This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.

Shontavia Brown was nervous. She hunched over her phone sending text messages, worried she’d forget her speech or botch the delivery of a well rehearsed line. 

Her friends and family, sitting a few feet away, couldn’t take it seriously. The Brown they knew was loud, outspoken, in control. How was “the dictator,” a nickname that fit her small stature and commanding presence, intimidated?

By Nov. 21, Brown had spent 12 weeks preparing to pitch her auto repair business to a panel of judges for a chance at up to $1,500 — part of Omaha nonprofit RISE’s Business Academy that teaches entrepreneurial skills to people or families impacted by incarceration. She had to see this through, to show her family, like her five-year-old son, what happens when you make the best of the chances you’re given.

When announcers called her name among the night’s seven participants, the nerves stayed behind and the “dictator” took the podium.

“I’m a problem solver,” Brown said to the packed room. “And when I run out of problems, I find more for myself to fix.”

“I’m a problem solver,” says Shontavia Brown at the RISE Business Academy pitch and graduation event on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The judges and crowd of participants’ friends and family laughed. Ben Navarro smiled as he filmed the pitch on his phone. RISE had matched Navarro, who owns his own auto, roofing and real estate businesses, as her mentor. He might have had something to do with that line, but more than anything he was proud to see Brown own the entrepreneurial spirit.

“That’s Tay,” he said. “That’s her energy.”

The RISE Business Academy graduation and pitch event at The Granary in downtown Ralston was the fifth cohort to graduate from the nonprofit’s program. Starting in 2016, RISE, an organization focused on filling re-entry gaps for incarcerated people and their families, started programs inside Nebraska’s prisons to work on character development, job readiness and entrepreneurship. They also started programs outside the prisons to support students once they got out. In 2020, they expanded the free program to anyone affected by the system. The program, which runs in person and over Zoom, focuses on developing a convincing pitch and working on a business plan.

On Nov. 21, the judges included:

  • Corrie Oberdin, owner of Oberdin Consulting
  • Kevin Welsh, senior vice president and financial advisor for Morgan Stanley
  • Jan Krotter Chvala, president and shareholder of TTC Enterprises
  • Jim Reiff, Executive Director of the Nebraska Enterprise Fund
  • Trevon Brooks, Chief Strategy Officer for Economy Recovery and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development

Each participant had seven minutes to pitch their idea and answer questions from the panel. By the end, judges chose their favorite pitches and awarded giant checks worth $500, $1,000 and $1,500.

Judges at the RISE Business Academy graduation and pitch event on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship often go together for someone with a record, RISE CEO Jeremy Bouman said. That became abundantly clear to him prior to RISE when he volunteered in the Douglas County jail. Despite being motivated and industrious, people often left the system without a job, housing or support, which are hard to obtain with a felony conviction. He also saw many that wouldn’t get shots at second chances for a long time.

“I would go to their hearings and I would hear these big football score prison sentences,” he said. “And I would look and see four or five kids sitting there then do the math on how old they would be when dad came home…That’s the cycle right? Employment and job creation through small business is not a silver bullet, but it’s the closest thing we have to having recidivism go down.”

Even for people who make all the right choices, it doesn’t mean they’re safe. David Kucinsky had a job connecting medical staff with hospital jobs for two-and-a-half years. But as the company grew, new employees were uncomfortable with his past. Kucinsky was let go. Now he’s back in a RISE business program, exactly where he was six years ago. He was one of RISE’s first students and since then the organization has stepped in to help keep his bills paid and mind at ease as he navigated unemployment. Now he’s got his own medical staffing business and that night was searching for investments to make it happen. He doesn’t know where he’d be without RISE.

“I mean, you can go one of two ways inside,” he said. “You can either take that time and use it as an excuse to go further down that hole … Or you can really take that time to reflect and say, ‘Okay, what brought me here, how can I not go this direction again.’ I feel like RISE is integral in that second path.”

David Kucinsky (right) and TJ Dickson (left) at the RISE Business Academy graduation and pitch event on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In addition to Brown and Kucinsky, the pitches varied wildly, including a media startup, wellness hub, graphic design company, esthetician and life insurance business. But they all had something in common: giving back.

From using art to address trauma to building a financial legacy for families to making beauty affordable and inclusive, the pitches had ambition that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Brown got questions from the judges when she said she’d actually use her company to educate the community rather than make a quick buck from their ignorance. Transportation is a huge barrier for many, especially in communities like North Omaha where the cost of owning a car can eat an unwieldy chunk of the average median income. Of course there’s a business slant too. People go to mechanics they trust. By making car buying affordable and educational, it also means she’d have more return customers. 

Still, the underlying motivation is altruistic.

“I feel like growing up, there wasn’t a lot of people to give back to me,” Brown said. “And that could have been because I was coming from the streets, living in the projects [of Chicago]. And now coming from that environment, I want to be able to motivate and uplift people.”

For Tony Horner, a former RISE graduate, the idea of giving back is about leveling the playing field. Locked out of many job opportunities due to his felony record, Horner spent his career bartending around Omaha. He didn’t mind that — he was pretty good at it — but when he wanted to take the next step, he noticed the road blocks. In 2020 he started a business brewing and selling kombucha, the bubbly, probiotic-filled drink guzzled by health conscious consumers.

When he tried to get a small business loan, everything seemed promising. Then they found his felony. He filled out extra paperwork, went to the courthouse to get photocopies of his record, wrote a personal statement and was still denied. Despite that, Fermented Felon’s kombucha can be found in grocers like Hyvee and restaurants like Sunnyside, and he’s committed to using his profits to give others with records the capital they need to start their own businesses.

“[People with criminal records’] biggest barrier to getting started is always that initial capital,” he said.

Graduates of the RISE Business Academy fling their caps into the air on Nov. 21, 2022. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Success stories like Horner’s aren’t hard to find in RISE graduates. It’s also true that not everyone is going to start their own business or that it’s going to work out. But that’s not a reason to give up.

Coming up with an idea, doing the hard work to develop it and putting it out there to be judged is an achievement in and of itself. Brown walked away with the second-place prize that night, but it was the experience that really stayed with her. 

Dressed in graduation gowns, the students smiled for pictures, holding up cardboard checks or leaning in close to their classmates. The phones from friends and family stayed rolling as they threw their caps into the air.

“They had every reason to say, I can’t be anything more than what society deems to be,” said TJ Dickson, head of the RISE Business Academy. “But they still said ‘I’m going to dream,’…They came with heart, and they care about humanity and their community — A community that’s sometimes not here for them, but they still want to give back.”

RISE’s next Business Academy starts Jan. 18. For questions on how to get involved visit RISE’s website.

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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