Foundation, she wanted to start a wedding cakes and cupcakes business, but realized she needed more exposure in the industry before creating that dream.

“I still make cupcakes and cakes, but to get started, I’ll be doing business-to-business. To start as a decorator, you have to have a (household name) name, ”said Bellah. “To establish myself in the early years, I make cupcakes, cookies, English gourmet muffins and scones for companies so I don’t have a shop front.”

Bellah’s baked goods are sold in other stores, offices, cafes, cafeterias, and hospitals.

Bellah is due to be released on December 28th or earlier, and she is eager to get started. She said her dream felt real.

“I’ve always thought of starting my own business, but I didn’t know how to get there,” said Bellah. “I had no idea. I would never have had the confidence to do it either. So now I’ve literally put an entire business plan in place. All we’re waiting for is for me to get out. It feels wonderful.

“(Mitchell) taught us a lot how to get from point A to point B.”

Mitchell, an Indianapolis resident, teaches women in prison and a business accelerator program after their release.

“I review business concepts and when they are approved they have the option to go to the Business Accelerator where they bring their company to market,” said Mitchell.

Internship college students help the new entrepreneurs implement a proof-of-concept plan, marketing, website design, and sourcing from suppliers.

“Whatever your unique business needs, they work with the entrepreneur – not just for them, but with them so that the entrepreneur learns at the same time,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said much of the course had to do with changing the mindset of inmates.

“When we’re in jail, we work with the growth mindset a lot,” said Mitchell. “Just having a growth mindset helps when they drop out. When you change the way you think, the things you think about change. It’s a key factor in relation to, ‘I can do this. I don’t have to do what I did before.’ It gives them hope that there is more than just a low job for them. “

Nine women are enrolled in the Hamilton County Jail program. Another 10 women are on a waiting list.

The Launch HOPE Foundation also has an Entrepreneurship Center at the Phalen Leadership Academy in east Indianapolis. Three new entrepreneurship centers are planned.

More information is available at launchhopefoundation.org.

Jennifer Bellah is taking a sewing class.

Sheriff’s view

Hamilton County Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush said the goal of the Launch HOPE Foundation is to show female inmates that the county is invested in their success.

“We’re trying to invest in them and hopefully equip them with skills that will help them be more confident and successful when they leave here,” Quakenbush said.

Although most inmates at Hamilton County Jail are jailed for an average of 60 days, Quakenbush said it was still important to teach them business skills.

“Obviously they’ve hit rock bottom and we’re trying to step in to keep them from coming back,” Quakenbush said. “How do we help them to be more successful and productive in society? That’s what we’re really concentrating on. “


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