Shante Delgado came from a troubled background, has tattoos, and is part of Houston’s LGBTQ community. She said it has been difficult finding a place she liked to work because she faced discrimination because of her body art.
“The tattoos I have, people weren’t cool with it,” she said. “I’ve been on job interviews on Zoom meetings and once they saw me, they decided I wasn’t the person they were looking for. It is what it is.”
While her criminal background also did not help, finding the city’s Turnaround Entrepreneurship Program did. Delgado’s participation in the program buoyed her dream of making her own way as the future owner of her own business.
The program began in 2019 as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Turnaround Houston! initiative aimed at helping Houstonians with criminal backgrounds overcome barriers to employment. Having faced barriers to employment because of their records, the program gives participants, or “cohorts” as they are called, the knowledge and guidance to reach their small business goals.
Delgado’s goal is to create a lead generation business for insurance agents and agencies. “I plan on employing people from a diverse background that were once in the position I was in, thinking there was no other opportunities for them other than working in the fast-food industry or retail. So, giving them that opportunity that someone once gave me is why I’m here,” she said.
The Mayor’s Office of Business Opportunities oversees the initiative, along with the Turnaround Houston Job & Readiness Fair, which was created to help Houstonians overcome barriers to employment.
External Affairs & Workforce Development Manager Pearl Cajoles said many TEP participants began their entrepreneurship journey out of necessity, having faced barriers to employment because of their records.
“This program has given participants the knowledge and guidance to reach their small business goals. Through TEP, we empower our participants to overcome the stigma of having a criminal record,” she said.
To graduate, participants must create a viable business plan with the assistance of mentors from , SCORE Houston, an organization that offers free business mentors to up and coming business entrepreneurs, Cajoles said.
The cohorts learn about personal and business credit, business foundations, budgeting and cash flow, legal business structure, financial planning and projections, and marketing and digital implementation.
The cohorts also attend one-on-one financial mentorship sessions with The BridgePath, a non-profit organization that offers credit management and capital to low-income individuals and small business owners.
Cajoles said 19 cohorts have completed the program since its inception. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a suspension of classes in 2020. It resumed in 2021 as a virtual only program. In-person classes began again this year. Ten cohorts began the program and only two have left.
Jessica Del Greco, an OBO business development coordinator, credits the program’s success this year to tailoring the program to the cohorts needs.
“When we looked at the numbers last year, we wanted to see what we needed to do to stop people from leaving the program. Last year, this program had quizzes and deadlines but didn’t include teaching how to create a business plan,” she said.
How did they solve the issue? “We got rid of the quizzes and deadlines and wanted to make it an experience that was catered to the cohort and be respectful of their life outside of this program,” Del Greco said. “It’s important to have a work-life balance, so we wanted to pay respect to that. We don’t anyone to stop coming to the program because that gives them anxiety or stress.”
Del Greco also emphasized how important it is to help cohorts improve their personal credit scores. They are required to have three one-on-one meetings with a credit mentor. They dive into their credit score to see how to improve it, grow it and maintain it.
Cohorts also learn how to keep a personal budget. “That’s important because when it comes to starting a business, if you have poor management over your personal budget, it will be difficult to gain funds for that business,” Del Greco said.
“We see a lot of people needing to put some of their own money into their business. If you’re not great with your personal funds, you will probably struggle to save up enough money to get your business off the ground,” she said.
Del Greco said the program also strives to boost cohort’s self-esteem. Many of the cohorts havehad jobs, but oftentimes they are short-lived, she said.
“We’ve also heard from some that they would start a job and then a few weeks later be laid off. It’s why they chose to take this route. Denial over and over is tough, especially on your confidence,” she said. “Even outside this program it’s a common trend. You keep getting told ‘no,’ so what do you do? You start your own business because you’re not going to lay yourself off from a job.”
Del Greco said there’s a lot of judgement cast on people who were previously incarcerated. “We have seen that this group has to work so much harder to prove that they are good, trustworthy workers, so much to the point they are going to do it themselves and start their own business,” she said.
Delgado said blocking out criticism and distractions is essential. She should know. She works full time while also being a full-time student at the University of Houston-Downtown and a member of the Gamma Iota Sigma fraternity.
“Even though there are things that you’re going to have to give up on, like fun, there’s a bigger picture,” she said. “Don’t steer yourself off that focus. Once you do that, you open the road up to other things that will make you lose focus.”