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As I gazed outward with my co-valedictorians Claire and Alexis beside me, the gym pulsed with excitement. Entrepreneurs-in-training, families of graduates, housing and security staff, case managers, teachers and program leadership had gathered to celebrate the graduation of the first cohort from an eight-month-long character development and entrepreneurship training program at La Vista Correctional Facility. 

Our cohort had first gathered in this same gym nine months earlier in February 2019 to learn about the opportunity to become the CEO of Your New Life by participating in an employment readiness, entrepreneur training, and character development re-entry preparation program run by non-profit group Defy Ventures Colorado. 

At the kickoff session, the same gym became a pep rally, with volunteer coaches traveling from Denver and further north to energize and encourage us. In one ice breaker, we introduced ourselves and asked questions about each other like where we were from or what our favorite color was. If we found something in common we exchanged stickers with hearts, stars and smiley faces. The exercise was meant to reinforce how much we all had in common, no matter which side of the barbed wire we slept at night. 

Previous to this, I had been in prison for five years on my second incarceration stint, and I had long struggled with self-worth, so shedding my identity as an inmate to become an entrepreneur-in-training was a deeply validating experience for me.

Our cohort of 30 met weekly, sitting in a circle, often with outside coaches joining in. We began each session by standing, stating our name, and then sharing an icebreaker about ourselves, such as our favorite color or animal and why. 

We then started developing business names, mission statements and taglines. I developed an idea for a mobile hair salon called Phoenix Transformations. My tagline was, “Creating singular style and encouraging metamorphosis one patron at a time.” My idea was to partner with halfway houses and re-entry organizations to give women being released from prison a free haircut so they felt more confident when they applied for a job. 

Our coaches made a conscious effort to call us by our given name and refer to us as an entrepreneur-in-training. It was a respite from being just another faceless number, a cog in the prison bureaucracy. 

While working our way through four textbooks and video materials, we completed assignments at the end of each book along with interim assessments. We covered a wide range of topics, like job stability and softer skills like honesty and meeting etiquette. We also spoke of emotional challenges such as the fear of failure, self-limiting beliefs and meaningful apologies. 

The program had been attractive to me because of the focus on character. I had been a freelance bookkeeper in my past, capable of running a business and fully aware of budgeting, revenue and income tax planning. I didn’t need those nuts and bolts, but appreciated the depth and breadth covered in the curriculum. 

After we completed the second textbook, we attended a business coaching day. Coaches and volunteers from across the state offered us the opportunity to practice networking, and business and community leaders sat down with us one-on-one to hear our business ideas, offering feedback and constructive criticism. 

In one empathy building exercise, Stacey Putka, former Miss Colorado and current Executive Director of Defy Ventures Colorado, mentioned that she had referred to me in a TEDx Talk in June 2019. I nearly cried, feeling seen and heard for something outside of my shame-inducing felonies and multiple theft charges. 

The single disappointment for me in participating in this program was the inability to sustain connections with our mentors because of policies set by the department of corrections. With no family and limited support, it was disheartening for me to meet great people and then not be able to continue the great conversations we started in the program.  

At the end of our eight-month journey, we developed leadership statements and a pitch. 

I designed brochures introducing Phoenix Transformations, my mobile beauty salon. My plan was to work with community corrections and re-entry services. During the haircut, I imagined asking them how they would answer typical interview questions like, “Tell me about yourself” and providing tips on how to refer to their conviction to a prospective employer. 

The idea for Phoenix Transformations came from a personal experience at a halfway house back in 2015. Before that, I had been in prison for more than two years, and my hair had grown out. I felt messy and desperately wanted to get my hair cut and colored before interviewing for jobs, so I could feel normal. I had tried to secure a pass to visit a professional salon, but my pass request was denied because the location was considered unverifiable. 

My confidence plummeted because I felt like I was unkempt. It took me more than three months to secure employment. 

In my pitch presentation, I spoke about how it would be worthwhile if I could set up even one person for success by helping them look and feel good. 

Ultimately, I placed fourth in the Business Pitch Competition, and won a stipend of $200 to use as seed money toward launching my business in the future. 

Today, Defy Colorado is one of my employers. In April of 2021, Stacey and Izzy McCarragher, the program director, reached out to me and asked me to apply for the newly-created position of program assistant. I started my job in June, and my primary role is to help people just like me, graduates of our in-prison program. Working here feeds my soul.

Defy Colorado recently rebranded as Breakthrough! Since starting the organization in 2017, we learned that we must innovate to respond to our community’s needs and that human connection matters the most. In other words, we have to “break through.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

JoyBelle Phelan is a writer and also serves as writer relations associate at Prison Journalism Project.

She was incarcerated twice for a total of seven years and has also been in community corrections. She passionately believes that no one should be remembered for the worst decision they have ever made. She is using her lived experience to challenge the perceptions of what prison is like for women and what re-entry can look like. While inside, she was in various leadership and peer mentor positions, worked as the pre-release clerk and helped to develop and implement the re-entry unit program.

She was the first woman at La Vista Correctional Facility to be published in Colorado’s The Inside Report prison newspaper. She also has an essay published in the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition’s Go Guide about being successful on parole.