Healthy Business
May 4, 2022

Changing The Lives Of Ex-Convicts With Entrepreneurship

John McLaughlin shares his experiences and realizations as an entrepreneurship instructor to ex-convicts in a minimum security prison.

As a Christian understanding God's forgiveness and gifting of a second chance for his own life, John wanted to extend the same grace to ex-convicts looking for a second chance. John began to teach business classes to felons and other convicts in prison. In doing so, John realized ex-convicts make some of the best employees and entrepreneurs.

The stigma around ex-convicts is that they're bad and will always be bad. John realized there are many ex-convicts who are very sincere, and have had a lot of time to think and reflect on their lives in prison. Many become very spiritual reading the Bible and seeking true heart change and new ways to think.

The sad part is, prison systems aren't usually built to reform convicts. And for those who truly want to change, even when released from prison, they have a very difficult time finding gainful employment. Which is one reason why many ex-cons become entrepreneurs. It's the only way they can make an honest living.

John realized many ex-convicts just need an opportunity. Many ex-cons just need someone to give them a chance. John took those chances himself and employed ex-convicts, and he saw fantastic results. For business owners who are looking for quality employees, John encourages us to keep an open mind and look at an unusual pool of talent to recruit from.

JOHN'S BOOK - Lifeline To A Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners




John McLaughlin is a successful Entrepreneur who found a way to use business to help bring reform and change to many convicts lives.

Changing The Lives Of Ex-Convicts With Entrepreneurship

In this episode, I got John McLaughlin on the show with me. What's going on, John?

Brett, thank you so much for having me. I'm a fan of the show. I listen to your other podcast. Thank you for having me on. I greatly appreciate it.

Thank you so much for being on the show. We have a very interesting topic. John has launched a book. He's been an entrepreneur most of his life. He started some businesses and has been successful. He had some failures along the way like we all have. Most of his successes have been rising to the top in entrepreneurship.

In this episode, we're going to focus on a book that you wrote. It's called Lifeline to a Soul. The topic was about you entering into this season of life. You wanted to make a difference and an impact. You found yourself teaching in prison entrepreneurship of all places. We're going to dive into that, John. Before I talk about that, let's talk about you. Who is John McLaughlin?

I got into entrepreneurship in a very roundabout way. I'm not a risk taker, at least I don't think I am. When I got out of college, my father was starting his company. He invited me to come to work with him and I thought it would be a very risky proposition. We were working out of the dining room and I thought, “This is going to be a lot of time that when we go out of business or if we go out of business, that I could be wasting.” I told him, “I'll work with you for two years but that's it. After that, I'm going to go somewhere safe.”

That was 1987. Here we are in 2023. I'm still working in the same industry for the same business. I learned along the way that entrepreneurship, although it seems like a risky move, putting your fate in someone else's hands is a risky move. Going to work for somebody else and giving them that control is much more risky. If you're working for yourself, you can make changes along the way. If you have struggles like we did, you change direction and find a way to bring value to your market. I’m a very unlikely entrepreneur but once I got into it, I would never go work for somebody else like a lot of people.

I'm the same way. It'd be hard to go into an interview for another job.

Can you imagine somebody else telling you how to do something? It goes against your nature once you get a taste of it. It's a great life. It's a lot of fun. You look forward to work every day. I always do. You don't know what's going to happen. It's unpredictable. You're not doing the same job over and over. What happened to me was I was in a small company and I realized I had to get reeducated. I was losing track. I was using old software and old programs.

My customers were telling me, “Why are you using this old stuff? This isn't current. You need to get current.” I think, “How am I going to do that?” When you're working for yourself, there's no training program in place. I went back to school and got an MBA. It took me five years, one class at a time, and going at night. It was a great experience. I learned a lot. I applied it. I learned how to stay current. As we were graduating, somebody told me, “Do you realize this MBA qualifies you to teach at a community college,” which I didn't know. I was like, “I'm going to do that.”

I'm the kind of person that once I get my mind on something, I'm going to play it out. Determination is what gets you where you want to go, more so than skillset or anything like that. I've been trying to get into community colleges for seven years. I went back, got a teaching certificate, and tried different things. I was a guest speaker. I met everybody I could possibly meet in the field and nothing.

One day, I saw an application and it said, “Looking for an entrepreneurship instructor at a minimum security prison.” The reason I remembered it is they had put that out six months before. I applied and they didn't call me. I was sure they would call me. They didn't even need an MBA. It was some business experience preferred. When I did this time on the application, they had a place where you put your teaching philosophy.

The first time I did it, I put engaged the learner and what I thought they wanted to hear. This time I wrote in all caps, “There is no reason for you to not interview me for this job. If you hire me, I will put the same energy into it that I did to take my little startup business from the dining room to an industry leader.” They'll hate that. They'll never call me once they see that but it felt good to write it. The next day, the phone rang and it said, “We would like to interview you for the job at the minimum security prison.” What do you know? I had to get their attention but it got me in there.

To be honest, if it didn't take seven years to get there, I would've turned that job down. They interviewed me in the prison. We walked around the prison and I'm seeing these big scary guys. I'm thinking, “I am badly outnumbered here. Anything could happen.” They show me the classroom and I'm going to be all by myself. It's in a bunk room. There are 50 guys sleeping in the next room and there are 10 guys in the class and me. I'm thinking, “There's no guard in here with me. I have no telephone. This is going to be awful.”

I wanted to teach so badly. I was like, “I'm not turning it down. This is it. It's this or nothing. I'll probably never get this opportunity.” I took it. As we were packing up after the interview, they offered me a job. I took it and said, “Tell me what we are doing if there's a riot.” They all laughed and said, “That'll never happen.” I said, “It's okay. I'm going to take the job. I'm not scared. I just want to know. Do I crawl into the desk? Do I push a button? Do I have a weapon? What do we do because it's going to happen?” They were like, “This will never happen here. This is a minimum-security prison.”

That's what a lot of people think. “These are scary people. They're violent and dangerous. I'm going to be all alone. They're going to jump on me.” It never happened but that's the mindset that I had. In my first class, I got in there and realized after doing it for a little while that these guys aren't much different than me. I did some dumb things when I was their age too. I got lucky that I didn't get caught. These guys got caught and they're sorry. They want to do better.

Teaching entrepreneurship came naturally to me. For a lot of these guys, it's their best move because you come out with a felony and it's hard to find a job. I told them, “If you can find a way to bring value to your marketplace, be it landscaping, car detailing, or whatever you want to do, whatever you're good at, we're not going to ask you about your background. We're going to take the value that you give us. We’ll thank you and pay you for it.” You'd be amazed. The entrepreneurial spirit that's in there was misdirected at an early age. They just needed a little guide.

Ex-Convicts: One would be amazed with the entrepreneurial spirit of a person at an early age. You just needed a little guide.

Here's a quick question on that. You said that this ad was out for six months and you applied for it but I guess it hadn't been filled. There's not a lot of people chomping at the bit to take this position. Can you give us your feedback on why? You mentioned it a little bit. If you want to make an impact, this is a great way to impact people's lives but not a lot of people were chomping at the bit and you did. Can you talk to us about that?

When you start a small business, you have very few resources. What I learned about teaching there is these guys don't need much direction. They need a little direction, help, and guidance but they're like me and you. When you walk in, you see these guys in matching prison uniforms. They've got tattoos. All they do is lift weights. They're all huge. They're very physically intimidating.

To survive in a prison, you need to be physically intimidating. Your first impression is this is a very dangerous place and these are dangerous people. They're trying to look that way. They've got to walk about them that says, “Don't mess with me.” They lift weights and they're big strong guys. They've got tattoos. You get to know them and you're like, “This is a facade. This is how they have to act to survive in this environment.” Don't judge them for that because they're a lot like me and you. They just got put in this system early.

I would encourage anybody who wanted to reach out that these are people who need help. They're not getting much in the system. The system isn't designed to rehabilitate necessarily or educate. It's designed to warehouse more than anything, put people where they bring them, keep them there, count them, and feed them minimally. It's a great place if you're looking to serve. You'll get a lot of bang for your buck teaching. You don't have to give them much. Just a little bit and they'll go a long way. I've got two guys working for me that I met there and they're doing great.

That's awesome. They got out and worked for you.

One of them took me to it when he took my class and I was like, “I'm not going to make any promises.” He kept asking. He wanted this bad so I said, “I'll give you a six-month trial. We're going to have a conversation to make sure we're both in a good place,” but we never had the conversation. He took the bomb and ran with it. It's been amazing. In addition to that, a very good friend of mine. You don't want to judge people for their past transgressions because we've all done things we're not proud of.

This has been one of the most impactful things, not only in their life but in your life. Can you talk about the impact? When you first got started, you were scared and filled with fear but somewhere along the way that changed and you were like, “This is exactly where I'm supposed to be.” It transformed your life as well.

It did. My mother was a minister but I was never a very spiritual person. I went to church and all that stuff. I got into it with somebody and we were talking about grace. They said, “Grace is what defines us as Christians. It's the one thing that Christianity has that other religions don't.” Grace is getting what you don't deserve and not getting what you do deserve. Grace is given to everyone. As I'm in there, I'm realizing these guys need to be forgiven, set in the right direction, gone out, and sent no more sort of thing. It did have a very spiritual element to it.

The thing about it is if you go to prison, you've taken away alcohol, drugs, and women. All your vices are gone. You can still get drugs in prison but for most guys, it's not there. You've never seen so many people read the Bible and Quran or have Bible meetings. They're extremely spiritual people. They've been in prison for years and they haven't had any distractions. You realize these are good people that need a little help. That's the reason I wrote the book. I want to change people's perspective on these as evil, bad people who can't be trusted. They're not any more than you and I are. It did lead me down that path, which I didn't expect to go.

How long were you in that position at this minimum security prison?

I started in 2017. If you read the book, you'll realize that the more I got and started empowering these guys, the less the system liked having me there. If I want to get you to start your business, I have to have you believe in yourself. If I can't do that, all the business in the world isn't going to matter at all. You've got to be confident enough to try it. I've got to convince you you can do it first. I spent a lot of time on motivation, confidence, and getting out of this cycle.

Going to prison is a cycle. Recidivism is very high. When you don't train somebody and they haven't been on a computer in 2 or 3 years, they've lost touch with technology, don't know what an app is or anything, and then they come out and try to get a job with a felony, they're almost unmarketable. What are their choices? Go back and do what they know to do. They got to feed their families and their children got to eat. The choices are very limited. That becomes a cycle of despair. It doesn't just hurt the person in the prison. It hurts their families. They don't have a provider or the direction of a father or a mother.

I agree with empowering these guys. I want to dive into that a little bit more. You're giving them hope because a lot of times, they're knocked down. They're kicked and their self-confidence is way down. Even though they look like they’re strong and confident men and women, that's their prison's job sometimes to warehouse them. It takes their self-esteem way lower. When you're empowering them, you're giving them hope. The prison system didn't like that. Can you talk to us about that a little bit more? What was it that the prison didn't like about you empowering and giving these men hope?

What it was is they were getting a little bit of their swagger back. That is certainly something that they don't want to see. They want to keep you under their thumb. Honestly, if I'm running a prison, I understand that that's how we have to do it. We can't play favorites because once we start that, we lose control. We want to control people.

The best way to do that is the Stanford experiment. You dehumanize them. “I don't want to see you as a person.” I'm coming in and saying, “You guys can be amazing people. You need to rethink your future. Here's a motivational book. Here's information on how to buy and sell real estate.” Every time they see these guys growing, it's exactly what they're trying to undo.

Sooner or later, I knew we were going to come to a head and it certainly did. I knew they were going to show me the door eventually and they did. It was not unexpected but it was still worth it because I wasn't going to change my style. The first time that they dictated to me how they wanted me to run my class would be my last day. I wasn't going to put up with that. I owe it to these people. The grace of God was bestowed on me. The trouble that I didn't get in that I should have at twenty years old and would've changed my life forever felt like was my way of paying it back. I wasn't going to change what I was doing.

How long ago did you stop working at that prison?

In 2019, maybe 2 or 3 months before COVID. That would've ended it anyway. All programs ceased for years and they wouldn't let anybody in and out. That was going to come to a close anyhow. It came up right at the end of 2019. They told me I couldn't come back. I didn't have the credentials to be there. Whatever they wanted to say make it very clear they didn't want me in there. That's the way it ended but I knew it would. I was doing what they didn't want me to do but at the same time, I wasn't working for the prison. I was working for the college. They couldn't tell me not to do it. These are people who are used to not having a lot of people say no to them. They're used to getting things done their way.

This has been so transformational and impactful for you that you wrote the book Lifeline to a Soul. To spend that time putting your stories and everything into this book and what you've learned, what's life been like since 2023? Have you done other things with prisoners and people with felonies whom you've hired a couple? Talk to us about your life.

We hired a guy to work with us. He was in the camp. I didn't know him from the camp. He told me that he wanted to start a program to help people coming out of prison. I said, “You got to be kidding. I've got 100 hours of material that is designed exactly for this demographic.” His name is Tavarez James. He and I started an education program. We do classes and bring people in. We focus on two areas, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. You need to learn to handle the money first before you can start a business. You're going to have cashflow problems if you can't save.

I'm still teaching but not as often. I'm on the outside, which is great. I don't have any limitations. I can bring in PowerPoint slides and use the internet. It's been a good time. I'm working with a good motivator. We're a very good team. It's all his company. I'm a volunteer but it's fun to start something again. What I like is taking nothing and making it into something. If you go to the website, you've got some material on there. It'll show you the classes we're doing and all that.

Tavarez started this. He has a story behind his experience. Can you talk to us about that?

He'd be good on your show for sure. He hasn't talked to me too much about it and I'm not one to pry but he went through the prison experience for sure. He realized that there was not much in there to help. He decided that he wasn't going to come back to prison. When you're in there teaching, there are people that have made that decision and there are people that haven't.

The people that aren't coming back are not coming back. I can help them a little but they've made this firm decision in their mind that this is not the lifestyle they want. What's surprising is there are some people who are okay with the prison experience. They figure, “I'll come in. In this prison, there was work release so I could save up a bunch of money. I'll get out with sometimes $10,000 to $15,000. I can have a big party with this money that took me five years to make. Sooner or later, I'll get in trouble again and I'll come back. We'll do it all over again. This will be my life. This is what I'm going to do.”

Tavarez has made the decision that he wasn't going to do that. He came out with an outline program. We've been working together. We do slides and stuff together. We focused on the same things like financial literacy and entrepreneurship because it's a good direction to go. The one thing I did learn as a prison teacher is they gave me a lot more time than I needed to teach entrepreneurship. We met for 11 weeks and it was 9 hours a week. It was a lot of time. I started teaching financial literacy because the questions I was getting were, “How do I get a debit card? How does that work? How do I open a checking account? What's an IRA?”

It's people who had no financial understanding at all but if you look at the statistics, most people are imprisoned for financial reasons. They did something to gain money but they don't understand money. That's a dangerous road to go down. Live beneath your means, save a little bit, and learn to invest. You'll like this. I told the guys, “When you get out and you've got your $15,000, let's go look for some real estate.” Real estate doesn't care if you have a felony. It doesn't matter. “Let’s put a down payment on and find a tenant.” You're coming from a real estate background. I thought that was the best move for these guys. In real estate, you can start with one and grow. There's no telling.

I've been in real estate for years. That's a great point. I do a lot of closing. They don't ask you if you have a felony on any of the titles of work or anything like that. That's a great place. I love entrepreneurship. I love creating and growing. I have a friend who has been in prison. He worked for us for about five years but it's been a struggle for him finding a job. It's such a struggle. What you’re doing is such a great thing.

One of the things on this show that we love is we're talking to entrepreneurs and business owners but we're also asking them, “What's in your life that you can use your experience to give back?” Can you talk about ways that you've used in your experience to give back to prisoners or guys who have had a felony? What are some other ways that you've seen other guys give back from their experiences in business and entrepreneurship?

The best way to learn entrepreneurship is from somebody who's been there. You can buy all the books you want. You can read up on them but you need to find somebody who went down that road, made the early mistakes that everybody makes, and survived. They can help you more than anybody else. I know you've got a group. You do your retreat and get the Christian entrepreneurs together. You all learn from each other.

Ex-Convicts: The best way to learn entrepreneurship is from somebody who has been there. You can buy all the books you want, but you still need help from a person who went down that road.

Reach out because this is an experience. If you're a successful entrepreneur and you've been down a tough road, it's not easy. It's one of those things that only the determined people make it. You've got to get it in your head like, “I'm going to do this.” If you find somebody who made a mistake when they were young and had a prison sentence for it, and you want to be a mentor to this person, you can change their life because they need help. This demographic is not getting any information or education but a lot of them have that entrepreneurial spirit.

To reach out, you can go to any prison and volunteer or meet guys on the outside, halfway houses, or places where people are getting out. That's where we teach a lot. You'll see guys that are fresh out and they've got a lot of questions. They're surrounded by all these temptations again. It's a difficult transition because they're not typically prepared but give them a little guidance, a chance, or an opportunity.

It's a powerful thing. You'll be rewarded. I can't say it's 100% going to work but if you find the right person, it's amazing what they can accomplish if given that second chance. You're in the position to give it or not. It's up to you. Don't close your mind. This guy has made a mistake. He did it in his time. Believe me, time in prison is not easy. He's out and he's sorry. He wants to go in a different direction. Believe in him. Give him that chance. Find a way to incorporate him into your business or help him start his thing.

At the end of my book, if you go to the epilogue, I've got a list of 7 or 8 guys who have been a prison and are out and running successful businesses. The nice part about that is when they start a business, if it's successful and they need to hire, they often hire people with a checkered pass because that's the guys they met in prison. They realized, “He's okay. He just got caught. He made the mistake.” It helps more than one person.

Lifeline To A Soul

It's so good to find something to give back and make a difference in people's lives. This is a way that you've done it, John. I love what you're doing. Where can someone get their book if they're interested in the Lifeline to a Soul?

Thank you, Brett. It's available everywhere like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads. If you want an autograph copy, go to my website, There's a place you can leave your email. We're going to have a drawing. For the first few people who mentioned the show, I'll be happy to send an autographed copy. It's a good story. It is being received a lot better than I expected. People like the story. It's a story about going to a place that you'll probably never go.

My goal in writing it was to take you in the fence with me and show you what I saw as objectively as possible. Not like, “Here's what he said. Here's what we did.” It's a glimpse into a world that you probably wouldn't see otherwise. I'm hoping you'll leave as I did with the realization that we should be helping these people more than we are.

These people can do great things in their lives if we give them help. If we don't, they're probably going to end up back in prison, a lot of them. It's a chance to get in. When you change one person's life, you think, “I changed one guy's life,” you changed this whole downstream. You changed his children's and grandchildren's lives. This continues. It's very well worth doing.

Make sure you guys go check out the book with John McLaughlin, Lifeline to a Soul. John, I appreciate being on the show. It's been awesome hearing your story. Thank you so much for making a difference. I wish you the best.

I appreciate it, Brett. Thank you very much. It's been an honor and a privilege.

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