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Small Biz Insider: Entrepreneurship Took His Journey From Prison Life Sentence to CEO

Published Jan 28, 2021 by Maggie Martin

small biz insider

Bryan Kelley, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of PEP.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Bryan Kelley, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of PEP.


Participants of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Photo courtesy of PEP.

After Bryan Kelley was given a life sentence for murder in 1992, he said he was tired of being a part of the problem and wanted to be a part of the solution. 

That was the beginning of Kelley’s journey with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which connects the nation’s top executives, entrepreneurs, and MBA students with convicted felons. Over 2,600 men have graduated from the PEP since it launched in 2004.

Kelley is one of them. Three years ago, he became CEO, overseeing about 30 employees and up to 3,000 active volunteers.

Small Biz Insider host Maggie Martin talks with Kelley about his journey and how PEP arms participants with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed when they return to society.  Here are the highlights.

On why entrepreneurship strikes such a chord with program participants

“I think because they can see themselves as an entrepreneur," said Kelley. "They can see themselves as a small business owner. And it’s interesting, most of the guys, from their very survival on the street, know a lot about business…They may not think about it in true business terms, but they have those natural skills. And they are excellent at reading people and recognizing those opportunities.”

On how PEP graduates are part of an untapped labor pool in Texas

Only about 20% of guys will get out and attempt to start a business, said Kelley. The other 80% will be  work for someone else. He PEP's training prepares these participants to be quality employees. 

“And, you know, think about this. You’re coming out of prison…you are desperate to go to work, you want to find a place where you fit in, where you add value, where you can earn a livable wage. And, typically, if someone gives them a chance to do that, they become the most loyal employees.”

On barriers facing returning citizens face after prison 

“Here I am - CEO - I was seeking out an apartment a couple years ago and I looked at several, paid several application fees, and everybody was turning me down for a felony on my record from 26 years prior. And it just highlighted for me the difficulty that the guys are going through as well. We have placed so many barriers to reentry, it’s amazing anybody makes it. And I get it, my crime is big and I own that and I realize that there’s going to be some challenges that I chose in my life, but from the very smallest charge, guys just run into so many obstacles, every sentence is a life sentence.” 

On the greatest opportunities for PEP graduates in Houston

Kelley noted Houston is such an interactive, diverse city.

"We work well together and there's a lot of job opportunities...We’re doing an amazing job of getting guys jobs, especially right here in Houston. We have a bunch of them come back to Houston. The city works well together, it’s innovative, there’s a lot of things to do with the Ship Channel and there is so much commerce in Houston. Our guys, who have worked on character and understand business, fit in well.” 

Small Biz Insider is presented by: 

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The Small Biz Insider podcast is part of our digital series highlighting entrepreneurs in the greater Houston region who are making a big impact in the small business community. 

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