This is a case study featured in our From inmates to entrepreneurs report. Click here for the full report page
According to Michael Corrigan, entrepreneurship was something in his blood from an early age. While at school he made and sold biscuits, and later earned pocket money buying and selling football tickets. When in work, he morphed from being a butler for The Lord Mayor of London, to doing several stints at various trade bodies and a financial regulator. He was then recruited by Deloitte, where, as an expert on pensions regulation, he helped expand their regulatory monitoring team from just a couple of people to 180 in the space of three years – “it was good business for us”, he says.
He had become a partner but, wanting a fresh challenge, Michael went on to help Nigeria-based Access Bank establish operations in the UK. It was, on reflection, a poor decision as it led to him being charged with signing off documentation in London. Michael was sentenced to three years in prison for “fraud by abuse of position of power”, of which he served 16 months in Brixton prison. Before being charged, he had a first stab at setting up a small business with Mayfair Economics, a small consultancy established to help promising entrepreneurs write good business plans, something “many of them couldn’t do for toffee”.
From his first day in prison, Michael’s professional experience and entrepreneurial personality kept him very busy. “As an exconsultant, I noticed many flaws in the prison system: knowledge all over the place, poor quality statistics, and an appalling standard of education – it was just total chaos. The prison system is good at following procedures and avoiding accidents, but terrible at project management and solving problems.” Prison management were quick to seize on Michael’s expertise, getting him to work on rationalising Brixton’s ROTL (Release On Temporary Licence) regime and giving CV and business advice to other prisoners. Along with fellow inmate Steve Newell – who also had an entrepreneurial background – Michael became what one might call a “star” inmate, paraded in front of anyone important visiting the prison.
One of those people was Andrew Dixon, a former banker and angel investor with a keen interest in ex-offender employment and self-employment opportunities. Andrew was impressed with the work Michael and Steve were doing to prepare prisoners for employment – and in some cases self-employment – and offered to support them financially to do similar work on the outside. “We all saw a clear gap in the rehabilitation market for such services, so Andrew asked me to write up a business plan”. At around the same time, Michael became eligible for ROTL, which he credits as “instrumental” in allowing him to do online research on the major players – prime contractors, local councils, Community Rehabilitation Companies – in the rehabilitation space.
Once released, Michael and Steve officially established Prosper4, an umbrella entity composed of various social enterprises committed to reducing reoffending among ex-offenders. Just as the money started running out, Prosper4 secured a contract with Working Links, one of the major contracting companies in the sector, to take over a failing programme training ex-offenders to start up businesses. “We used our own experiences of starting a business to guide people through the various challenges you face, such as raising funding and getting insurance. My brother is an insurance broker, and he helped link our participants with companies known for insuring ex-offenders.”
Meeting Joanna Hill [COO of the Start Up Loans Company] was another big moment for Michael and Prosper4. “She supported what we were doing and encouraged us to apply for a Start Up Loan, which until then we had assumed were unavailable from ex-offenders. That relationship enabled us to cross paths with Lord Young – one of the founders of SULCO – and all of a sudden we were having our photo taken in front of 10 Downing Street, less than a year after leaving prison.”
Just as things had started going well, several unforeseeable events took place that threatened to derail Prosper4’s progress. Most significantly, both business partners fell gravely ill: Michael with sepsis [blood poisoning], Steve with a serious gastric band complication. According to Michael, this “probably had something to do with our time in prison: we both had vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of sunlight”. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, in their second year the UK implemented a new EU directive – supposedly designed to stop terrorist finance – preventing anyone with a fraud conviction from bidding for government contracts. “That was a serious problem for us given that most prison and rehabilitation work is on public contracts”, Michael explains.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, and so it was in this case. While being bedridden was “not ideal”, it taught Michael and Steve the importance of collaboration, something they had not previously emphasised. “Given that we both had fraud convictions and neither of us was able to do much, we had to delegate more responsibility to other staff, and partner with other organisations, both of which have become key features of Prosper4.” Since then, both Steve and Michael have made full recoveries and Prosper4 has continued to gain traction, winning contracts with the Ministry of Justice and private sector firms Serco and Mitie.
Reflecting on the past few years, Michael makes several observations. “Firstly, as an entrepreneur you have to account for the wholly unexpected. You might think that having a business partner gives you insurance against sickness, but what if both of you fall ill? I always bring up illness now when preparing people to start a business.” He also believes people don’t quite realise just how vulnerable ex-prisoners are. “When I left prison, people described me as vulnerable, and, although I was loathe to admit it, I’ve come to accept it as the truth. Prison separates you from everything that is normal – family, friends, work – and picking it all up again is never easy.”