When Kwabena A. Nkrumah collected $10,000 from the District, he sank most of it into a used Mercedes.
Nkrumah, who used to hustle illegal guns and drugs before he switched to hustling used cars, needed to find out. His company, TJ Motors, depended on it.
“It’s a fly car,” Nkrumah said as he inspected the black sedan and waited — and waited — for someone at the auction house to find the key.
Since winning top honors in August for pitching his business proposal to D.C.'s Aspire program, Nkrumah and several other ex-offenders have navigated the ups and downs, bureaucratic hassles and unwelcome surprises that any entrepreneur encounters. The challenges are even harder for those who spent years behind bars to build a business from nothing.
Since 2016, the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) has offered Aspire to help formerly incarcerated city residents. The $250,000-a-year program has educated and provided financial help to more than 100 ex-offenders, agency spokeswoman Charlene Louis said.
The men and women complete a 12-week course sponsored by the business development office, and everyone who participates receives at least a $2,000 grant to help them launch their business. Nearly three dozen who finished the course this summer also competed in a “Shark Tank”-like pitch contest for a top prize of $10,000 in grant money.
The judges, including Kristi C. Whitfield, who heads the agency, and several private business people, selected five winners: Anthony C. Foster, whose company specializes in cleaning newly constructed buildings to make them ready for occupancy; Rylinda Rhodes, 50, who produces homemade soaps and skin-care products; Natango K. Robinson, who runs an installation service for major appliances; Wendell Smith, who makes fashionable leather bags and other accessories; and Nkrumah. All had spent time — even decades — behind bars. Three were convicted of homicide.
Since Aspire’s pitch contest in August, some of the winners have put the funds to good use, and some have struggled. Robinson has landed back in jail. Rhodes scheduled a follow-up interview to discuss her company’s progress, but abruptly canceled, failing to respond to calls and emails. Smith said he banked the grant, unsure yet how to use the funds.
“I haven’t touched that money — scared to touch it,” Smith said in an interview. “I want to make sure I do the right thing with it.”
Smith, who spent 32½ years of a 35-year sentence behind bars for killing a man during an armed robbery in Northwest in 1988, was released in February for pandemic-related reasons and signed up for Aspire.
He’s 56 now, and when he delivered his pitch for W.A. Smith Leather, his talk was impromptu and from the heart. He showed off some of the leather bags that he learned to sew by hand 20 years ago while in prison. He described how he began to turn his life around after a “self talk” that included praying for the strength to carry through on his resolution to use his new skill to build a future when he got out. He told the panel that if he were to win the top grant, he might afford a workshop, buy a sewing machine or defray the cost of the pricey leather he uses, such as ostrich skin.
Now that Smith has won, though, he’s had second thoughts about the sewing machine because it might undercut his claim to making hand-sewn leather bags. He said in an interview that he’s still acclimating to life on the outside, a process made even more difficult by the sudden change from prison to an apartment in Northeast.
“It’s a slow, steady pace, but nevertheless, it’s slow. And it’s shocking,” Smith said. “When I went in, cellphones were as big as your arm. There was no social media. People are different out here.”
Foster, who runs CleanMyPlace Maintenance and Recycling, put his grant to work right away, using $3,200 to cover four months of commercial insurance premiums. The remaining proceeds went to hiring additional labor for his company’s $76,485 contract with the Tribeca, a new 14-story apartment tower in Northeast.
“It has helped out,” said Foster, 51. He estimates his firm has earned as much as $329,000 a year — an achievement that once seemed unthinkable for someone who went to prison for killing a man in a fight on a basketball court. Foster, then 17, spent 11 years in prison. He went back in for six years after police in Maryland caught him carrying a handgun during a traffic stop.
“Suffice to say, I will never own a handgun the rest of my days,” Foster said.
His success so far has given him peace of mind. It’s also allowed him to move out of Southeast, where a recent surge in crime had become worrisome. And his growing business has allowed him to give back, by employing people he knew from the neighborhood, several of whom he said have criminal records or were “otherwise hard to employ.”
“It’s menial labor — it’s sweeping and mopping for the most part, washing windows — but it’s 100 percent legit,” Foster said. And he believes there would be a lot less violence in the city if more were done to create similar opportunities.
“I just try to do it one man at a time. I grab guys that I know. I see them on the corner, and I say, ‘Let’s go to work.’ ”
But Robinson’s experience suggests having an opportunity is not always enough. During his business pitch in August, Robinson, 35, said his 1½-year-old company provided installation for major appliances such as dishwashers and could earn as much $6,500 a month with an infusion of capital.
“The $10,000 will help me capitalize on the opportunity to be an independent service provider,” he said.
As Robinson stood at the podium, in jacket and tie, his left arm was still in a sling from surgery he had undergone less than 48 hours earlier for a gunshot wound — the fourth member of that group of Aspire candidates to suffer from “gun violence” during the four-month program, the contest’s moderator said.
A little more than two months later, Robinson was shot and injured again, this time by a District police officer during a chaotic incident that began with a report of an armed man with a cast on his arm chasing another man on Kennedy Street NW, according to a police affidavit filed in Superior Court.
Robinson — allegedly armed — fled in a vehicle with a police officer trapped inside, who shot Robinson because he refused to stop, according to the affidavit. Robinson, who remains in custody, couldn’t be reached. His attorney, Lisbeth Sapirstein, declined to comment.
Nkrumah, whose father was a Ghanaian immigrant, did time in prison after several convictions for trafficking in drugs and guns. Raised by his mother in a family of five, he discovered that street rackets helped supplement or often brought in more money than his legitimate gigs, such as producing hip-hop records or selling cars he picked up from government auctions.
But during his last stint in prison — a five-year term beginning in 2007 — Nkrumah decided he would do whatever it took to avoid a return.
He binge-watched “Shark Tank” while attending Aspire. When the pandemic shut down in-person auctions, he ran the business from a computer in the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and two children, storing his small inventory — including the black 2008 Mercedes — on the street. He wrangled agencies for titles and registration. He sold a Cadillac after fixing it up.
Recently, a new business opportunity appeared: He heard someone was unloading a pizzeria in Northeast, not far from the Catholic University of America. So Nkrumah and a friend — an ex-offender who had spent 18 years in prison — put a deal together to purchase Today’s Pizza on 12th Street NE, using some of the proceeds from Nkrumah’s car dealership to cover the $120,000 price.
“I’ve always been in that mind-set: How can I make my own money and not work for others?” Nkrumah said. “I’d rather work for myself and make my own money. I’ve never been an employee for long. I’m more suited to being an entrepreneur, working for myself.”