Aspire to Entrepreneurship helps bring startup mentality 
to returning citizens - DC


Oct. 8, 2018 12:57 pm

Aspire to Entrepreneurship helps bring startup mentality 
to returning citizens

The District program helps non-traditional entrepreneurs start companies, get training and receive mentorship.

Will Avila completed the program and founded a cleaning business with 17 returning citizens on payroll.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

Updated to correct several inaccuracies. (10/10/18, 1:14 p.m.)

Returning from incarceration and being able to pay the bills often determines who returns to crime and who doesn’t.

To that end, Aspire to Entrepreneurship is partnering with D.C.’s Department of Small and Local Business Development to work with justice-involved individuals and help them learn entrepreneurship skills.

Fifty people have gone through the Aspire program since it started three years ago, and there has been a 0 percent recidivism rate for those participating. The first cohort had 25 individuals and 15 companies that got business licenses in the District. The second cohort saw the program receive a grant of $10,000 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Fifty people have gone through the Aspire program since it started three years ago, and there has been a zero percent recidivism rate for those participating.

“We already have residents of the District of Columbia who have already gotten over the risk-taking prowess that you need to start your own businesses,” said now-former Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden.

“Many of them went to jail because they had a different entrepreneurial spirit — if you know what I mean,” continued Snowden. “And we thought, the way to really harness that behavior is through creating a program leveraging government resources to help returning citizens start legitimate businesses.”

To help build the Aspire to Entrepreneurship, the District teamed up with Changing Perceptions a nonprofit founded by Will Avila, himself a returning citizen.


Business owners starting up their companies receive a stipend of $9 an hour and the money is required to be saved in an IDA, or Individual Development Account, held in escrow to help build their business.

Two startup mentors who help with Aspire program were backed by recording artist John LegendFlikshop and Clean Decisions.

Flikshop is a tech startup that allows users to communicate with an incarcerated family member or friend via a mobile app which prints their digital message out as a postcard and mails it for 99 cents.

The idea came from founder Marcus Bullock when he remembered how meaningful it was to hear from the outside world while he was incarcerated. Since people rarely write anymore he realized that letters weren’t the most effective way of communication now that everything is digital.

“There’s no Facebook in prison. No Snapchat, no Instagram, no Twitter, no texting,” Bullock said. “Yet we’ve connected almost 150,000 families so far in having shipped almost half a million Flikshops.”

Bullock added: “We want to make communities safer and decarcerate America by keeping families connected. We know that family engagement is high for people that are in these prisons cells, and that means that they’ll probably come home, be more engaged with their loved ones who will be less likely, less susceptible to the crime we see happening when most of these people are coming home and reoffending.”

Program Mentor Will Avila’s company Clean Decisions focuses on kitchen cleaning, landscaping services and event support which employs returning citizens. Avila had been to jail three times which he attributed to “a lack of resources and mentoring from the city.”

“I launched Clean Decisions to give people in my position coming out a hand up,” said Avila. “I applied for 22 jobs and got 22 rejections, so didn’t want others who wanted to work hard to face that. Three years later, I have 17 returning citizens on payroll, and they prove every day that we are willing to work as hard or harder than anyone else, and that as a team we can produce results.”

Avila then created the non-profit Changing Perceptions which runs the program, a year later.

When they complete the Aspire program they can use that money for three purposes: housing, further education or to seed their small business.

“When I think about real economic opportunity, and how we get people to access prosperity, there is no better example than Aspire to Entrepreneurship,” said Snowden. “We’ve literally taken people like Lorenzo Stewart, who I met at a roundtable for unemployed folks, to becoming business owners.”

After being unemployed for over 18 months, Stewart completed six months of the Aspire program and now has seven employees with his company, VOW Transportation.

“That is how you change communities. That is how you gentrify in place. And that’s how you build economic opportunity,” Snowden said.

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