Flikshop Introduces Returning Citizens to Tech Careers After Prison
Updated: Apr 7, 2022
During the first few days of the Flikshop School of Business bootcamp class our instructors Marcus Bullock and Anthony Belton are known for spending time building trust and rapport with the scholars. The two instructors met while they were incarcerated at Brunswick Correctional Center. Marcus was sentenced to serve 8 years in maximum security prisons when he was 15 years old and met Anthony (known to the scholars as Tony B) while he was serving 14 years of a 59 year prison sentence. When Sierra Stephens walked into their classroom at a swanky WeWork office, she never knew what to expect.
The two men were first introduced to each other on the prison recreation yard while playing basketball together. "To be honest, I never knew Marcus could dunk. He would move so slowly around the yard so there was no indication that he could jump like that." Belton says. Brunswick Correctional Center would house many men who typically shared a very similar circumstance; most men were there to serve very long sentences, so basketball, weight lifting and jogging around the dirt track seemed to be a great way to burn the frustrations of their reality away for the moment.
"I never really liked to play ball once they shipped me to the official penitentiary. I got in my first fight at Southhampton because of a move I did on the court that led to our trash talking going too far. I didn't want to spend my time getting into beefs because I was competitive." says Bullock. Bullock openly speaks about his journey through prison and how he spent time in solitary confinement because of the institution infractions leading from his anger and depression.
"When I realized that I would never experience prom or the opportunity for my family to see me graduate from high school I became mad at everybody. I was mad at the judge, the prosecutor, my lawyer, the warden, C.O's, myself...everybody." Psychologist have reported that incarcerated teenagers typically have a tough time dealing with the psychological pressures of adult incarceration, and while brain science proves that young people do not make rational decisions before 25 years old, Bullock was only 17 years old when he realized that he would have to serve his entire 8 year sentence.
But something happened shortly after Bullock celebrated his 18th birthday with his friends at Brunswick. An institutional announcement was made that alerted the population to a rare opening in a vocational course offered by the Virginia Department of Correctional Education named "Business Software Applications: Introduction to Computers". Bullock would proclaim to his friends that he would be the lucky one to fill the slot for the class, despite the numerous people who would apply for the opportunity. He believed that this would be his opportunity to hang around computers, and maybe learn about some of the software that could accelerate his reentry process when he came home.
After a few weeks of submitting multiple requests to the Virginia DCE Marcus finally received his acceptance letter into the coveted program. It only took a few months of attendance in the program before he was offered a prison job as a Teacher's Aide in the program. This promotion from a student to an aide would give Bullock access to more computer software, as well as voting power on the next set of applicants for the program. This was the beginning of Bullock's understanding of the power of a network.
The first applicant that Bullock would help secure a seat in the program was his friend Tony B. The two friends would spend hours learning about operating systems, database management, and desktop publishing while in the computer class. Their friendship would continue to grow over the years while in the program together, leading to a common interest: they would become entrepreneurs when released and leverage software to grow their businesses...whatever they would be.
After being released from prison Bullock would begin his entrepreneurial journey while working as a retail clerk for a local paint store. Bullock would leverage his ability to create beautiful project proposals in desktop publishing software that was similar to the software he would use while at Brunswick Correctional Center. "Most contractors would use some ugly triplicate form to deliver an estimate or contract to a client and I knew that we could help the client feel comfortable with getting a high-quality painting project if we began the project with a high-quality proposal." Bullock said.
Just one year later, Belton would also be released from prison. One of the first places he would visit within his first week home was the paint store where his friend worked. When Belton parked in front of the Washington, DC paint store and began walking toward the entrance he never realized that his reconnection with Bullock would begin their renewed friendship and eventual partnership as construction contractors.
The friends would begin collaborating on home remodeling projects and strategizing on the best ways to grow their team and resources that could allow them to grow their business on their own terms. This is a common strategy for other returning citizens as well. Studies show that entrepreneurship may sometimes be the only option for people returning from prison.
Several years later Bullock and Belton are both successful entrepreneurs that continue to tell jokes in their swanky office located in the Navy Yard neighborhood of SE, Washington, DC. Bullock is the founder of the tech company Flikshop and Belton operates TriXpress Janitorial & Contracting LLC.
This is why they knew that it was important to help bring tech and entrepreneurship education courses to other people that spent time in jail or prison. “The biggest difference between those that are successful after incarceration and those that may return is the access they have to resources and social capital” says Bullock. “That’s why we added BJ to the team and began growing Flikshop School of Business.”
With 600,000 people coming home from prison every year, statistics show that returning citizens face unemployment rates that are five times the national average.
Today, their Introduction to Entrepreneurship courses have graduated 161 scholars since the launch in 2016, and most of them have felony convictions on their records. Some of the scholars share the power of having access to leaders who speak their language and have shared similar life experiences. Others talk about their fascination with using the brand new MacBooks the program offers to their scholars or the impressive office the classrooms that include floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook one of the busiest intersections in DC and a few steps away from Washington Nationals stadium.
The scholars learn how to leverage tools like Canva and Wix to build businesses that are launched before they graduate from the program in a few weeks. With 600,000 people coming home from prison every year, statistics show that returning citizens face unemployment rates that are five times the national average. Flikshop believes that they can help solve this problem by keeping them connected to possible opportunities before they come home, while also helping to prepare them for a potential road in entrepreneurship as well.
“Imagine if we welcomed our scholars back to their community with love and opportunity. These men and women have been waiting for this moment for years and we want to help be a springboard for their ideas” says Bullock.
FSB scholars are primed to succeed after they graduate from the coveted program. While Bullock and Belton are working to build a system that allows them to scale their program, the true benefactors are the scholars who have the opportunity to learn how to launch a business idea under the two instructor's tutelage. Some of the entrepreneurs, like Joseph James III who launched his company MountUp Inc., a business that helps homeowners with their TV mounting and low voltage installations, saw immediate growth in sales due to the sales strategy and marketing lessons that were learned in the program.
Currently, Flikshop School of Business is sponsored by partners at Boeing and Delta Air Lines. Both of these companies want to be thoughtful about investing at the intersection of workforce development and justice reform, and found a sweet spot in Flikshop. Jason Pak, director of Boeing Global Engagement, said “Flikshop and Byte Back have already had overwhelming success within the community reducing recidivism within the community. Boeing is excited to help them continue to build on those successes by offering additional resources for families and opportunities and career pathways for returning citizens to thrive after incarceration.”
"I wouldn't know what I would do without Marcus and Tony," says James of MountUp Inc. "These men made it all so simple and they continued to challenge me until I saw my revenue begin to climb...I'm even using words like 'revenue' in every day conversations. That is instant growth."
Flikshop continues to focus it’s main mobile apps and web app platform that helps keep families connected to their loved ones with photos and short messages, but Bullock shares his plans to support BJ Paige, Associate Director for Flikshop School of Business, in his desire to build a curriculum that can be adopted in jails and prisons around the country. The program measures their success by revenue generated and introduces scholars to other entrepreneurs and mentors during the 3-week program. Click here for the January 2022 FSB Impact Report.
Click here for more information about Flikshop or Flikshop School of Business (FSB).
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