Patricia J, age 34, has been an entrepreneur since she was a teenager. She made $1500 per week selling drugs in the North Lawndale neighborhood where she grew up. The youngest of 13 children, Patricia wanted things that her mother, a single parent, couldn’t afford to give her. “I wanted Jordans, she could afford Payless,” Patricia remembers. “Money was coming in and it was good.”
“Running the block” gave Patricia financial independence and a sense of empowerment. It also got her arrested for the first time at age 16, and imprisoned at age 18. “It was horrible. I wouldn’t wish jail on anyone, not even my enemy,” says Patricia. Her boyfriend gave her an ultimatum to stop selling drugs or he would leave her. Patricia swore she’d never return to prison.
Patricia had her first baby, a boy, at age 23, and her second son two years later. Unemployed, she struggled to provide for herself and her family. “I tried to stop but the baby needed things. I didn’t want to go to my mom and show her that I needed her because I’d already failed in the past. I was too ashamed to ask people for help.” Patricia was arrested for retail theft, and returned to jail. Once released, she returned to live with her mother and worked as a caretaker and at a chiropractor’s office. The chiropractor hired her after a trial period, despite her background, because of her work ethic and customer service. However, when the chiropractor’s office relocated, Patricia had difficulty finding her next job.
Patricia’s mother died in March 2013. “I tried to show her different before she passed,” Patricia says. “I told her I would never go back to jail, and I never did. I promised my sister, too. I really wanted to go back to my old mentality. But I dealt with it.”
Patricia dealt with it by finding NLEN and joining the U-Turn Permitted program, June 2015 cohort. “Class was awesome,” Patricia says. “It wasn’t just something to do. It was an accomplishment. It was like one big family and I appreciate it.” Patricia had two friends attend her graduation, and one of those friends joined the August cohort. “Now he’s working – at a temp service doing packaging. He said I saved his life.”
Following U-Turn Permitted, Patricia was hired by NLEN’s social enterprise, Sweet Beginnings, LLC in a three-month transitional job. “It keeps me on my feet, gives me a reason to get up in the morning. I like the atmosphere. No one is being judged. I think the job is pretty cool – learning about the honey and where it comes from and how to extract it from the bees.”
Patricia is also an inaugural member of NLEN’s “Self Employment Pathways for Women.” Pathways, designed and piloted with a small grant from the Chicago Foundation for Women, with first-year funding from Impact 100, offers entrepreneurship training to women with felony convictions. Patricia and her cohort attend classes three times per week to learn how to manage a sustainable business.
Recently, as part of the program, Patricia had to present her business concept, and herself as a business owner/operator, to a panel of seven Chicago area business leaders she’d never met. She said she felt like she was on the television show “Shark Tank.” “I have a good feeling about it. Just thinking about it makes me smile a little bit,” Patricia says. “I only had five minutes to do my presentation; then it was question and answer. I think I knocked it out of the park. They were really interested.” The plan that Patricia presented is “Heavenly Creations,” a restaurant that Patricia plans to open with the knowledge she gains from Self Employment Pathways, and with backing from her sister Juanita. Heavenly Creations will offer soul food as well as healthy salads, service with a smile and respect for its customers.
When Patricia isn’t working at Sweet Beginnings, learning entrepreneurship skills through Self Employment Pathways for Women, and studying for her GED, she enjoys spending time with – and cooking for – her two sons and her partner of 18 years.
“I am thankful for Brenda and the business she produced,” says Patricia. “It’s still a process and we’re still growing. But she has your back. You work hard, she’ll work harder for you.”