Prison entrepreneurship programme: Enterprise Exchange

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

Enterprise Exchange (EE) is an organisation that specialises in helping people with additional barriers – including but not limited to prisoners and ex-offenders – transform their lives by becoming self-employed or starting a business. EE was founded on the realisation that mainstream business support is often too expensive or not suitable for marginalised demographics. It is run by Phil Ashford – an experienced and accredited business adviser with a background in both the private and public sectors – and Benna McCarthy, an experienced entrepreneur-turned qualified life coach.

In partnership with HMP Lewes and the University of Brighton, Enterprise Exchange put together a programme in which prisoners are offered intensive support to become selfemployed, both while they are serving their sentences and afterwards in the community. The support includes business advice and guidance, but also tackles some of the underlying issues that need to be resolved to enable success – for example, confidence and self esteem. “Prisoners are a particularly vulnerable group of people that often need individual attention to come to terms with their past and open up, which is why we combine group sessions with personal support”, Phil explains. “Courses should be practical, not academic – in my experience anything that reminds them of school is a no go.”

Like some of the other organisations profiled in this report, EE encourages successful graduates to become peer mentors, “something that has proven to be extremely powerful for this client group”. One of EE’s most innovative features is its work with corporate partners such as John Lewis and Legal & General, who supply their staff to act as mentors or “enterprise managers”. Programme participants benefit from access to professional expertise, while the companies give their employees an unusual and highly rewarding experience.

Enterprise Exchange hasn’t been working with prisoners for long, but over an 18 month period it has already helped 42 out of 124 prisoners from Lewes Prison into self-employment. Nonetheless, Phil is outspokenly critical of features of the criminal justice system that are holding back the expansion of enterprise training for prisoners and ex-offenders. “Prisoners get moved around far too frequently and unpredictably, which interrupts courses and damages their sense of stability. There tends to be a focus on quality over quantity in course provision, which leaves a lot of prisoners feeling cynical about their ability to help them.” Like others, his experience with the Transformation Rehabilitation reforms has left a lot to be desired: “We’ve found that the large ‘prime’ providers of the rehabilitation contracts are reluctant to work with third-sector organisations, using us as bid-candy without actually paying us for services.”

Support offered includes: 

  • Workshops on relevant business topics including an introduction to self-employment, business planning, and sales and marketing.
  • Intensive one-to-one coaching to develop the business skills required and improve confidence and self-esteem. The coaching is delivered by experienced business coaches who are specialists in working with offenders and clients from excluded backgrounds. This support carries on after prisoners are released.
  • Market research. Prisoners have barriers to conducting market research, due to the fact that they do not have access to the internet in prison. In collaboration with prisoners, advisers provide support by conducting the relevant market research to aid progression.
  • Signposting. Individuals are passed onto the relevant agencies and partners who may be able to help them with funding, employment or any other support they need on a personal or practical level.
  • Networking. By helping prisoners ‘plug into’ mainstream business networks, foundations may be laid for support after they leave prison to give them a much higher chance of success.

EE course for Brighton Probation

At a course delivered to recently released ex-offenders in Brighton, the Centre for Entrepreneurs observed Enterprise Exchange and director Phil Ashford in action. Participants (who were in their first of six weekly workshops) initially shared their business ideas, which included a bespoke furniture company, a restaurant and becoming a freelance rock-climbing instructor. They explained their reasons for wanting to become entrepreneurs, such as being their own boss, feeling respected, being more motivated, and choosing their own hours. When asked what success meant for them, responses varied from providing for family, escaping the revolving door of prison and giving back to other ex-offenders, to rewarding employees and becoming wealthy. Using informal, relatable language, Phil explained to those present the complexities of HMRC registration, and encouraged them to promote their businesses through avenues like the FSB, LinkedIn and the local Chamber of Commerce.