Prison entrepreneurship programme: Leonhard

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This is a case study featured in our From inmates to entrepreneurs report. Click here for the full report page

In April 2009, Bernward Jopen was reading the Financial Times when he came across an article about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas. So inspired was he by its achievements that he immediately booked a flight to visit the programme, spending a week there familiarising himself with its ins and outs. Bernward – himself a serial entrepreneur with experience in the telecommunications and IT sectors – had already established an entrepreneurship programme at the Technical University in Munich, and saw no reason why his expertise couldn’t be applied to prisoners in his native Bavaria. His enthusiasm soon spread to his daughter, Maren, who quit her own job in marketing to help him set up a prison entrepreneurship programme known as “Leonhard” – named after the patron saint of prisoners, Leonard of Noblac, who famously asked the Frankish King Clovis for the right to liberate prisoners worthy of forgiveness.

“Right from the start we were fascinated by the amount of talent that goes to waste in prisons. Despite finding themselves in what most of us would consider a hopeless situation, many prisoners express a real confidence about the future”, explains Maren. Despite initial skepticism towards the idea from criminal justice practitioners, in 2010 Bernward and Maren put €50,000 of their personal savings towards getting the programme off the ground. They approached the Bavarian Justice Ministry with their idea, and soon afterwards held their first course in a prison with seven participants. While there were some teething problems to start with – such as choosing the right prisoners and understanding how to make business concepts appealing to them – the success of the pilot led to further contracts and roughly €300,000 worth of annual funding from the European Social Fund.

Leonhard run their intensive 20-week programme biannually in Stadelheim prison for 15 to 18 male prisoners selected from Bavaria’s 36 prisons Participants must speak fluent German, while sex offenders and serial fraud offenders are barred from applying. After just six years, Leonhard is able to boast several success stories – including one graduate with businesses in everything from search engine optimisation and marketing to plumbing and fibreglass production – and a reoffending rate of just 11% compared to the German national average of 46%. While only around a third of graduates immediately start businesses, 60% go on to secure a job or commence further education within two months – outcomes that are just as valuable to the father and daughter duo.

The model

Prison:

  • Participants discuss their business ideas, learn to write a business plan, and think about how they would go about implementing it. Seminars help them to develop refined ideas that have a realistic chance of making it to the market. While participants are allowed to work with laptops, Internet access is not allowed, so volunteers from local colleges carry out research on their behalf and advise them on their business plans.
  • Alongside practical business training, prisoners receive comprehensive personal coaching in which they learn to “apply their individuality in positive ways”. The coaching covers topics as diverse as “taking responsibility, self-belief, motivation, flexible thinking patterns, overcoming obstacles, group dynamics and leadership, and handling bankruptcy”.
  • Leonhard host several events with professionals from the political, business and scientific spheres. These successful leaders and entrepreneurs give participants valuable feedback on their business plans and are potential mentors for them post-release.

Post-release

  • Every graduate who passes a final exam is accredited as an “Innovation & Business Creation Specialist” with a certificate from the Steinbeis Hochschule (a tertiary education institution) in Berlin, an official partner of the Leonhard programme. Graduates interested in further education can use the certificate as a pathway into a bachelor of arts degree.
  • Every Leonhard graduate is assigned a personal supervisor who gives them tailored advice and support. Whether a graduate is interested in starting a business or prefers applying for a job, he is supported in doing so. Those with specific financial and psychological needs and/or substance abuse problems are referred to specialist providers.
  • Leonhard also run a standalone mentoring programme which connects graduates with successful entrepreneurs and executives. Mentors are chosen based on their ability to help a particular participant, as well as the relevance of their profession or sector to the participant’s own interests. Both parties meet every three to four weeks for mentoring sessions, in which graduates get advice on building a business or a professional career, introductions to other potential mentors, as well as general support.