The stigma of a criminal background can make the dream of owning your own business seem out of reach. But for Omar Acosta, access to an entrepreneurship skills program was the jumpstart he needed to start his own business and overcome the barriers of his criminal record.
“I’ve experienced pushback from companies and agencies,” Acosta said of his attempts to find resources and guidance to start his own business after having been incarcerated.
“I kept researching about programs, but I was still needing that one breakthrough to proceed with my small business journey,” he said.
But that all changed when Acosta received an email about Turnaround Houston’s Entrepreneurship Program, which aims to provide skills and resources to previously incarcerated individuals looking to start their own business.
“A lot of people in my situation, we have good ideas, but we don’t have the guidance,” said Acosta, who is one of 13 graduates of the first class launched in January.
The entrepreneurial program is part of Mayor Turner’s larger Turnaround Houston initiative, which gives hard-to-employ Houstonians access to job training opportunities and resources through readiness fairs. It’s the only entrepreneurial program that targets previously incarcerated individuals in the Houston and Harris County area.
“There’s programs within the prison system, but not once they are released,” said Abigail Gonzalez, who manages the entrepreneurship program, which was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ DollarWise Campaign.
Gonzalez, a business development coordinator for the Office of Business Opportunity, believes the program is helping to break down barriers for previously incarcerated individuals looking to start their own business.
“It’s time for us to be more accepting of the fact that people can change and that their past mistakes don’t define them, so that we can help them to become successful individuals and contribute to our economy just like everyone else,” Gonzalez said.
Building a foundation
Program participants attended two-hour workshops every other Saturday for five weeks at the Shepard-Acres Homes Neighborhood Library. Workshops covered business plan basics, marketing, financial literacy, entrepreneurial strengths, and how to pitch their business. At the end of the program, participants were required to submit a business plan.
“Through the meetings and workshops, I’ve learned enough to get my LLC and EIN to prepare myself with the foundation,” said Acosta, who recently founded New Age Data LLC, a telecommunications and wireless company.
Gonzalez said the entrepreneurship program is producing tangible results.
“To be able to witness the first cohort graduate was a very proud moment, and I’m glad that the Office of Business Opportunity and the City of Houston were able to do that for the community, especially in one of our complete communities Acres Homes,” she said.
“It is exciting to see the powerful and positive impact that TEP has had on these students lives,” said OBO Director Carlecia D. Wright. “And thanks to our partners at Microsoft, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Staples, OBO is also helping them get started by providing them with technology, seed funds and office supplies.”
Graduates of the program received a $300 start-up grant to help cover fees for filing forms with the state to start a business; for example, forms to designate a limited liability company. The grant also pays for a Staples supply pack of basic office supplies, a new laptop from Microsoft, and a $25 Microsoft gift card.
“Now I’m doing things instead of just thinking about them,” Acosta said of his experience in the program. “My next step is to start getting contracts and bids.”
“I’m very hopeful for my future,” he said. “I want to let Mr. Turner know he did something good.”
To learn more about the program, visit www.houstontx.gov/turnaround/.