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Halfway there

Class turns convicts into capitalists

Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

William Booth has decided to start his own business.

The 25-year-old Metlakatla man plans to seek financing for a Native art gallery. It's a familiar story. Except that Booth caught the entrepreneurial bug in an unusual place -- the state correctional system.

While doing time for a probation violation, Booth honed his paddle-carving skills in the art shop at Gastineau Human Services, where he will be living until Aug. 24. And he recently completed a business start-up course for halfway house residents, so that he can market his own art.

The class, taught by Jim Weiland of the Juneau Economic Development Council, persuaded Booth that he has the ability to start and maintain his own business.

``It gave me more of an incentive to do the right thing,'' he said. ``I'm getting a lot of motivation in here.''

Weiland, a former stock broker and business owner, said any of his students at the halfway house could start a business. The only question is whether they have the will to do so, he said. ``We've got people who could be accountants coming out of this.''

Greg Pease, executive director of Gastineau Human Services, said the training offers halfway-house residents hope for ``something other than a McJob.''

``I couldn't be prouder than to offer this kind of program here,'' Pease told the students who recently completed the course.

``You now have a skill that not only earns you money but gains you a measure of respect,'' added Andy Swanston, GHS operations manager.

Weiland taught the business start-up course at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center last summer, and he did another at Gastineau Human Services last fall.

He said he has been pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude in the classes, particularly at Lemon Creek.

``I had been too conditioned what to believe about prisons from TV and movies,'' he said. ``You take the drugs and alcohol away from some of these people, and they become almost like everybody else. ...

``In every case, everyone was literate. I didn't see that much of a difference, as far as the ability to learn and the ability to apply what they've learned.''

The courses come through a grant from the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Most of the students have been Natives, and most of them have been considering art-related businesses.

Weiland's presentation includes plenty of technical information, dealing with business plans, financial statements, legal issues, licenses and taxes.

But the former teacher and college psychology major also serves as a bit of a coach, encouraging students to set realistic expectations and priorities.

``A goal is a dream with a deadline,'' Weiland said during a recent class. ``Because if you don't have a deadline, when's it going to happen? It probably won't. ... Your business goals must be in agreement with your basic values.''

He also stresses that starting up a business isn't as easy as it sounds.

Like other people who haven't been in business before, the halfway house residents hadn't realized the amount of work involved and came in with some misconceptions, Weiland said. ``One is, `I can bootstrap it. I can make it with very little money.' Too many people quit too soon because they don't realize it can take months, in some cases years ... to build up that customer base.''

Booth says that Weiland taught him how to approach a bank for financing and how to manage debt. ``It's more understandable now. I got really into it.''

And he projects confidence he will be his own boss in the near future. ``I'm going for it.''



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