By Anaré V. Holmes
Pierre “Pee” Thomas will never forget his life before music or the day he took control of his future and became an entrepreneur.
“I knew (that) working for somebody else wasn’t an option for me when I was on parole looking for work,” said Thomas, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based Quality Control Records. “I’d fill out different applications and there was this form I had to get [employers] to sign to verify my job search. I knew the odds of me getting those jobs were stacked against me.”
He soon started taking notes and educating himself about the music business through mutual friends in the industry. At the time, his brother Buck was managing Gorilla Zoe – best known for being a member of the rap group, Boyz N Da Hood.
“I learned what people did right and what people did wrong. I learned how to use talent in ways that create platforms to make money and change lives,” he said.
Armed with that knowledge and confidence, he teamed up with business partner Kevin “Coach K” Lee to start the boutique powerhouse label that put hip-hop sensations Migos and Lil Yachty on the map.
Along with financial success, the duo earned respect in the game as Billboard magazine’s 2018 “Executives of the Year.”
As they build a musical dynasty that now includes such acts as City Girls, Lil Baby and a deal to represent Cardi B through their Solid Foundation management division, they have not lost sight of the impact mass incarceration has on black families and many of their most loyal supporters.
The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed that black people in the United States are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites; and, that one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids.
Here in Georgia, the state ranks first in the nation when it comes to the number of people on probation.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates about 5,600 people of every 100,000 adults in Georgia were on probation in 2015, the most recent figures available. These numbers are twice that of Rhode Island, which came in at second place in their report and about 3.5 times the national average.
As the First Step Act — a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed by Congress and signed into law last year — begins to take shape with a goal to reduce recidivism, refine sentencing laws and expand in-prison and post-release employment programming, people in the trenches need relief now.
To connect these men and women to the lifeline entrepreneurship can offer in turning The Inmates to Entrepreneurs #SecondChances Atlanta Conference is set to take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Loudermilk Conference Center, 40 Courtland St. NE, Atlanta, GA 30303.
“We all come across roadblocks in life and some decisions and circumstances can put us in very harsh places,” Lee said. “That should never stop you from moving forward with growth and actually achieving your goals and getting a second chance to better yourself and make a great life for you and your family.”
Thomas and Lee were scheduled to share more empowering tips to participant attendees as the event’s keynote speakers; however, the death of Coach K’s mother and planned homegoing services have caused them to cancel.
Atlanta attorney Drew Findling, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers—who is also a trusted advisor and friend to Thomas, Lee and the QC family will step in to fulfill keynote speaking duties in their absence.
The conference is the brainchild of tech businessman Brian Hamilton of North Carolina. Hamilton recently sold his upstart Sageworks, a successful financial information firm, to devote more time teaching people involved in the judicial system how to operate legal businesses.
Hamilton said he was inspired to form the Inmates to Entrepreneurs and Brian Hamilton Foundation nonprofits as vehicles to make entrepreneurship accessible to everyone, but particularly for people with the odds stacked against them, including those for whom a 9 to 5 office job is not a good fit, people are or have been judicially involved, and military veterans re-entering civilian life.
“People can change their station in life through education or entrepreneurship,” Hamilton said. “We teach people how to start their own small businesses right where they are, with the resources they have, specializing in starts ups that require less than $1,000 to launch.”
With a focus on developing service-based enterprises such as painting, janitorial, lawn care, auto detailing and other practical consumer deliverables, economic freedom is within reach for those willing to apply themselves.
That formula proved successful for Inmate to Entrepreneurs Co-Chairman AJ Ware.
After a stint in the Marines, Ware found himself serving a four-year sentence for committing robbery when he was 25. While participating in a work release program, he learned how to paint rooms and buildings.
After he paid his debt to society, Ware said he soon realized if he was going to make any meaningful money he would have to bet on himself.
With $24 in his pocket, he went to a Home Depot parking lot to scout his first client. Seeing a woman walking to her car with cans of paint, he approached her and learned she planned on re-painting a bedroom. He convinced her to let him do the job.
After he completed the room, she offered more work throughout her home. She later referred him to homeowners throughout her entire subdivision.
Ware grew his painting business to a team of 18 workers and picked up commercial contracts to grow the business to $3 million in annual revenues. Along the way, he read a story about what Hamilton was doing in North Carolina prisons to connect inmates to business opportunities.
“I was determined to meet him because the people he was helping were just like me. I wanted to add a contribution to his mission,” said Ware, who also facilitates some of the classes and conferences hosted by the program.
While it does not provide start-up funding, through mentorship, in person and online instruction, support and guidance the program has launched more than a dozen small businesses, contributing more than $200,000 in state and federal taxes, according to Hamilton and Ware.
“The #SecondChances Conference basically condenses our eight-week program into 4 hours, Ware said.
“We walk attendees through everything from how to structure and set up their enterprise to providing sales, marketing and administrative management skills needed to retain their business. We know it’s easy to start a business but harder to stay in business. Support is always available to our program participants as they grow and evolve.”
That mentorship and support are critical given the isolation and loneliness many experience while being incarcerated and re-acclimating themselves back into society after doing time, Ware said.
On average, 67 percent of inmates released for the first time return to jail or prison again, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those who return again, 34 percent of them come back a third time.
It was his faith, raw determination and will to be more Pee Thomas credited as his motivators to press on during tough times and pursue a dream of starting his own record label.
“After I got out and did time, I got caught up again in the streets and went back,” Thomas said. “But I refused to give up. What I’ve learned is that nothing is owed to us. You gotta get out here and work for everything you get.”
To register for Inmates to Entrepreneurs #SecondChances Atlanta Conference, visit: secondchancesatlanta.com
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.