“What brought you to this work?” is a question I field constantly. Over the last five years, I’ve been asked nearly once a week by fellow business people, funders, clients and colleagues, “How did you get into this?” The work in question is the company I founded, A Social Ignition: facilitating entrepreneurship classes in men’s prisons and then supporting them as they start careers and businesses once they are released.

I’ve had the same response from the beginning: “I value diversity. I believe that in order to solve the world’s problems, we need the creativity of all the world’s voices.” This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

Quality entrepreneurial programming can reduce the odds of men returning to prison from over 60 percent to 4 percent. Tweet This Quote

I met Ryan when he joined our third cohort at Columbia River Correctional Institution. We’ve been working together a year and a half now. Ryan doesn’t really buy the altruistic, “because it’s good for the world” bit. He’s asked me a million times, “No, but really, why would you come into a prison like this? Why do you do this?”

Ryan has been looking for answers, not just from me, but also about his future. After being a champion baseball player in his youth and incarcerated for most of his adulthood, he’s been trying to figure out what he can do with his life. When we met, he operated under the belief that the only things he was ever good at were baseball and stealing. They were the only things he was ever praised for or that anyone had paid attention to in a long time. And truthfully, he wasn’t all that good at stealing things; otherwise, I wouldn’t have met him where I did.

Lately, Ryan’s question has been grinding in the back of my head. Why do I work particularly with men in prison? I can recite all of the statistics detailing why incarcerated and recently released men need professional tools and resources to get back on their feet. After all, there are 66 million Americans with criminal records, and 92 percent of those who have been in prison are men. Quality entrepreneurial programming has been shown to reduce their odds of returning to prison from more than 60 percent down to 4 percent.

We are all on the same team fighting to be loved, to matter, and to prove that we have something to offer. Tweet This Quote

These stats are on our website and in grant proposals. They are all true, but why am I the one who founded A Social Ignition? Why am I doing this?

I’ll tell you what I don’t do: I don’t “serve” these men, and I don’t “help” them either. I work with them. We work together to build careers and businesses and combat the stereotypes, stigmas, limitations, and judgments that others put on us.

Did I say us?

No, I’ve never been incarcerated. Neither has anyone in my family. I don’t have a criminal record. I’m just an ordinary, white girl from the suburbs.

When people ask why I do this work or how I got into it, I add with a smile, “I’m sure there is some personal work to do around this question.” I’ve known I was just nervous of judgment or the consequences of sharing. This is the first time I will answer this question out loud:

I do this work because I relate.

I relate to the feeling that I am supposed to do something better or more, but I continually run into someone else’s limitations.

I relate to the feeling that other people know better. They are more successful than I am, therefore they must know what is good for me.

I relate to being told that I don’t belong, that I’m different and an outsider.

I relate to putting limits on myself based on someone else’s expectations of how I’m supposed to be, do, or act.

I relate to the feeling that I have to do it by myself, or it doesn’t count. There will be no one to take care of me.

I relate to the feeling that I don’t matter, and if I were gone forever, it wouldn’t really matter.

It’s the entrepreneur’s way to embark on unpaved paths to reach a new version of our world and ourselves. Tweet This Quote

I founded my company and I work with these men because we are all fighting. We are on the same team, all of us, fighting to be loved, fighting to matter, and fighting to prove that we have something to offer. We are scared that we just don’t know how.

So, despite the fear, we work. We are people with different experiences who get shit done. It’s the entrepreneur’s way to embark on unpaved paths to reach a new version of our world and ourselves. And when these guys take their smart, strategic minds and focus them on legitimate business, the whole world improves.

The men I know who come out fighting and taking risks to show people they matter teach me to be brave. They own all of themselves and still fight to show the world what they have to offer. Take a page from their book. Dig in. Be brave. Use the power of business to touch that part of yourself that you may fear getting close to.

About the author

Sonja Skvarla

Sonja Skvarla

Sonja is the founder of A Social Ignition, an organization that facilitates entrepreneurship classes in men’s prisons and then supports them as they start careers and businesses once they are released.