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Entrepreneurship and the Business Model Canvas in Unlikely Places

Lauren Eve Cantor

Entrepreneurs are often thought of as trailblazers, job creators and economic boosters. The skills entrepreneurs derive from building their business ideas often trickle down into how they build their lives and interact with society. IMG_5333

What if we could instill the confidence of an entrepreneur into the most isolated in our society? One shining example is the Leonhard program which teaches Innovation and Business Creation in prisons in Germany and uses the Business Model Canvas as a tool for innovation.

The judicial system in the United States is admittedly broken. Prisons are thought of as punishment first and rehabilitation last. In Germany, the prison system is remarkably different: Germany spends less money on prisons, but gets better results since rehabilitation is a priority. (60Minutes did a deep dive into German prisons and how some US wardens are attempting to incorporate their methods.)

Regardless of where inmates live, they have significant challenges once they are reintroduced into the “real world.” The Leonhard program in Germany attempts to give inmates the tools to succeed (both personally and economically) in society by teaching them entrepreneurship.

Starting in the final phase of incarceration, inmates undergo a 20 week program with courses on business basics, business model design, character building, conflict resolution, teamwork and several sessions with volunteers mentors. One session on using the Business Model Canvas occurred earlier this year.

The inmates undertook a 3-day learning session on the Business Model Canvas facilitated by a Leonhard coach. (Our German publisher generously donated copies of Business Model Generation to the program.) They worked on building their service-focused business models and crafting the story behind their idea. They then pitched their ideas (using the Business Model Canvas) during an “Idea Vernissage” or Idea Exhibition to external guests involved in the business community.

By teaching entrepreneurship, Leonhard aims to give the inmates the skills with which to chart their own path: typically employers are wary of giving ex-inmates a position. If they do have the opportunity to work with an existing company, the graduates have the skills to be intrapraneurs — design thinkers, enterprising and willing to take on responsibility.

The graduates also have a support network of the Leonhard team and volunteer mentors who guide them through the process both within and outside the prison. The graduates also receive a certificate from Steinbeis+Akademie. Most of the Leonhard graduates work to create service businesses. 28% of graduates have actually founded their own company, and 60% of the released participants find an occupation within 27 days on average.

In the US, we do have similar programs like Defy Ventures and The Last Mile (among others) that incorporate business education, mentorship and even pitching competitions. Mini-MBAs taught with no internet. Leonhard’s program was modeled after the PEP Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas.

Everyone needs a support network. Entrepreneurship reinforces economic freedom regardless of where your ideas come from. Business benefits from diverse ideas and backgrounds. We are truly awed by the impact and dedication of the Leonhard Program and its graduates.

Photos courtesy of Axel Friese, Leonhard.

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