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Former inmate Davis Powell finds himself surviving, thriving as entrepreneur

September 2, 2018

Davis Powell quit a $15-an-hour job he had held for three years at a tire sales-and-service outfit earlier this year.

Good for him.

Powell, 34, is doing much better as an entrepreneur renting his own downtown pedicab. He has made as much as $500 on one long, busy weekend night, hauling customers around downtown on his three-wheeled, Powell-powered cab.

I love meeting new people and new conversations, said the personable Powell. Ive met people from all over the world. I love to take them on tours. A lot of people prefer being shown around on a bike instead of a car.

Hes also a Lyft driver. And hes considering, eventually, truck-driving school.

Powell is proof that theres a work life after prison. And employers, who long shunned hiring former inmates, are reconsidering in a worker-hungry economy, one where old stereotypes also are being shed.

Powell told me last year, while still repairing tires, that his crime of robbery, for which he served several years in prison until release in 2013, was born of pride and low self-esteem. Im not going back to prison.

Powell went through personal-empowerment and skills training at Twin Cities Rise, the nonprofit that helps unemployed and underemployed folks boost their technical and personal skills, and advance careers through jobs ranging from office work to IT to working as mechanics and transit drivers.

The empowerment training, which Rise also teaches open-minded business people, involves humility, considering consequences and owning choices.

Powell, a fit fellow with a warm smile, could teach more than a few six-figure executives I know something about humility, hard work and class.

I enjoy the work, a grateful Powell said the other night as he waited for passengers near U.S. Bank Stadium.

Its apparent why hes doubled his income some weeks; even after the $235 weekly rent he pays for his pedicab.

I charge $10 per person or $30 for three for a ride, usually a few blocks, Powell said. I also give tours. I work when I want. And its great exercise. I tell people a ride is normally $10 per person, but you pay what you like.

I want people to enjoy the ride. The most I ever made was $60 for a few-block ride. A few minutes. It was three young guys from out of town who wanted to go to a hotel. They enjoyed it and asked me to come back in an hour. I came back, gave them a ride for a few blocks. It was another $40.

Rise and other nonprofit trainers, such as Emerge, Summit Academy and Hired, train and employ the unemployed, underemployed, former prisoners and others, a group that is disproportionately low-income and minority men and women. Many have skills but dropped out of high school, have a spotty work history or need a coach to help them surmount hurdles to self-sufficiency.

CEO Tom Streitz, a one-time business lawyer who also has worked in affordable housing, said Rise worked with more than 1,000 people last year and formally placed 225 in jobs paying $15 an hour or more at employers such as Bremer Bank, Target, Metro Transit and Quality Ingredients of Burnsville. Some trainees find their own jobs before graduation.

Rise candidates often start with temp agencies and have a higher retention rate than the general employment population. And employers increasingly pay Rise placement and retention fees.

We have to find a way to tap the untapped talent pool that still exists in this humming economy, Streitz said. There are still unemployed and underemployed. We have people who have talent, [who are] ready to work and employers are responding.

The nonprofit Better Futures Minnesota has trained and employed more than 200 former inmates over several years and generated several million dollars in revenue from deconstructing old houses and selling used building materials.

CEO Thomas Adams told me last year its still not easy for some ex-offenders to be placed. When an African-American man comes in your office with three felonies people arent rolling out the red carpet, Adams said.

Better Futures works with parolees on job training, securing housing and maintaining good health. Graduates leave with a work history and certifications and experience in forklift operation, construction safety, janitorial work, hazardous-material removal and more.

These programs build citizens and economy. Moreover, they reduce the 50-percent-plus prison recidivism rate.

Thats a better option than spending $40,000 a year on a prison cell.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.

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