Creative Entrepreneurship

ASPIRE MO Cultivates Hope for Missouri Women

Finding full-time work is a major challenge for women leaving Missouri prisons — a situation that can place stress on families and trigger revocations from parole. Show-Me State leaders knew we could do better. Women driving business innovation and networking in Missouri got together with corrections staff and launched a life-changing entrepreneurship program in a women's prison. Participants spent 20 weeks learning not only how to start a business but also how to get and keep a good job. At the end, each came away with her own business plan — and hope for the future.
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As Suliana Tonga approached the lectern, with her teal cap and gown covering ordinary beige scrubs, tears began to slide down her face. She looked at the leaders of the ASPIRE MO entrepreneurship program and expressed her gratitude for the opportunity they were providing.  She had just graduated from the program and was ready to get out of prison to begin her own event-planning business called Caroline’s Creations.

Felony offenders are often subject to stereotypes when they get out of prison and into the job force. That is why when Kellie Ann Coats, executive director of the Missouri Women’s Council, and Jessie Yankee, director of the Missouri Women’s Business Center, began talking about the high recidivism rate among women who were previously incarcerated in Missouri, they decided to create a better way froward.

Launched in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Corrections Reentry Unit, ASPIRE MO is a 20-week program for felony offenders in Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. The program helps women work on their entrepreneurial dreams while they are still in prison. On June 5, 2019, the first class graduated.

The nine women endured a strict application process to be allowed to take classes once a week to hone their business skills.

The ASPIRE MO class of 2019 smiles for cameras with their diplomas. Build-A-Bear donated a bear to every member within the program at the end of the ceremony.
The ASPIRE MO class of 2019 smiles for cameras with their diplomas. Build-A-Bear donated a bear to every member within the program at the end of the ceremony.

Suliana Tonga has been in prison multiple times, but she says that ASPIRE MO has given her hope for the future. Her father was at the graduation and mirrored a similar sentiment.

“I think the state has done something very great,” Paul Tonga said. “Most of these people came here because they had no hope, but they will have more hope when they get out the door from here.”    

Suliana and Paul Tonga discusses her future with her family. Paul Tonga (middle) is her father, and Linda Pope (right) is her sister.
Suliana and Paul Tonga discusses her future with her family. Paul Tonga (middle) is her father, and Linda Pope (right) is her sister.

Student Lauren Avery was also hopeful about where the program would take her. She is currently in the process of becoming certified to be a group fitness instructor. This would allow her to pursue her dream of personal and group fitness training when she gets out of prison in a year.  ASPIRE MO has her looking forward to her life outside of prison.

“One of my biggest takeaways is that it doesn’t matter, the type of past that you have,” she said. “You can be a convicted felon and run your own business… You can make it happen.”

She invited her family to graduation, and they were impressed by the importance that the Missouri Department of Corrections had placed on the program.

Lauren Avery and her parents pose for the cameras just after graduation. Ann and John Avery enjoyed seeing their daughter’s hard work pay off in confidence for her future.
Lauren Avery and her parents pose for the cameras just after graduation. Ann and John Avery enjoyed seeing their daughter’s hard work pay off in confidence for her future.

“She had told me about being in this program, and coming every Wednesday, but I didn’t realize the amount of work and the amount of support and different staff members that were involved in this,” Ann Avery, Lauren’s mother, said. “It really is a lot more than I thought it was.”

Kellie Ann Coats, Jessie Yankee and guest instructors — alongside corrections staff such as Danielle Bellamy and Ken Chapman — have put a lot of work into ASPIRE MO. But the graduates have put in just as much. Every member of the Class of 2019 now has her own business plan and intends to invest in her dreams.