Some people are skeptical when they hear about someone who has turned their life around, going from a lawbreaker to a good citizen. But AJ Ware has done just that—and he is now helping others to not only do the same, but also become successful entrepreneurs.
Ware himself served a four-year sentence for committing robbery when he was 25. Afterwards, he made a decision to adopt entrepreneurialism. He was on food stamps when, with just $25, he started a house painting company. He built it into a firm that employed 18 workers and generated close to $3 million in annual revenues before he sold it. Ware, now 43, is owner-operator of a North Carolina racetrack but more importantly he is also the executive director of “Inmates to Entrepreneurs.”
Founded in 2008, the nonprofit organization is the community outreach arm of financial information company Sageworks. Its goal, in short, is to teach inmates to run legal businesses. “Inmates to Entrepreneurs” counts 17 small businesses as their success. These businesses employ 28 employees and have paid more than $200,000 in state and federal taxes. While it does not provide start-up funding, “Inmates to Entrepreneurs” provides mentoring, guidance and support.
TNJ.com: Why did you decide to get involved with the organization?
AJ Ware: I was on both sides of the fence, so to speak. I was an inmate and I am now an entrepreneur.
TNJ.com: Why is an organization such as this one important?
AJW: It is important in many ways such as giving these men and women a chance to do something positive while making a good living doing it. Small businesses help build the backbone of America. These business owners are not accepting your tax dollars for support anymore. They are now hiring people and paying taxes themselves.
TNJ.com: What are some of the obstacles some of the members face and how do you help them overcome them to become entrepreneurs?
AJW: Confidence. I share my story with them. I had no money and no job, but I made it.
TNJ.com: What are some of the obstacles the organization has faced?
AJW: 1) Growth. We were not structured to be able to handle the requests. We started out as a community outreach program, doing this when we had time after work. We had no specific goals or objectives.
2) Our main challenge is funding. We are new, so we have to get the word out about what we are doing and get these companies and states onboard with us. TNJ.com: What are some of the goals for the organization this year?
AJW: We want to get our status of 501c3 from the IRS. We have applied already. That will clear some obstacles for funding and growth potential. We want to establish our board with some new, outside people, so that we will always be fresh with ideas and thoughts.
TNJ.com: What are some long-term goals of the organization?
AJW: We want to be able to assist inmates, current and former, in all 50 states, either in person or through technology. We want to expand into the juvenile sector to try to curve some of the active prison terms. We are seeing the offender age dive into the low 20s.
TNJ.com: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
AJW: I love seeing people succeed, especially the ones who come to us so broken up, without hope and as a last resort.