Funding for Worker-owned Businesses Gets Real

Over the coming years, more than 2.3 million Baby Boomer business owners employing some 25 million Americans are set to retire. This Silver Tsunami, as it’s been called, presents the largest opportunity in generations to transfer ownership to workers—an idea that has gained fresh interest in recent years as wealth inequality and corporate concentration have […]

The post Funding for Worker-owned Businesses Gets Real appeared first on Locavesting.

HTF 031: #LifeIsCumulative (Teaching Entrepreneurship in Prison)

We interviewed Sonja Skvarla, founder and Executive Director of A Social Ignition.

“Those who have been incarcerated come out facing a tremendous number of barriers to success. From feeling isolated by limited social interaction to no access to current trends in workplace culture, technology, and emotional intelligence, they lack the skills necessary to build a positive productive lifestyle. They also face legal discrimination for housing, employment, and some support services.”

A Social Ignition addresses this problem by teaching entrepreneurship inside and outside of prison.

Links

A Social Ignition’s website

Columbia River Correctional Institution

Facebook Live recording with Sonja at Hatch from 11/30/17

Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons by the Sentencing Project, August 2018

Private Prisons, Immigrant Detention and Investment Risks by American Federation of Teachers, August 2018

Sponsored by:

Use ‘HATCHPODCAST’ at checkout.

Shownotes

Danielle Olson: 01:18
Sonja, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what A Social Ignition is?

Sonja Skvarla: 01:23
Absolutely. Thanks for having me, first of all. So, A Social Ignition is an organization that I started working on about five or six years ago. I recognized a need for programming in prison, supporting the real needs of men as they transition out into the world after incarceration. And so it took us a couple of years to get approved to be inside, but now we have been teaching a class inside called The Ignition Option, it’s a six week entrepreneurial program. And that works with the guys from the power of choice all the way through simulating a business model and presenting it in a pitch competition. Quite like the competencies that we participate in out here. And so we’ve been doing that for four years inside and we also work with the men as they transition out into the world to find housing or to start their own businesses or find employment or whatever that is.

Danielle Olson: 02:26
And where did this concept come from for you?

Sonja Skvarla: 02:30
So it’s not a new concept, truthfully. There are a couple other organizations across the country that do this type of work in different ways. But for me, the most important pieces that really needed to be addressed were the social transition. So they teach welding inside, they teach gardening, they teach other things. You can get your handlers permit, things like that, very vocational skills based.

But what isn’t addressed is the fact that we put people in a box essentially of various sizes for anywhere from three to 15 to 20 to 35 years and expect them to come out well adjusted and ready to face the world in a new way. And it doesn’t do that at all. It doesn’t even begin to do that. In fact, I had a gentleman say to me the other day, well, I have two choices here. I can really buckle down and try to figure something out and go into legitimate business when I’m out or I could spend time here getting better at what I was doing before and go out and make more money illegally. And I think that really shows us what we’re up against is the fact that we put people together who are really interested in learning and it can go one of two ways. And I feel very fortunate that our class is there for him to take to see a legitimate way out of that situation. If A Social Ignition didn’t exist in there, he almost is left with only one choice in order to really dig in and spend his days productively. There’s only one choice to do that.

Danielle Olson: 04:19
And you emphasized the REAL needs of the men in prison. How would you define those or expand upon that?

Sonja Skvarla: 04:27
Yeah. I would say the deeper needs are this social piece. How do I look at myself in such a way that I can convince maybe or that I can encourage other people to also look at me that way. when men and women come out of incarceration, they are seeped in self doubt in fear and anxiety. The world has moved on without them and not only are they left behind, but there is a stigma attached that says you’re a bad person. You are a felon. That’s a label. That’s an identity and we’re very conscious in our country right now around identity and people being able to choose and we give them no choice. We labeled them, we label them a felon. I correct guys in class all the time. I say, “you’re not a felon. You have committed a felony or you have been convicted of a felony.” That’s a completely different thing than the identity of a felon, but again, if folks aren’t there in the prisons talking with them, showing them that there are people on the outside that believe this of them, it’s very, very difficult to see what joy you can bring to the world and what joy you can actually experienced for yourself.

So the real needs that I’m referring to are that, that social piece to recognize that you have things in common with the outside world and that you are able to participate in the conversations, the business conversations of social conversations that are important that are happening out there. Um, yeah, those social connections are the biggest, the biggest piece. And we hit that in such a way that it’s been pretty successful.

Jenn Theone: 06:24
Yeah. So I’ve listened to a few of your talks and sometimes you can get pretty emotional and I think one time I heard you maybe almost tearing up and I wanted to talk to you about that and where do you think that conviction really came from that social need to need to change things? Where, where did that come from?

Sonja Skvarla: 06:46
Yeah, you probably heard me tear up more than one time, um, especially if it was on a stage of some sort. But really I think in the beginning I didn’t know where it came from. My Dad would say, “oh, that’s very altruistic of you.” Like, oh, that it wasn’t that wonderful, you know? And, you know, I said, well, no, but it’s not, it’s just what we need to do it all of this. Right. Um, and I didn’t really know where it came from. There was a gentleman or there is a gentleman associated with A Social Ignition who was incarcerated at one time and he would ask me maybe a couple times a year, “why are you doing this? Why do you come in here and spend time with those guys instead of, you know, being out in the world or in addition to being out in the world?”

And I said, “Oh, well,” my standard answer was “because in order to change the world, we need to have all the world’s voices.” It doesn’t make sense to me that one group of people have the loudest voice because we’re only going to change the world in that direction. That doesn’t actually solve problems. It’s usually more cyclical, right? We get back into the same problems we’ve been in before. What I realized over the course of this time, and so now you’ll probably hear me get emotional again. Is the fact that that’s all true. I mean, that, that is true.

What is more true for me is that through working with these men, here we go, through working with these men, I actually learned to love myself. In loving them, in seeing their joy and seeing their hardship and they’re really heartfelt desire to be loved and to love other people. And yeah, we’re a business class, but all of that comes up like that. That’s all relevant in class. And we talk about their connection with their kids when they call home and say, hey, can you google this for me? I’m working on this thing. And it’s through those interactions that they find, they begin to find themselves, which can be difficult. One of the gentlemen in our class at one point said, “Sonja!” he came in and he was so mad at me. He came into a coaching session and it was so mad. “Chris, what, why, what did I do?” And he said, “you opened my eyes and now I can’t shut them again.”

Jenn Theone:  Wow.

Sonja Skvarla: 09:11
And it was being expressed as anger and upset because there wasn’t. There are only so many places he could put that right now in this moment, still being incarcerated. But being around them, it really, it showed me that I could have those things myself, that I could have confidence that I could have love in just a really global sort of spiritual way.

Jenn Theone: 09:37
And more to the model of A Social Ignition how, how you use mentors that come from the professional world and then you bring them into the prisons and like you were just saying is it’s an exchange, an enriching exchange. So it’s not just for the, the prisoners, but it’s also for those outside and that. Could you elaborate on that?

Sonja Skvarla: 10:00
Absolutely. So despite all the love talk and all of that, what we do is play business. We work on business. Business is one of the most universal skills. If you can know how to run a business, it doesn’t matter if you actually own one or if you participate in somebody else’s. Pretty much all the jobs we have are in a business. And so being familiar with those skills and those tools is really important, really useful.

And so we do bring into each one of our 12 sessions. We bring in a business person from the outside, usually someone either with a skill specialized like marketing or finance, something like that, or someone who has started or run a company. We bring them in, not only to lend their experience, to have that exchange where they can bring experience to the men who are building business models, but also so that they can see and experience the brilliance of these men, the strategy, the smart, all of those things that they bring to the table.

In fact, it’s more common than not that as I’m walking out to the parking lot, with a mentor after class and I say, “Oh, you know, what, what do you think?” knowing full well what they’re going to say. And nine times out of ten they say, “That was amazing! It was normalized really quickly and I had just as many the conversations were the same as pretty much any conversation I have with other entrepreneurs on the outside.” And I smiled to myself a little bit and I go, yeah, I know. Uh, but the point is that seeing people in that environment, not only is there a little bit of compassion, but when you see somebody in that environment and then have conversations on the same level that you’re used to having every day, it’s not a pity conversation. It’s not compassion because I feel sorry for you. It’s compassion because, wow, this place sucks. But look how smart you are. Let’s have coffee when you get out. And that’s an entirely different dynamic than some sort of compassion that is unequal in the power play.

Danielle Olson: 12:10 Do you have any stats that you can share with us about recidivism?

Sonja Skvarla: 12:14
Sure. Recidivism is the big buzzword and post-incarceration programming. And I can tell you that our recidivism is about the same as any other well-designed prison program. So recidivism rates are under reported there also, again, hyperlocal. They’re all calculated in very different ways. So Oregon, we report ours. Different numbers go into our recidivism rate as Virginia as New Orleans, any other place they get to the side, how they calculate recidivism. So ours is about two to five percent. That is actually pretty standard for, like I said, well designed prison programs and really hard to track over time. The big thing that I’ll say about recidivism rates and a social ignition is that we set our bar way higher than that. So recidivism for those of y’all who don’t know, is essentially the rate at which people go back into prison within three years after release. There are lots of different numbers go into that, but that’s the basic.

And we had one gentleman, we talk about goals a lot and I said, what do you want to be when you grow up? Right? He’s already 35, but what do you want to be? What’s the future look like? He said, “I just don’t want to come back to prison”. Because recidivism has taught us. That term has taught us that that’s the goal. Just don’t go back. And I said, well, we won’t actually know that until you’re dead. So maybe we could find some goals between here and there to accomplish, to keep us busy. While that’s true, while that is also happening, that’s my recidivism.

Jenn Theone: 14:04
Can you talk to us about some of the entrepreneurial skills that prisoners might already have before they come to your class?

Sonja Skvarla: 14:10
Absolutely. Many of the men who are in our class have some sort of experience with illegitimate businesses or illegal businesses and some of them did them well and some of them do not do them well. But there are a lot of transferable skills. So one of my favorite moments, actually from this current class is when one of the gentleman, we were talking about markets, we were talking about customers, we were talking about distribution channels. He goes, “I know this!” And I said, yeah, you just didn’t know all the right words for it, but this was the business he’s been in for quite some time. And so it really an eye opening moment for him. The rest of us, this is old hat now, but for him it was really eyeopening to see that he actually knew the structure of legitimate business. He now knows the terms of legitimate business and so it doesn’t feel like such a big leap to go from where he has been to where he wants to be.

Danielle Olson: 15:11
So you, you talked a little bit about the change that you’re trying to create. I liked what you said about how in order to change the world, we need all of the world voices. I think that’s a really good idea to keep in mind in all of the work that we do. Could you lay out a little bit for us, what your theory of change is for a social ignition and just background for audience, if anyone’s not familiar with that term, theory of change is kind of a, a model for a social enterprise or nonprofit that says this is the vision that we see in the future and these are the strategies and activities that build towards that vision, that change that we’re trying to make in the world.

Sonja Skvarla: 16:09 So A Social Ignition uses business as I mentioned because it is so pervasive in a really positive way. All the stories of the rags to riches stories, the people who have come up from somewhere have used business in some way to make that travel. And so we use business as a strategy, it’s a tactic, to help to level the playing field because if you can learn those skills, you can move up in a way that hearts and minds is slower. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to change. We want people to see each other. We want people to love each other. We want people to accept each other and one way to do that, especially in a world of men, is to play on the same playing field, speak the same language, and we can start with business.

Business is an emotional thing. It’s a personal thing, but on it’s very surface it isn’t. It’s just numbers and if we can connect on those numbers first, bring people from different environments that are playing on the same field and then allow them to make those sort of superficial connections at first and then realize all the juice that comes underneath it. That’s what we’re looking to do. It’s slow. It’s not, “oh, we’ve worked with a thousand some people and now they have jobs and so yay, we win.” It’s much more about bringing people together and it’s slow. It’s very, very slow, but the hope is when we bring these mentors and they go back to their own work environment, they’re like, “oh man, where were you today?” And they puff up a little. “I was in prison today.” And then they talk about why and what that experience like and every time we do that, it’s just this little click on the timeline of moving closer and moving those hearts and minds closer together through business.

Jenn Theone: 18:01
I love it. Maybe could you talk, so you mentioned it’s like a small ripple effects, but there is something disruptive about what you’re doing. Can you as social entrepreneurship is meant to be positively disruptive, can you explain how even though it’s small ripple effects, how it might be disruptive for people in specific moments?

Sonja Skvarla: 18:26
So I really think of disruption as things that are happening differently to throw a wrench in the status quo of what’s moving forward. Right? And a lot of the status quo of what’s moving forward right now is fast results. In the entrepreneurial world. It’s 10 x, right? We need to make 10 x in five years so we can all go home rich. So I believe we are positively disruptive because we’re taking our damn time.

Jenn Theone: Beautiful.

Sonja Skvarla: 18:56
And slowing down and saying we have time. We’re not going to change this the way that we want to in five years. We’re not going to change it the way we want to in 10 years, we’ll make a dent in it. But when we use business to spread love, that’s a positive place and the disruption in it is, it’s not to make a shit ton of money in a short time. It’s to make a difference and build connection between people.

Danielle Olson: 19:28
Thank you. So you talked about mentors that come in. What other people and entities does a social admission rely on to be successful?

Sonja Skvarla: 19:38
Absolutely. So essentially ignition at this time is hugely reliant on the department of corrections. The Oregon Department of corrections and truthfully is a fantastic relationship. We have really great support. We are a volunteer program. They don’t need to keep us around at any time. They could say to us, you know, “we don’t have space, we don’t have the classroom space, so we’ll call you.” And we could never hear from again. That could happen any day, but it doesn’t. In fact, they continued to make space for us literal classroom space because prisons were not built for classrooms. And so that’s an issue, or it’s time we, the fact that we bring people in through security, every time we go in, that’s a big pain in the butt. They allow us to do it. We brought a video camera and a couple of weeks ago, because to tell, to tell a certain piece of this story, they allowed us to do that.

We have a really phenomenal relationship and the prison system gets a bad rap because the system in general is broken. It works fairly well in the wrong direction, right? But there are people in it who get it. There are people in it who really understand where we’re all trying to go and what’s useful to us as a society and we’re lucky enough that we’ve met those people. We work with those people. So we actually have a great relationship with the Oregon Department of corrections, which we rely on in order to come and do this work.

We also rely now financially on my other company off road. So I started a company after spending three years fundraising and writing grants and all of that for a social ignition to help it be sustainable and be a nonprofit and be a thing. And being very frustrated with that system. Danielle, we’ve talked about that before. You’ve heard those rants. After three years or so of doing that, I decided to stop writing grants to stop trying to participate in a system that wasn’t built to support men who are incarcerated. It was built to support babies and people in other countries and maybe puppies and all of these people who can’t fight for themselves. You can’t work for themselves. So I started a company taking my business acumen and this love that I have for business and going back to my roots of working with entrepreneurs and people who run nonprofits to help them do their work better. So we’re essentially a consulting and implementation firm for nonprofits and businesses all over the world and we earn money, just like any other company earns money, and we take a piece of that and give it to a social ignition in order to buy books. A Social Ignition is 100 percent volunteer run, no people get paid, but we do buy books and materials and some of those things and so off road pays for that.

Danielle Olson: 22:40
So that hybrid model, a nonprofit and for profit, um, is common or common enough that it’s you know, talked about as, as practice in the social enterprise sphere. Is there any advice or insights you would give for how, how well it works for social cognition, how it may or may not work for other people looking to create an appropriate social enterprise?

Sonja Skvarla: 23:17
Truthfully, it works really well. There’s a time challenge. So essentially now I’m actually running two or three companies instead of just one, but it’s, I actually have more time on my hands now because trying to fit into a system that isn’t useful for you is exhausting and time consuming.

As far as sort of advice I would give or how it might work for others. I’ll tell you what I tell the guys inside. Build a business model first. Figure out how you’re going to support this effort financially first and then decide if it should be a nonprofit or social enterprise or a B Corp or an S corp or whatever it’s going to be. If there’s a gap because it just takes so much labor or time. If there is a gap in the funding, then consider a 501(c)(3) or some sort of nonprofit model to take donations, but try as hard as you can first to earn your own money. Because if you can earn it through some sort of business capacity, then you’re in control of how that works, instead of having the government and the 501(c)(3)’s and the grant makers and all of that. They are really the tails wagging the dog. But if you earn your own money, then you are in control of your mission. You are in control of how that rolls out and you don’t have to make compromises.

I mentioned before that the prison system, along with the grant writing system, but the prison system is broken and that’s a term we hear a lot. And it’s also, I think, well designed for some of the things it was designed to do, which was take people who we are fearful of, mostly because we don’t understand them, and move them away from us to isolate them, to put them somewhere else. And so it’s done well that way. One of the reasons why it has grown out of control is because the prison system itself is fairly small. Unfortunately it’s feeded by the justice system and the way that we have had mandatory minimums. The way we have taken the humanity out of so many crimes that has fed more people than ever into the prison system.

And so whereas way back in the day, the only people who were incarcerated were people that we could be legitimately fearful of. They were physically dangerous people. That’s not the case anymore. Now the mass majority of people who are incarcerated are just different from us. Either they grew up in a different neighborhood that operated on different rules or there are a lot of people who are incarcerated who think differently. More and more I’m meeting autistic men in prison or dyslexic or they just think differently and if they had grown up with money, they’d probably be a dyslexic entrepreneur now making millions of dollars, but instead they’re incarcerated because somewhere along the line they didn’t fit in.

And along with that we hear about the prison industrial complex. Which is a term that talks about the amount of money that’s made by the system. Right? Whether that’s private prisons, whether that’s making money off of phone calls from people who are incarcerated to their families, whatever that is, and there is a lot of money to be made there. I do encourage people to check their portfolios because there are three private prison industries, and we can put this in some show notes, but they that are publicly traded. So usually they are listed under names that you wouldn’t recognize. And if you have a nicely diversified portfolio that your financial manager put together for you, you probably don’t know that they’re there and you may own some prison stock that you don’t know about. So those things are all true. It’s also very complicated system that I think few people have a handle on the whole piece.

In part one of the complexities is the theoretical piece of private prisons being in the business of holding people in prison and getting people back to prison because they need to fill their beds to make money. The state is the same way. If you’re not using any business to its full capacity, you’re losing money. And so it doesn’t really matter who owns or runs the prison. That’s the same.

One thing I will say about the private prisons that I have been, some of them are awful and but some of them, in fact, one of the best prison entrepreneurship programs in the country called PEP in Texas, operates in private prisons. And they are able to do so much more because it doesn’t take a literal act of Congress, state legislature to make change there. The private prison just gets to say, “Oh, you want an entire residential unit where your where the people in your entrepreneurship program can come and live together positively without going back into general population. Okay, let’s figure out how to make that happen.” They can just say, okay, let’s figure it out. Whereas state run prisons, it’s just nothing moves that fast and so there are opportunities in some of those systems to do things that the state prisons wouldn’t allow us to do.

Jenn Theone: 29:06
I’m actually really relieved to hear you say that because I know you got your masters in business and when I heard that you were starting a nonprofit, I was a little bit confused. I was like, “doesn’t she want to use the market to really propel her ideas forward.” So it actually really makes sense that you’ve done this.

Sonja Skvarla: 29:25
Yeah, I’ll tell you a little bit about that. In my personal journey, my personal entrepreneurship journey, I often wonder why the heck did I ever start a nonprofit? I shouldn’t have. I didn’t want to. In the beginning I was always sort of temporary. I was like, “okay, well I’ll do this until we start making our own money and then just abandon it.” Which eventually happened, but went on longer than I thought and mostly I listened to other smart people, so I was humbled in the beginning and I was small and I said, oh, I just want to do this little effort. Right? I was altruistic, right? Daddy said, and I said, okay, this is how. This is how this work gets done, and all of these really smart people that I look up to just sort of made that general assumption. They said, “oh, you’re doing good things in the world. You’re a nonprofit.” Tada, done. Right? And so I said, “oh, okay, if you think so then let’s. Okay, let’s do it.”

And it was exactly what needed to happen to get me here, but it was an arduous process and I think now more and more these alternative models, like you say, now they’re common. That’s fantastic. Even five years ago when I started that, the only people who are starting nonprofits from corporations were huge corporations that somehow had some money leftover because they made so much of it that they’re like, well, we’ll give this away. Maybe it’s a tax credit. Maybe we actually believe in it. Either way. That was the model. We didn’t see a lot of that small stuff bubbling up from underneath until much more recently.

Danielle Olson: 30:56
It takes a lot of guts to create something from scratch in that, especially when it’s something like a social enterprise, trying to do something new in the world that there is no roadmap for.

Sonja Skvarla: 31:08
I think there’s a lot of people, if you talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, they probably won’t agree with you. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it takes guts. It feels like there isn’t another option. That this is the only way forward either for ourselves personally or for the community or whatever, and I will say that if there is something that I could change going back, it’s that equal number of people who challenged me and said, I don’t get it, there were the people who cheerleaded me to death. Who were just so happy that I was doing something good in the world and they said, “oh, that’s so wonderful. Good job.” Which doesn’t help me. It doesn’t help it make it better. You know, I’d go to funders and I’d say, here, here it is. And they’d say, oh no, but we’re so glad that you’re doing it. No, we’re not giving you money, but we’re so glad that you’re doing it. That’s not useful. What’s useful is we’re not giving you money because. And what I realized is that sometimes they don’t know why they’re not giving you money or they don’t want to say why they’re not giving you money because they’re not, show me, don’t tell me reasons they are because I just don’t believe in it actually, or I don’t want to be that close to the prison system or it’s too hard or it’s too depressing.

Those are the reasons why, but to just say, oh, it’s so great. This is what you’re doing in the world. I think we do a disservice to our peers and to the people that we mentor and to our students to say, “oh, it’s just so good, just keep doing it.” Because there’s always things that we can do better and so we do a disservice to sort of pat them on the head and just be glad that they’re doing it. We need to help them dig in and really sort of play in the dirt

Are there some ways you’re seeing that you want to do better? For what’s next for A Social Ignition?

Always, always I want to do better. And so, I mean, first it was to stop trying to fundraise. That was the first thing is how can I take these 850 hours literally half a year and put them to better use instead of trying to write grants are having parties to raise money or whatever. So that was one big, “how can we do better?”

And now beyond that it’s how can I better engage the people who want to be engaged? So we’re actually in September, October, somewhere in there we’re having a sort of a mini summit to the people who have with the mentors and the people who’ve been supportive of social cognition and that often say, “what else can I do?” to say, “okay, here’s what else you can do.” Here’s the way that you can engage. One way that entrepreneurs put on the face of I have everything together is because they are doing everything and so people don’t always know where the gaps are. It’s sort of a a founder’s dilemma where you have to do everything, but then it doesn’t present a place where others can become engaged easily.

So I think one thing that I’ve learned over this time is ways to organize what needs to be done, even if it’s all phantom right now because nobody’s doing it, but organize it in such a way that someone could grab on and make that piece their own, instead of handing them a task. Like, “your job is to bring in such and such amount of dollars or we need tables set up at our next function.We would love for you to do that or will you handle the graphic design for that?” Those are tasks and they’re okay, but they don’t get people engaged long term. People need to have ownership and truthfully, I mean a nonprofit and these sorts of organizations, they should belong to the community in some way because that’s who’s being served by them. Not only just the people who are incarcerated but the business folks out here are being served by the fact that we are better training men to enter the workforce after incarceration.

And so giving them a piece of ownership, whether that’s “okay, we want to enhance programming outside of prison because now we have all these guys that have gotten out and we continue to coach them and we have a men’s group,” and that sort of thing, but we can do more. We can do better, and so engaging the mentors and saying, what would a program like that look like and how would you want to be involved in it?

Jenn Theone: 35:38
It’s almost like you’re asking everyone to be an entrepreneur. When you ask them to engage with the social ignition and you. It’s like the ownership piece where each person who participates in this, including the prisoners is like their birthing something. I think I heard you say that once from themselves that they’re creating something completely original.

Sonja Skvarla: 35:59
Absolutely, absolutely. And so asking people, business people are very busy and so asking them to have an ownership over a small but meaningful piece is useful and allowing them support to say this is yours, we will help you do it. We’ll support you, but you let us know how you think this should go and we’ll support it into the world.

Danielle Olson: 36:26
So instead of handing people tasks, you’re framing it more as kind of big potential outcomes, but keeping it and then framing it as a question so that people can kind of engage and put their own ideas and ownership into that.

Sonja Skvarla: 36:46
Yeah, and the idea being that again, we all have busy lives, especially business people, people running businesses, usually it’s more than one. They’re not sitting on the beach from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM. They’re doing things. So helping them to design their own structure also. So one of the things that we’re talking about is creating, this is very tangible stuff I’m getting into now, but essentially creating nodes that are all a piece of A Social Ignition, but each of the nodes are according to a program. So maybe one’s all about the inside program, maybe one’s all about the outside program, maybe one is all about the upcoming tablet content channel that we’re developing for prisons across the country. But then to engage with that node and decide for yourself what’s useful.

So one of my criticisms of nonprofits is that they’re very strict for reasons, good reasons I’m sure that somebody came up with, but they’re very strict in terms of they have to have annual, they have to have a certain number of board members and you have to have annual meetings and you have to have minutes. And so we end up putting our mental models on that. And what we’re hoping to do here is open up each of these nodes to organize themselves in whatever way is most useful for what they’re trying to do. And so each one of these nodes will require a different level of engagement based on how they’re, depending on whether it’s an inside program that’s already sort of established but just needs more boost or if it’s the tablet program, which is pretty much a really great idea with some interested customers, there’s going to be a different of engagement there.

And so deciding for themselves what level of engagement. It’s not really new, but it’s new to A Social Ignition. It is a model that’s a little beyond where a lot of organizations are. And so it’s something that we’ll be trying in this fall.

Danielle Olson: 38:53
And did you find that somewhere or come up with. How did that come about?

Sonja Skvarla: 38:58
I made it up. That doesn’t mean it’s new, it just means that, I may have seen pieces of it in other places and I don’t always recognize where those things come from. But usually on Sunday in the perfect storm, it shows up for me. And so then I take advantage of that.

Jenn Theone: 39:18
That reminds me of something else you said about how experiences are. Our lives are cumulative. So every new instance comes with new lessons learned, even if it were doing the same thing that we did yesterday. What we’ve done since then changes the way we act. Right?

Sonja Skvarla: 39:37
Absolutely. I really tried to trends the #lifeiscumulative. Unfortunately we don’t really know how to spell it usually, so it never trended and most people laughed at me that it’s just not catchy enough for a Hashtag, but you know, #lifeiscumulative. And the idea of that being that it does take every moment of our lives previously to get us to this moment here. And so we need to recognize that we couldn’t be here in whatever glory or awfulness or whatever without all the moments that came before. And if this is a moment of awfulness, take heart that there is glory later because of this moment and awfulness here. So #lifeiscumulative.

Danielle Olson: 40:32
Right. We’ll make sure to put that into the social media for the podcast. I want to make sure that it’s clear for listeners what the programs are that you do. So you mentioned the ignition option and then outside of prison because you…. Yeah, just clarify.

Sonja Skvarla: 40:55
Yes, absolutely. So we start with a six week entrepreneurial course inside a prison called the ignition option and like I said, that cumulates in or culminates in a presentation day where they present their business models that they came up with throughout the course to members of the community that come inside. The mentors come back, other people come. We have actually had some people be offered jobs that day and started work when they get out a few months later. It’s really cool and yeah, all really good stuff and then they. Everybody who finishes that course, which is most. We have some attrition but not very much. Those guys are invited into the long haul, which is individual and small group coaching based on their particular goals. So twice a month they get to meet with an executive coach, someone who does that work on the outside and comes to prison specifically to do it with them one on one or twice a month for an hour.

And then the opposite. Our like workshops, we call it group coaching, which is a little bit of a misnomer, but they’re workshops on all kinds of different topics. So some of it’s articulating your values. Some of it is how to tell the story of your financial story of your business on the back of a napkin. All kinds. It really runs the gamut. And, and sometimes we just play games because you also just need to laugh and have fun. So that runs inside and then through the gate. So when they’re released they are lifetime members of The Long Haul and they continued to get business coaching, employment coaching. We connect them with mentors who were interested in helping them with their journey and having coffee and, you know, very organic just like you and I would have coffee with somebody and interview them and whatnot. There is also a men’s group on the outside, which for obvious reasons I do not participate in. But that really helps the men to have some time to just be themselves and to be vulnerable with each other in a way that they may not feel comfortable with women in the room. And support each other through this journey.

Danielle Olson: 43:13
How would you recommend people learn more or get engaged with a social ignition if they’re interested?

Sonja Skvarla: Yeah. Well, if you’re in the Portland area, come to prison with me. Nodding. Yes.

Jenn Theone: I would come.

Sonja Skvarla: 43:27
So in fact August 13th this year is our next presentation day, so next month, August 13th. And so that’s a really great way to come in and meet the guys and see what they’ve been working on and hear about their business models. That’s the best way to get started, truthfully. If you have a workshop, if you have some sort of value to offer, we would love to have you in to work with the guys in the long haul on that. In the workshop space also, sponsoring books is an option. Some of those kinds of things. If you’re not in the Portland area.

I also really encourage people that if you’re not in the Portland area, you find the thing that does this in your area because incarceration is actually hyperlocal. People are confined to a prison which is in a particular area and when they’re released, they are released back into the community that was troublesome for them and are required to stay there, in fact need permission to leave. Usually paperwork and all kinds of things to leave that situation. So getting involved in your local community is the best thing that you can do, including just talking to people on the bus next to you or smiling at somebody at the grocery store. Those are the little things that do the same things that we’re trying to do in prison on a smaller scale, so get involved in your local community, go to those prisons, volunteer with those organizations and keep it local.

Danielle Olson: 45:05
And in people’s individual communities. Is looking through the prisons probably the best way to find those programs? Or are there other good ways?

Sonja Skvarla: 45:14
So most prisons will. You can talk to their sort of PR department and they should be able to hook you up with the volunteers that already go inside. Sometimes it’s listed on their website. Those are good places to start.

Jenn Theone: Sonja, thank you so much for coming out. We really enjoyed this conversation.

Sonja Skvarla: Thank you so much for having me.

 

The post HTF 031: #LifeIsCumulative (Teaching Entrepreneurship in Prison) appeared first on Hatch Innovation.

HTF 031: #LifeIsCumulative (Teaching Entrepreneurship in Prison)

We interviewed Sonja Skvarla, founder and Executive Director of A Social Ignition.

“Those who have been incarcerated come out facing a tremendous number of barriers to success. From feeling isolated by limited social interaction to no access to current trends in workplace culture, technology, and emotional intelligence, they lack the skills necessary to build a positive productive lifestyle. They also face legal discrimination for housing, employment, and some support services.”

A Social Ignition addresses this problem by teaching entrepreneurship inside and outside of prison.

Links

A Social Ignition’s website

Columbia River Correctional Institution

Facebook Live recording with Sonja at Hatch from 11/30/17

Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons by the Sentencing Project, August 2018

Private Prisons, Immigrant Detention and Investment Risks by American Federation of Teachers, August 2018

Sponsored by:

Use ‘HATCHPODCAST’ at checkout.

Shownotes

Danielle Olson: 01:18
Sonja, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what A Social Ignition is?

Sonja Skvarla: 01:23
Absolutely. Thanks for having me, first of all. So, A Social Ignition is an organization that I started working on about five or six years ago. I recognized a need for programming in prison, supporting the real needs of men as they transition out into the world after incarceration. And so it took us a couple of years to get approved to be inside, but now we have been teaching a class inside called The Ignition Option, it’s a six week entrepreneurial program. And that works with the guys from the power of choice all the way through simulating a business model and presenting it in a pitch competition. Quite like the competencies that we participate in out here. And so we’ve been doing that for four years inside and we also work with the men as they transition out into the world to find housing or to start their own businesses or find employment or whatever that is.

Danielle Olson: 02:26
And where did this concept come from for you?

Sonja Skvarla: 02:30
So it’s not a new concept, truthfully. There are a couple other organizations across the country that do this type of work in different ways. But for me, the most important pieces that really needed to be addressed were the social transition. So they teach welding inside, they teach gardening, they teach other things. You can get your handlers permit, things like that, very vocational skills based.

But what isn’t addressed is the fact that we put people in a box essentially of various sizes for anywhere from three to 15 to 20 to 35 years and expect them to come out well adjusted and ready to face the world in a new way. And it doesn’t do that at all. It doesn’t even begin to do that. In fact, I had a gentleman say to me the other day, well, I have two choices here. I can really buckle down and try to figure something out and go into legitimate business when I’m out or I could spend time here getting better at what I was doing before and go out and make more money illegally. And I think that really shows us what we’re up against is the fact that we put people together who are really interested in learning and it can go one of two ways. And I feel very fortunate that our class is there for him to take to see a legitimate way out of that situation. If A Social Ignition didn’t exist in there, he almost is left with only one choice in order to really dig in and spend his days productively. There’s only one choice to do that.

Danielle Olson: 04:19
And you emphasized the REAL needs of the men in prison. How would you define those or expand upon that?

Sonja Skvarla: 04:27
Yeah. I would say the deeper needs are this social piece. How do I look at myself in such a way that I can convince maybe or that I can encourage other people to also look at me that way. when men and women come out of incarceration, they are seeped in self doubt in fear and anxiety. The world has moved on without them and not only are they left behind, but there is a stigma attached that says you’re a bad person. You are a felon. That’s a label. That’s an identity and we’re very conscious in our country right now around identity and people being able to choose and we give them no choice. We labeled them, we label them a felon. I correct guys in class all the time. I say, “you’re not a felon. You have committed a felony or you have been convicted of a felony.” That’s a completely different thing than the identity of a felon, but again, if folks aren’t there in the prisons talking with them, showing them that there are people on the outside that believe this of them, it’s very, very difficult to see what joy you can bring to the world and what joy you can actually experienced for yourself.

So the real needs that I’m referring to are that, that social piece to recognize that you have things in common with the outside world and that you are able to participate in the conversations, the business conversations of social conversations that are important that are happening out there. Um, yeah, those social connections are the biggest, the biggest piece. And we hit that in such a way that it’s been pretty successful.

Jenn Theone: 06:24
Yeah. So I’ve listened to a few of your talks and sometimes you can get pretty emotional and I think one time I heard you maybe almost tearing up and I wanted to talk to you about that and where do you think that conviction really came from that social need to need to change things? Where, where did that come from?

Sonja Skvarla: 06:46
Yeah, you probably heard me tear up more than one time, um, especially if it was on a stage of some sort. But really I think in the beginning I didn’t know where it came from. My Dad would say, “oh, that’s very altruistic of you.” Like, oh, that it wasn’t that wonderful, you know? And, you know, I said, well, no, but it’s not, it’s just what we need to do it all of this. Right. Um, and I didn’t really know where it came from. There was a gentleman or there is a gentleman associated with A Social Ignition who was incarcerated at one time and he would ask me maybe a couple times a year, “why are you doing this? Why do you come in here and spend time with those guys instead of, you know, being out in the world or in addition to being out in the world?”

And I said, “Oh, well,” my standard answer was “because in order to change the world, we need to have all the world’s voices.” It doesn’t make sense to me that one group of people have the loudest voice because we’re only going to change the world in that direction. That doesn’t actually solve problems. It’s usually more cyclical, right? We get back into the same problems we’ve been in before. What I realized over the course of this time, and so now you’ll probably hear me get emotional again. Is the fact that that’s all true. I mean, that, that is true.

What is more true for me is that through working with these men, here we go, through working with these men, I actually learned to love myself. In loving them, in seeing their joy and seeing their hardship and they’re really heartfelt desire to be loved and to love other people. And yeah, we’re a business class, but all of that comes up like that. That’s all relevant in class. And we talk about their connection with their kids when they call home and say, hey, can you google this for me? I’m working on this thing. And it’s through those interactions that they find, they begin to find themselves, which can be difficult. One of the gentlemen in our class at one point said, “Sonja!” he came in and he was so mad at me. He came into a coaching session and it was so mad. “Chris, what, why, what did I do?” And he said, “you opened my eyes and now I can’t shut them again.”

Jenn Theone:  Wow.

Sonja Skvarla: 09:11
And it was being expressed as anger and upset because there wasn’t. There are only so many places he could put that right now in this moment, still being incarcerated. But being around them, it really, it showed me that I could have those things myself, that I could have confidence that I could have love in just a really global sort of spiritual way.

Jenn Theone: 09:37
And more to the model of A Social Ignition how, how you use mentors that come from the professional world and then you bring them into the prisons and like you were just saying is it’s an exchange, an enriching exchange. So it’s not just for the, the prisoners, but it’s also for those outside and that. Could you elaborate on that?

Sonja Skvarla: 10:00
Absolutely. So despite all the love talk and all of that, what we do is play business. We work on business. Business is one of the most universal skills. If you can know how to run a business, it doesn’t matter if you actually own one or if you participate in somebody else’s. Pretty much all the jobs we have are in a business. And so being familiar with those skills and those tools is really important, really useful.

And so we do bring into each one of our 12 sessions. We bring in a business person from the outside, usually someone either with a skill specialized like marketing or finance, something like that, or someone who has started or run a company. We bring them in, not only to lend their experience, to have that exchange where they can bring experience to the men who are building business models, but also so that they can see and experience the brilliance of these men, the strategy, the smart, all of those things that they bring to the table.

In fact, it’s more common than not that as I’m walking out to the parking lot, with a mentor after class and I say, “Oh, you know, what, what do you think?” knowing full well what they’re going to say. And nine times out of ten they say, “That was amazing! It was normalized really quickly and I had just as many the conversations were the same as pretty much any conversation I have with other entrepreneurs on the outside.” And I smiled to myself a little bit and I go, yeah, I know. Uh, but the point is that seeing people in that environment, not only is there a little bit of compassion, but when you see somebody in that environment and then have conversations on the same level that you’re used to having every day, it’s not a pity conversation. It’s not compassion because I feel sorry for you. It’s compassion because, wow, this place sucks. But look how smart you are. Let’s have coffee when you get out. And that’s an entirely different dynamic than some sort of compassion that is unequal in the power play.

Danielle Olson: 12:10 Do you have any stats that you can share with us about recidivism?

Sonja Skvarla: 12:14
Sure. Recidivism is the big buzzword and post-incarceration programming. And I can tell you that our recidivism is about the same as any other well-designed prison program. So recidivism rates are under reported there also, again, hyperlocal. They’re all calculated in very different ways. So Oregon, we report ours. Different numbers go into our recidivism rate as Virginia as New Orleans, any other place they get to the side, how they calculate recidivism. So ours is about two to five percent. That is actually pretty standard for, like I said, well designed prison programs and really hard to track over time. The big thing that I’ll say about recidivism rates and a social ignition is that we set our bar way higher than that. So recidivism for those of y’all who don’t know, is essentially the rate at which people go back into prison within three years after release. There are lots of different numbers go into that, but that’s the basic.

And we had one gentleman, we talk about goals a lot and I said, what do you want to be when you grow up? Right? He’s already 35, but what do you want to be? What’s the future look like? He said, “I just don’t want to come back to prison”. Because recidivism has taught us. That term has taught us that that’s the goal. Just don’t go back. And I said, well, we won’t actually know that until you’re dead. So maybe we could find some goals between here and there to accomplish, to keep us busy. While that’s true, while that is also happening, that’s my recidivism.

Jenn Theone: 14:04
Can you talk to us about some of the entrepreneurial skills that prisoners might already have before they come to your class?

Sonja Skvarla: 14:10
Absolutely. Many of the men who are in our class have some sort of experience with illegitimate businesses or illegal businesses and some of them did them well and some of them do not do them well. But there are a lot of transferable skills. So one of my favorite moments, actually from this current class is when one of the gentleman, we were talking about markets, we were talking about customers, we were talking about distribution channels. He goes, “I know this!” And I said, yeah, you just didn’t know all the right words for it, but this was the business he’s been in for quite some time. And so it really an eye opening moment for him. The rest of us, this is old hat now, but for him it was really eyeopening to see that he actually knew the structure of legitimate business. He now knows the terms of legitimate business and so it doesn’t feel like such a big leap to go from where he has been to where he wants to be.

Danielle Olson: 15:11
So you, you talked a little bit about the change that you’re trying to create. I liked what you said about how in order to change the world, we need all of the world voices. I think that’s a really good idea to keep in mind in all of the work that we do. Could you lay out a little bit for us, what your theory of change is for a social ignition and just background for audience, if anyone’s not familiar with that term, theory of change is kind of a, a model for a social enterprise or nonprofit that says this is the vision that we see in the future and these are the strategies and activities that build towards that vision, that change that we’re trying to make in the world.

Sonja Skvarla: 16:09 So A Social Ignition uses business as I mentioned because it is so pervasive in a really positive way. All the stories of the rags to riches stories, the people who have come up from somewhere have used business in some way to make that travel. And so we use business as a strategy, it’s a tactic, to help to level the playing field because if you can learn those skills, you can move up in a way that hearts and minds is slower. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to change. We want people to see each other. We want people to love each other. We want people to accept each other and one way to do that, especially in a world of men, is to play on the same playing field, speak the same language, and we can start with business.

Business is an emotional thing. It’s a personal thing, but on it’s very surface it isn’t. It’s just numbers and if we can connect on those numbers first, bring people from different environments that are playing on the same field and then allow them to make those sort of superficial connections at first and then realize all the juice that comes underneath it. That’s what we’re looking to do. It’s slow. It’s not, “oh, we’ve worked with a thousand some people and now they have jobs and so yay, we win.” It’s much more about bringing people together and it’s slow. It’s very, very slow, but the hope is when we bring these mentors and they go back to their own work environment, they’re like, “oh man, where were you today?” And they puff up a little. “I was in prison today.” And then they talk about why and what that experience like and every time we do that, it’s just this little click on the timeline of moving closer and moving those hearts and minds closer together through business.

Jenn Theone: 18:01
I love it. Maybe could you talk, so you mentioned it’s like a small ripple effects, but there is something disruptive about what you’re doing. Can you as social entrepreneurship is meant to be positively disruptive, can you explain how even though it’s small ripple effects, how it might be disruptive for people in specific moments?

Sonja Skvarla: 18:26
So I really think of disruption as things that are happening differently to throw a wrench in the status quo of what’s moving forward. Right? And a lot of the status quo of what’s moving forward right now is fast results. In the entrepreneurial world. It’s 10 x, right? We need to make 10 x in five years so we can all go home rich. So I believe we are positively disruptive because we’re taking our damn time.

Jenn Theone: Beautiful.

Sonja Skvarla: 18:56
And slowing down and saying we have time. We’re not going to change this the way that we want to in five years. We’re not going to change it the way we want to in 10 years, we’ll make a dent in it. But when we use business to spread love, that’s a positive place and the disruption in it is, it’s not to make a shit ton of money in a short time. It’s to make a difference and build connection between people.

Danielle Olson: 19:28
Thank you. So you talked about mentors that come in. What other people and entities does a social admission rely on to be successful?

Sonja Skvarla: 19:38
Absolutely. So essentially ignition at this time is hugely reliant on the department of corrections. The Oregon Department of corrections and truthfully is a fantastic relationship. We have really great support. We are a volunteer program. They don’t need to keep us around at any time. They could say to us, you know, “we don’t have space, we don’t have the classroom space, so we’ll call you.” And we could never hear from again. That could happen any day, but it doesn’t. In fact, they continued to make space for us literal classroom space because prisons were not built for classrooms. And so that’s an issue, or it’s time we, the fact that we bring people in through security, every time we go in, that’s a big pain in the butt. They allow us to do it. We brought a video camera and a couple of weeks ago, because to tell, to tell a certain piece of this story, they allowed us to do that.

We have a really phenomenal relationship and the prison system gets a bad rap because the system in general is broken. It works fairly well in the wrong direction, right? But there are people in it who get it. There are people in it who really understand where we’re all trying to go and what’s useful to us as a society and we’re lucky enough that we’ve met those people. We work with those people. So we actually have a great relationship with the Oregon Department of corrections, which we rely on in order to come and do this work.

We also rely now financially on my other company off road. So I started a company after spending three years fundraising and writing grants and all of that for a social ignition to help it be sustainable and be a nonprofit and be a thing. And being very frustrated with that system. Danielle, we’ve talked about that before. You’ve heard those rants. After three years or so of doing that, I decided to stop writing grants to stop trying to participate in a system that wasn’t built to support men who are incarcerated. It was built to support babies and people in other countries and maybe puppies and all of these people who can’t fight for themselves. You can’t work for themselves. So I started a company taking my business acumen and this love that I have for business and going back to my roots of working with entrepreneurs and people who run nonprofits to help them do their work better. So we’re essentially a consulting and implementation firm for nonprofits and businesses all over the world and we earn money, just like any other company earns money, and we take a piece of that and give it to a social ignition in order to buy books. A Social Ignition is 100 percent volunteer run, no people get paid, but we do buy books and materials and some of those things and so off road pays for that.

Danielle Olson: 22:40
So that hybrid model, a nonprofit and for profit, um, is common or common enough that it’s you know, talked about as, as practice in the social enterprise sphere. Is there any advice or insights you would give for how, how well it works for social cognition, how it may or may not work for other people looking to create an appropriate social enterprise?

Sonja Skvarla: 23:17
Truthfully, it works really well. There’s a time challenge. So essentially now I’m actually running two or three companies instead of just one, but it’s, I actually have more time on my hands now because trying to fit into a system that isn’t useful for you is exhausting and time consuming.

As far as sort of advice I would give or how it might work for others. I’ll tell you what I tell the guys inside. Build a business model first. Figure out how you’re going to support this effort financially first and then decide if it should be a nonprofit or social enterprise or a B Corp or an S corp or whatever it’s going to be. If there’s a gap because it just takes so much labor or time. If there is a gap in the funding, then consider a 501(c)(3) or some sort of nonprofit model to take donations, but try as hard as you can first to earn your own money. Because if you can earn it through some sort of business capacity, then you’re in control of how that works, instead of having the government and the 501(c)(3)’s and the grant makers and all of that. They are really the tails wagging the dog. But if you earn your own money, then you are in control of your mission. You are in control of how that rolls out and you don’t have to make compromises.

I mentioned before that the prison system, along with the grant writing system, but the prison system is broken and that’s a term we hear a lot. And it’s also, I think, well designed for some of the things it was designed to do, which was take people who we are fearful of, mostly because we don’t understand them, and move them away from us to isolate them, to put them somewhere else. And so it’s done well that way. One of the reasons why it has grown out of control is because the prison system itself is fairly small. Unfortunately it’s feeded by the justice system and the way that we have had mandatory minimums. The way we have taken the humanity out of so many crimes that has fed more people than ever into the prison system.

And so whereas way back in the day, the only people who were incarcerated were people that we could be legitimately fearful of. They were physically dangerous people. That’s not the case anymore. Now the mass majority of people who are incarcerated are just different from us. Either they grew up in a different neighborhood that operated on different rules or there are a lot of people who are incarcerated who think differently. More and more I’m meeting autistic men in prison or dyslexic or they just think differently and if they had grown up with money, they’d probably be a dyslexic entrepreneur now making millions of dollars, but instead they’re incarcerated because somewhere along the line they didn’t fit in.

And along with that we hear about the prison industrial complex. Which is a term that talks about the amount of money that’s made by the system. Right? Whether that’s private prisons, whether that’s making money off of phone calls from people who are incarcerated to their families, whatever that is, and there is a lot of money to be made there. I do encourage people to check their portfolios because there are three private prison industries, and we can put this in some show notes, but they that are publicly traded. So usually they are listed under names that you wouldn’t recognize. And if you have a nicely diversified portfolio that your financial manager put together for you, you probably don’t know that they’re there and you may own some prison stock that you don’t know about. So those things are all true. It’s also very complicated system that I think few people have a handle on the whole piece.

In part one of the complexities is the theoretical piece of private prisons being in the business of holding people in prison and getting people back to prison because they need to fill their beds to make money. The state is the same way. If you’re not using any business to its full capacity, you’re losing money. And so it doesn’t really matter who owns or runs the prison. That’s the same.

One thing I will say about the private prisons that I have been, some of them are awful and but some of them, in fact, one of the best prison entrepreneurship programs in the country called PEP in Texas, operates in private prisons. And they are able to do so much more because it doesn’t take a literal act of Congress, state legislature to make change there. The private prison just gets to say, “Oh, you want an entire residential unit where your where the people in your entrepreneurship program can come and live together positively without going back into general population. Okay, let’s figure out how to make that happen.” They can just say, okay, let’s figure it out. Whereas state run prisons, it’s just nothing moves that fast and so there are opportunities in some of those systems to do things that the state prisons wouldn’t allow us to do.

Jenn Theone: 29:06
I’m actually really relieved to hear you say that because I know you got your masters in business and when I heard that you were starting a nonprofit, I was a little bit confused. I was like, “doesn’t she want to use the market to really propel her ideas forward.” So it actually really makes sense that you’ve done this.

Sonja Skvarla: 29:25
Yeah, I’ll tell you a little bit about that. In my personal journey, my personal entrepreneurship journey, I often wonder why the heck did I ever start a nonprofit? I shouldn’t have. I didn’t want to. In the beginning I was always sort of temporary. I was like, “okay, well I’ll do this until we start making our own money and then just abandon it.” Which eventually happened, but went on longer than I thought and mostly I listened to other smart people, so I was humbled in the beginning and I was small and I said, oh, I just want to do this little effort. Right? I was altruistic, right? Daddy said, and I said, okay, this is how. This is how this work gets done, and all of these really smart people that I look up to just sort of made that general assumption. They said, “oh, you’re doing good things in the world. You’re a nonprofit.” Tada, done. Right? And so I said, “oh, okay, if you think so then let’s. Okay, let’s do it.”

And it was exactly what needed to happen to get me here, but it was an arduous process and I think now more and more these alternative models, like you say, now they’re common. That’s fantastic. Even five years ago when I started that, the only people who are starting nonprofits from corporations were huge corporations that somehow had some money leftover because they made so much of it that they’re like, well, we’ll give this away. Maybe it’s a tax credit. Maybe we actually believe in it. Either way. That was the model. We didn’t see a lot of that small stuff bubbling up from underneath until much more recently.

Danielle Olson: 30:56
It takes a lot of guts to create something from scratch in that, especially when it’s something like a social enterprise, trying to do something new in the world that there is no roadmap for.

Sonja Skvarla: 31:08
I think there’s a lot of people, if you talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, they probably won’t agree with you. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it takes guts. It feels like there isn’t another option. That this is the only way forward either for ourselves personally or for the community or whatever, and I will say that if there is something that I could change going back, it’s that equal number of people who challenged me and said, I don’t get it, there were the people who cheerleaded me to death. Who were just so happy that I was doing something good in the world and they said, “oh, that’s so wonderful. Good job.” Which doesn’t help me. It doesn’t help it make it better. You know, I’d go to funders and I’d say, here, here it is. And they’d say, oh no, but we’re so glad that you’re doing it. No, we’re not giving you money, but we’re so glad that you’re doing it. That’s not useful. What’s useful is we’re not giving you money because. And what I realized is that sometimes they don’t know why they’re not giving you money or they don’t want to say why they’re not giving you money because they’re not, show me, don’t tell me reasons they are because I just don’t believe in it actually, or I don’t want to be that close to the prison system or it’s too hard or it’s too depressing.

Those are the reasons why, but to just say, oh, it’s so great. This is what you’re doing in the world. I think we do a disservice to our peers and to the people that we mentor and to our students to say, “oh, it’s just so good, just keep doing it.” Because there’s always things that we can do better and so we do a disservice to sort of pat them on the head and just be glad that they’re doing it. We need to help them dig in and really sort of play in the dirt

Are there some ways you’re seeing that you want to do better? For what’s next for A Social Ignition?

Always, always I want to do better. And so, I mean, first it was to stop trying to fundraise. That was the first thing is how can I take these 850 hours literally half a year and put them to better use instead of trying to write grants are having parties to raise money or whatever. So that was one big, “how can we do better?”

And now beyond that it’s how can I better engage the people who want to be engaged? So we’re actually in September, October, somewhere in there we’re having a sort of a mini summit to the people who have with the mentors and the people who’ve been supportive of social cognition and that often say, “what else can I do?” to say, “okay, here’s what else you can do.” Here’s the way that you can engage. One way that entrepreneurs put on the face of I have everything together is because they are doing everything and so people don’t always know where the gaps are. It’s sort of a a founder’s dilemma where you have to do everything, but then it doesn’t present a place where others can become engaged easily.

So I think one thing that I’ve learned over this time is ways to organize what needs to be done, even if it’s all phantom right now because nobody’s doing it, but organize it in such a way that someone could grab on and make that piece their own, instead of handing them a task. Like, “your job is to bring in such and such amount of dollars or we need tables set up at our next function.We would love for you to do that or will you handle the graphic design for that?” Those are tasks and they’re okay, but they don’t get people engaged long term. People need to have ownership and truthfully, I mean a nonprofit and these sorts of organizations, they should belong to the community in some way because that’s who’s being served by them. Not only just the people who are incarcerated but the business folks out here are being served by the fact that we are better training men to enter the workforce after incarceration.

And so giving them a piece of ownership, whether that’s “okay, we want to enhance programming outside of prison because now we have all these guys that have gotten out and we continue to coach them and we have a men’s group,” and that sort of thing, but we can do more. We can do better, and so engaging the mentors and saying, what would a program like that look like and how would you want to be involved in it?

Jenn Theone: 35:38
It’s almost like you’re asking everyone to be an entrepreneur. When you ask them to engage with the social ignition and you. It’s like the ownership piece where each person who participates in this, including the prisoners is like their birthing something. I think I heard you say that once from themselves that they’re creating something completely original.

Sonja Skvarla: 35:59
Absolutely, absolutely. And so asking people, business people are very busy and so asking them to have an ownership over a small but meaningful piece is useful and allowing them support to say this is yours, we will help you do it. We’ll support you, but you let us know how you think this should go and we’ll support it into the world.

Danielle Olson: 36:26
So instead of handing people tasks, you’re framing it more as kind of big potential outcomes, but keeping it and then framing it as a question so that people can kind of engage and put their own ideas and ownership into that.

Sonja Skvarla: 36:46
Yeah, and the idea being that again, we all have busy lives, especially business people, people running businesses, usually it’s more than one. They’re not sitting on the beach from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM. They’re doing things. So helping them to design their own structure also. So one of the things that we’re talking about is creating, this is very tangible stuff I’m getting into now, but essentially creating nodes that are all a piece of A Social Ignition, but each of the nodes are according to a program. So maybe one’s all about the inside program, maybe one’s all about the outside program, maybe one is all about the upcoming tablet content channel that we’re developing for prisons across the country. But then to engage with that node and decide for yourself what’s useful.

So one of my criticisms of nonprofits is that they’re very strict for reasons, good reasons I’m sure that somebody came up with, but they’re very strict in terms of they have to have annual, they have to have a certain number of board members and you have to have annual meetings and you have to have minutes. And so we end up putting our mental models on that. And what we’re hoping to do here is open up each of these nodes to organize themselves in whatever way is most useful for what they’re trying to do. And so each one of these nodes will require a different level of engagement based on how they’re, depending on whether it’s an inside program that’s already sort of established but just needs more boost or if it’s the tablet program, which is pretty much a really great idea with some interested customers, there’s going to be a different of engagement there.

And so deciding for themselves what level of engagement. It’s not really new, but it’s new to A Social Ignition. It is a model that’s a little beyond where a lot of organizations are. And so it’s something that we’ll be trying in this fall.

Danielle Olson: 38:53
And did you find that somewhere or come up with. How did that come about?

Sonja Skvarla: 38:58
I made it up. That doesn’t mean it’s new, it just means that, I may have seen pieces of it in other places and I don’t always recognize where those things come from. But usually on Sunday in the perfect storm, it shows up for me. And so then I take advantage of that.

Jenn Theone: 39:18
That reminds me of something else you said about how experiences are. Our lives are cumulative. So every new instance comes with new lessons learned, even if it were doing the same thing that we did yesterday. What we’ve done since then changes the way we act. Right?

Sonja Skvarla: 39:37
Absolutely. I really tried to trends the #lifeiscumulative. Unfortunately we don’t really know how to spell it usually, so it never trended and most people laughed at me that it’s just not catchy enough for a Hashtag, but you know, #lifeiscumulative. And the idea of that being that it does take every moment of our lives previously to get us to this moment here. And so we need to recognize that we couldn’t be here in whatever glory or awfulness or whatever without all the moments that came before. And if this is a moment of awfulness, take heart that there is glory later because of this moment and awfulness here. So #lifeiscumulative.

Danielle Olson: 40:32
Right. We’ll make sure to put that into the social media for the podcast. I want to make sure that it’s clear for listeners what the programs are that you do. So you mentioned the ignition option and then outside of prison because you…. Yeah, just clarify.

Sonja Skvarla: 40:55
Yes, absolutely. So we start with a six week entrepreneurial course inside a prison called the ignition option and like I said, that cumulates in or culminates in a presentation day where they present their business models that they came up with throughout the course to members of the community that come inside. The mentors come back, other people come. We have actually had some people be offered jobs that day and started work when they get out a few months later. It’s really cool and yeah, all really good stuff and then they. Everybody who finishes that course, which is most. We have some attrition but not very much. Those guys are invited into the long haul, which is individual and small group coaching based on their particular goals. So twice a month they get to meet with an executive coach, someone who does that work on the outside and comes to prison specifically to do it with them one on one or twice a month for an hour.

And then the opposite. Our like workshops, we call it group coaching, which is a little bit of a misnomer, but they’re workshops on all kinds of different topics. So some of it’s articulating your values. Some of it is how to tell the story of your financial story of your business on the back of a napkin. All kinds. It really runs the gamut. And, and sometimes we just play games because you also just need to laugh and have fun. So that runs inside and then through the gate. So when they’re released they are lifetime members of The Long Haul and they continued to get business coaching, employment coaching. We connect them with mentors who were interested in helping them with their journey and having coffee and, you know, very organic just like you and I would have coffee with somebody and interview them and whatnot. There is also a men’s group on the outside, which for obvious reasons I do not participate in. But that really helps the men to have some time to just be themselves and to be vulnerable with each other in a way that they may not feel comfortable with women in the room. And support each other through this journey.

Danielle Olson: 43:13
How would you recommend people learn more or get engaged with a social ignition if they’re interested?

Sonja Skvarla: Yeah. Well, if you’re in the Portland area, come to prison with me. Nodding. Yes.

Jenn Theone: I would come.

Sonja Skvarla: 43:27
So in fact August 13th this year is our next presentation day, so next month, August 13th. And so that’s a really great way to come in and meet the guys and see what they’ve been working on and hear about their business models. That’s the best way to get started, truthfully. If you have a workshop, if you have some sort of value to offer, we would love to have you in to work with the guys in the long haul on that. In the workshop space also, sponsoring books is an option. Some of those kinds of things. If you’re not in the Portland area.

I also really encourage people that if you’re not in the Portland area, you find the thing that does this in your area because incarceration is actually hyperlocal. People are confined to a prison which is in a particular area and when they’re released, they are released back into the community that was troublesome for them and are required to stay there, in fact need permission to leave. Usually paperwork and all kinds of things to leave that situation. So getting involved in your local community is the best thing that you can do, including just talking to people on the bus next to you or smiling at somebody at the grocery store. Those are the little things that do the same things that we’re trying to do in prison on a smaller scale, so get involved in your local community, go to those prisons, volunteer with those organizations and keep it local.

Danielle Olson: 45:05
And in people’s individual communities. Is looking through the prisons probably the best way to find those programs? Or are there other good ways?

Sonja Skvarla: 45:14
So most prisons will. You can talk to their sort of PR department and they should be able to hook you up with the volunteers that already go inside. Sometimes it’s listed on their website. Those are good places to start.

Jenn Theone: Sonja, thank you so much for coming out. We really enjoyed this conversation.

Sonja Skvarla: Thank you so much for having me.

 

The post HTF 031: #LifeIsCumulative (Teaching Entrepreneurship in Prison) appeared first on Hatch Innovation.

From Breweries to Factory Floors, Worker Coops are Blooming

On a muggy June day in St. Louis, a group of eager, determined faces filled an aggressively air-conditioned classroom. It was the start of the 2018 CommonBound conference, a gathering of community leaders and activists radically reimagining how we organize ourselves economically. The crowd was a diverse mix from across the country, and they were […]

The post From Breweries to Factory Floors, Worker Coops are Blooming appeared first on Locavesting.

Place-based Investment is Filling Funding Gaps in Rural Arkansas

Place-based impact investing is a growing focus of many foundations seeking greater impact in their communities. As more and more foundations explore place-based impact investing, it is natural for the discussions to focus on the nuts and bolts of investing: Will we commit dollars from our endowment? Will we build internal capacity, or outsource due […]

The post Place-based Investment is Filling Funding Gaps in Rural Arkansas appeared first on Locavesting.

Is JOBS Act 3.0 About to Become Reality?

Investment crowdfunding may finally get the fixes that advocates have long called for. On Wednesday, a sweeping collection of bipartisan bills known collectively as the JOBS Act 3.0 passed the House of Representatives with broad support. The package now moves to the Senate. Sponsored by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) and Ranking […]

The post Is JOBS Act 3.0 About to Become Reality? appeared first on Locavesting.

A Sharing Solution to California’s Housing Crisis

It was late August last year and Fidel Mora, a bilingual math teacher in San Mateo County, felt the familiar sense of anticipation as a new school year approached. But this year there was something else he was excitedly looking forward to: Mora and his wife Carol Yoo, an English teacher (pictured above), were preparing […]

The post A Sharing Solution to California’s Housing Crisis appeared first on Locavesting.

It’s About to Become Easier to Choose a Socially Responsible Investment Advisor

Starting this fall, choosing a financial advisor may become a little easier for people who care about the impact their money is having—thanks to a brand new professional designation for financial advisors that was recently unveiled by the College of Financial Planning, in collaboration with the US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. Called the Chartered […]

The post It’s About to Become Easier to Choose a Socially Responsible Investment Advisor appeared first on Locavesting.

Real Pickles: Anatomy of a Successful DPO

Long before the JOBS Act and state-specific laws legalized investment crowdfunding, there was the direct public offering, or DPO, a sort of do-it-yourself IPO. Kassandra Mayhew of Cutting Edge Capital recently talked to Real Pickles cofounder Addie Rose Holland (pictured at left) about how a DPO helped the Greenfield, MA company transition to a worker-owned […]

The post Real Pickles: Anatomy of a Successful DPO appeared first on Locavesting.

Four Recent Reports Shed Light on the State of Impact Investing

Having trouble keeping up with the latest developments in the world of impact investing? Allow us to help. We dove into the weeds of four of the field’s most notable recent studies, extracting the most interesting findings for you. Some of the key themes involve the mainstreaming of impact investing, the vital role that women […]

The post Four Recent Reports Shed Light on the State of Impact Investing appeared first on Locavesting.