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Matthew Connell, Program Director of the Business Administration Program at Goodwin University, is the driving force behind ENet (Entrepreneurial Network), an entrepreneurship program for the formerly incarcerated reentry population.

As ENet Project Director, Matt oversees the program, provides business mentoring, and coaches students through developing and actualizing their business plans.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Matt to learn more about the program, which ends in mid-August.

NAN PRICE: How did the concept for ENet develop?

MATT CONNELL: It’s a passion of mine to help individuals who have been incarcerated because I believe everybody deserves a second chance in life. Nobody should ever have to live their entire life based on the worst day of their life. The reality is, I got into a lot of trouble as a kid and have friends who ended up serving time in prison. I recognize that if circumstances were different, it could have been me.

I recognize the obstacles and barriers present when somebody comes out of prison. We say somebody has paid their debt to society, but the reality is, they haven’t, because life is still tough. They have to fight to get their voting rights back. They have to fight for employment. If they don’t get employed, it could be a violation of parole or probation. Many of these challenges increase recidivism. Self-employment is a way to possibly break that cycle.

I came up with the idea for ENet because the business program at Goodwin offers an 18-credit certificate in business startups. It’s a perfect opportunity to provide individuals who have been formerly incarcerated with the skills to start their own businesses so they can hopefully launch themselves to financial independence instead of having to deal with employment issues. Because, while a lot of employers out there will hire individuals who have been incarcerated, they typically don’t earn livable wages, which makes life very challenging.

NAN: It’s a way to guarantee employment for themselves.

MATT: Right. It takes that barrier of employment out by providing individuals with the skills to start their own business and become financially independent. And then, ideally, it becomes a cyclical thing where individuals starting their own businesses can become employers for other formerly incarcerated individuals or members of the community who might need those employment opportunities.

Again, there are employers out there that are fantastic with this community, like LAZ Parking and Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ. We do a lot of work with both of those companies. So, it’s not that there aren’t opportunities, but self-employment can provide more upward mobility.

NAN: How many companies are involved in the incubator?

MATT: We started with 15 students and 11 are left. All 11 will graduate and they have all formed their LLCs in the state of Connecticut. One of those 11 officially opened his barbershop in East Hartford.

NAN: What other organizations are involved with the ENet program?

MATT: Last July, Connecticut Innovations provided Goodwin University with a $200,000 CTNext Higher Education Entrepreneurship and Innovation grant to support ENet.

I should note that with COVID-19, the transition to virtual was challenging. I had CTNext funding allocated for things like travel expenses, meals, and entertainment. Since I wasn’t using those funds, CTNext allowed me to reallocate them and I was able to buy laptops to distribute to the students, which was really helpful.

In terms of other collaborators, Goodwin also formed partnerships with the CT Reentry Collaborative, the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, and the Peace Center of Connecticut.

Nutmeg State Financial Credit Union has been a strong supporter, as well. The ENet incubator program culminates with a pitch event August 18. Each student who pitches will receive $1,500 of seed money, which Nutmeg has matched. So, each student will receive $3,000 of startup money for pitching and completing the program.

NAN: What’s next?

MATT: The ENet program has applied for a two-year federal grant to provide additional entrepreneurship workshops. We’re also in the process of applying for the CTNext scale up grant, which would enable us to provide the ENet program to 35 more students.

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