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Reconnecting women with their dreams

Tianna Oakley-Perry was recently released from prison after serving time for selling cocaine. She left with more than good luck wishes.

An innovative program developed through a collaboration between Northeastern University and the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has prepared Oakley-Perry to recast herself as a small-business entrepreneur by following through on her lifelong interest in computers. She plans to enroll in computer support classes this January, with the ultimate goal of opening her own business.

It’s a goal she shares with the cohort of women who graduatedFriday from the Safe and Sound Return Entrepreneurship Training Institute. The initiative, developed by Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research (IUHR) in partnership with the College of Business Administration (CBA) and the BPHC, teaches entrepreneurial skills to women imprisoned for offenses such as selling drugs. As they reenter the community, the women are encouraged to utilize, in positive ways, the entrepreneurial instincts that led to their incarceration.

“I’ve learned about business startups, money, and grants and how important these tools are going to be,” said Oakley-Perry. “We had a guest speaker come in who was down on her luck, with two children, no money, just down and out, and she started her own cleaning company. It was just an idea sitting over the table with her sister and her girlfriend. I never would have thought it would’ve launched into something so big.”

She said that all 10 of her weekly classes in the program had provided something valuable towards helping her reach her business goals — but that hearing from peers who were successful was especially heartening.

“Real people come in to talk to us; real people with real-life issues from incarceration,” she said. “That gives you a sense of hope. You feel so good at the end of the day leaving class. It’s like, ‘Wow, I learned something new and met someone I can relate to.’ And when your career coaches come in, they don’t talk at you, they listen, and coming from incarceration, that’s very, very important.”

Oakley-Perry joined her classmates at the graduation ceremony at the BPHC, where the women gave presentations on their future education and business plans and received certificates for completing the program.

The institute, supported by a three-year, $1.2 million federal grant, will run four times a year with approximately 10 to 12 women in each cohort. They meet once each week for 10 weeks, and classes focus on computer skills, résumé building and formulating start-up businesses. It also provides women with pre- and post-release services including planning for community re-entry, substance-abuse relapse prevention and education, skills building and group and individual counseling through the BPHC.

“We developed the training institute to help women realize their dreams,” said IUHR director Hortensia Amaro, “whether they be education or employment, and to reconnect women with the dreams they may have lost.”

“Entrepreneurship can become a medicine for a lot of problems,” said William Tita, a CBA lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation. “Their vices, put in another context, can be virtues. The women reentering the community have faced monumental challenges and have lost confidence in themselves. This program helps them develop a new mindset.”

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