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Feb 14, 2019

For-Profit Making a Difference in Ohio Prisons: Q&A with Nick Hirsch of Coffee Crafters Academy

Nick Hirsch is the Managing Director of Coffee Crafters Academy. This business operates cafes inside of correctional facilities as a hands-on program to teach inmates marketable skills and to develop a positive work history that will help them obtain employment once released. It is a for-profit social enterprise of Nothing Into Something Real Estate (NISRE) Inc., a faith-based nonprofit Community Development Corporation that provides affordable housing to revitalize neighborhoods in low and moderate income communities. A version of this interview first appeared in Columbus Business First in early February 2019. 

How has your company expanded since you launched in 2014?
We started our first coffee café in Marion Correctional Institution and in 2017 expanded into the Ohio Reformatory for Women and the London Correctional Institution. We operate the prison cafes as a hands-on way to train up to 60 individuals each year to become certified baristas that create a variety of artisan, handcrafted coffee, smoothie, and tea drinks to sell to other residents, staff and visitors. In 2018 we started our first café that is open to the public at Third Way Café in 9

What criteria do you use to assess the success of your business?
As a social enterprise, we are profitable but we evaluate ourselves on the success of our graduates in staying out of prison after they are released. In that sense we are enormously successful. Fewer than 5 percent of our graduates return to prison, compared with a national average of 43%. To make that happen we work hard to help our graduates find employment after release and we have achieved 100% employment within two months of release compared with fewer than half finding employment nationally. This is where I believe our model differs from a conventional business. We prioritize the creation of positive social impact over maximizing profits.

To what do you attribute your success?
This is made possible by the relentless work ethic and drive of our graduates, some of the most motivated individuals that I have ever work with. We teach them barista skills but just as important are critical soft skills such as conflict resolution, following procedures, leading well, and communicating with customers. I attribute their motivation to our putting them first. Every decision that we make stems from a desire to better serve those in our program. Not to make more money, but rather to consider their views and needs more than ours. For example, last week at Marion we asked the team what they wanted to learn and what they wanted to see in a fellow barista. We acknowledge the complex interdependencies of their lives as prisoners. We remain focused on our core competencies yet understand how our efforts influence the prison environment. Coordination with prison policy and procedures is an ongoing effort.

As a for-profit, what makes you different from other for-profit businesses that are operating within the prisons?
There aren’t many tried-and-true approaches to running a healthy business inside of a prison. Most businesses that operate inside of prisons are there to maximize their profits within contract specifications. However, we come as a rehabilitation program. We focus on training our inmate employees. We focus on meeting the metrics of our impact while remaining financially viable. This means our margins are thinner but still adequate to allow us to continue operating successfully. To do this we are constantly tweaking existing models and piloting new ones in order to find what works best for preparing an individual for the challenges of reentry. It is crucial that we have strong feedback loops in place so that we remain tapped into the needs of our program participants and to maintain strong partnerships with prison staff.

Where do you want to be in five years and what do you need in order to get there?
We want to become the most effective re-entry program in Ohio. While we constantly get calls from wardens who want our program in their facility, it is not economical to serve more inmates by launching cafes in more facilities. Our strategy to serve more inmate is to get inmates transferred to the prisons in which we are already operating and to build the programs in those existing facilities. We do look to launch more cafes outside the prisons where our operating margins are larger and can be used to support our in-prison programs. The main barriers to achieving this will be capital for equipment and for additional staff to work with graduates to place them in jobs after release.

What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?
Get a mentor as early as possible that has experience in your business. You can’t know what you don’t know. Find one yourself or sign up for SocialVentures’ mentor match program.