An inmate at Southeastern Correctional Institution talks about his experience with the Ohio Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

Making her way through security at the Southeastern Correctional Institution (SCI) in Lancaster last August, Erin Halleran wasn’t unnerved by the chain-link fencing, razor wire and barred doors and windows. The real source of her anxiety sat just a few steps away, across a hallway and in the facility’s visitation room.

There, 19 men sat, waiting to take the first step toward becoming entrepreneurs. But Halleran, a fourth-year finance student at Fisher, wasn’t nervous about the inmates, their backgrounds or why they were incarcerated.

As the director of the Ohio Prison Entrepreneurship Program (OPEP), Halleran was much more pragmatic, focusing instead on the perception of the program:

Would the inmates find the course interesting?

Would they like her teaching?

Would OPEP, a labor of love for Halleran and so many at Fisher, be successful?

Finding a problem and solving it

For Paul Reeder, entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem and finding unique ways to solve it. It’s a mantra that Reeder and The Ohio State Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), weaves into its programs, events and curriculum.

So, a year ago, when CIE was presented with the opportunity to expand and improve OPEP, a program that helps incarcerated individuals navigate employment challenges they face upon their release, Reeder, his team and the Fisher community went to work.

Pooling strategy, expertise and passion from the Fisher Leadership Initiative, the Honors Cohort program and students enrolled in Professor Judy Tansky’s social enterprise courses, the group augmented and improved an existing framework originally created by Jason Dolin, founder of OPEP.

“The students, faculty and staff were an impressive group. Each of them brought a dedication and energy that, quite honestly, I had not expected,” Dolin said. “The folks at Fisher were ‘all in.’ The faculty members brought years of experience and learning; the students brought energy and enthusiasm; and the staff was wonderful — facilitating and supporting the program in ways I never could have imagined. Their work helped develop an expanded curriculum, effective outreach to volunteers, and great enthusiasm within SCI.”

Thanks to funding provided by the City of Columbus, the group from Fisher more than doubled the length of the program — from six weeks to 14 — and completely revamped the curriculum. Halleran and other undergraduate students spent a semester creating the courses, incorporating lessons, books and materials from their entrepreneurship curriculum at Fisher. They also utilized their personal networks to bring in guest speakers to share insights on topics including securing funding, marketing and legal structuring.

“There was talk of using pre-packaged, plug-and-play curricula from other programs, but we took so much pride in it being something we developed ourselves that we wanted to really make this an extension of entrepreneurship education that was available to us at Fisher and Ohio State,” Halleran said.

Gino Smith pitches his idea for clothing store as part of the Ohio Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

First day of school

Halleran’s foray into teaching inside prison was like any other first day of school — excitement and apprehension shared by teacher and students alike. What broke the ice and set the tone for the rest of the 14-week curriculum was, of all things, a joke.

“I cracked a joke about Ohio State football, which went over well,” Halleran said. “From then on, I think the men saw me as someone who was approachable and, through the program, was someone who had their best interests in mind and wanted them to succeed.”

OPEP Erin Halleran
Fisher student and OPEP Director Erin Halleran kicks off the business idea pitch event at the Southeastern Correctional Institution.

As the students learned the skills associated with creating businesses or products — or improving upon existing ones — they did so while working toward completing a capstone project. To complete the course and earn a certificate, each student was required to conceptualize, research and create a product or service and pitch their ideas to a panel of experts and an audience of friends, family and prison staff.

With Fisher Dean Anil Makhija, undergraduate student and entrepreneur David Butcher, and Will Burris, founder and CEO of virtual-reality technology company, serving as judges, the students spent an evening pitching concepts ranging from food trucks and restaurants, to home and automobile repair services to clothing and apparel stores.

OPEP Judges
Will Burris (left), Fisher undergraduate student David Butcher, and Dean Anil Makhija serve as judges at the OPEP pitch event.

“There’s no question that having Fisher involved added academic credibility and administrative strength to the program, and Ohio State’s involvement was a great motivator for the students,” Dolin said. “They knew this was a serious effort, and it is clear from their work that they pushed themselves and expanded their understanding of entrepreneurship as a result of Ohio State’s involvement.

“For many, if not most, of them, having graduated from a Fisher-based course was a tremendous and justified source of pride and helped give them hope that upon their re-entry to society they can become productive and contributing members of the community.”

Royce Thacker pitches his idea for a recreational center during the OPEP event.

Paying forward

Halleran, who will graduate this spring and begin a full-time job as an analyst in innovation consulting at Kalypso, recently began wrapping up her involvement with OPEP by digitizing curriculum materials and preparing to hand them off to the next cohort of teachers and students.

Interest in the program among inmates at SCI remains strong, with many of this year’s students wanting to serve as mentors to the next OPEP class. Dolin, Halleran and everyone associated with the program is working to raise awareness and share its impact while also trying to secure additional funding to continue the program at SCI. The group’s long-term goal is to scale OPEP to include correctional facilities across the state.

A condensed version of OPEP has drawn interest and funding from the City of Columbus and will be offered to inmates at the Franklin County Jail in 2018.

“Halfway through the program, one of the students came up to me and said ‘Miss Halleran, we understand what we’re getting out of this class, but why are you doing this? Why is the university doing this,’ ” Halleran recalled. “It was a great opportunity in that moment to tell them what this meant for the college.

“That this was a way to pay forward through my education, to take what is being taught and what I’m learning in the classroom and to use it to help others better themselves.”

Billy Joe Caudill pitches his idea for a food truck at the OPEP event.

This was a way to pay forward through my education, to take what is being taught and what I’m learning in the classroom and to use it to help others better themselves.”

Erin HalleranFourth-year student,
Director, Ohio Prison Entrepreneurship Program