A nonprofit entrepreneurship center in Bloomington has launched a program designed to support formerly incarcerated individuals as they develop their business ideas. The Mill says ReBoot was inspired by the Indy Chamber’s ReEntry Entrepreneurship Development Initiative and takes participants through a six-week process of business development that culminates with a demo night pitch competition. Andy Lehman, head of accelerator programming at The Mill, says the program not only grows the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bloomington, but opens it to a wider group of people.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Lehman said the ecosystem doesn’t have to just be comprised of students, startups and those who are traditionally inclined to start a business.

“There are a lot of folks in our community who have great ideas and just need the support and somebody to say, ‘Yes, we will help you,'” said Lehman. “Traditionally, I think that the formerly incarcerated population is one where it’s difficult to get a lot of folks to say yes.”

ReBoot is a partnership among The Mill and Bloomington nonprofits New Leaf – New Life and Courage to Change. Lehman says he reached out to the nonprofits because of their expertise in working with those who had been incarcerated and their response was eye-opening.

“I think (New Leaf – New Life) were excited to have somebody to bring them something…because they said traditionally, people don’t reach out with opportunities. I don’t know why folks don’t want to engage, but we just felt like it was important to do that. I think there are a lot of opportunities there that folks who maybe have a tough time finding a job when they’ve been released – part of our thought was if you start your own business, you don’t have to go through a hiring process.”

The first ReBoot cohort is underway and includes seven participants with business ideas including a stocked pay lake for sport fishermen and fishing tournaments, a painting business, and a photography business focused on helping domestic violence victims reclaim their sense of self. 

The participants are learning about how to focus their business ideas, get customer validation, and present their business to potential investors. The program includes guest speakers, such as Kitemail founder Mark Harsley, who also is formerly incarcerated, and Pete Yonkman, president of Cook Medical in Bloomington.

The program will end with the participants pitching their businesses during a demo night. The winner will receive seed money for their business and all participants will become members of The Mill to further develop their ideas. 

Lehman says he hopes the program will create a downstream effect for other formerly incarcerated individuals.

“If we can help them start something that’s successful, be it a small business here in Bloomington or potentially a startup that’s more high potential, well then there’s an opportunity for those folks to give back further down the line too and give folks who have been recently released an opportunity for a job where they may not otherwise have one.”

Lehman says the long-term goal is to continue ReBoot with more cohorts, starting this fall, and potentially expand the program to other populations as well.

Lehman says the entrepreneur ecosystem doesn’t have to just be comprised of students, startups and those who a traditionally inclined to start a business.