As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Jose Rentas remembers seeing a television advertisement depicting a businessman in remote New York City.
Rentas, who is president of the Latin American Business Organization in Worcester, said he was drawn to the image of the man in the striped suit and everything he stands for: success, initiative, drive.
“I was like, ‘This is going to be me,'” said the 46-year-old. “I didn’t know it would become me.”
But it took a long time. Rentas moved to Worcester from Puerto Rico at the age of 12. He fell into gangs and was arrested on drugs at the age of 16. Rentas spent time in prison and, after his release, pledged to help former prisoners find their place in society.
“When I came out, people gave me the opportunity,” Rentas said. “I want to do the same for others.
After a career as a commercial broker for Goya Foods, Rentas founded the Latin American Business Organization in 2016. The group recently received an $ 85,000 state grant to help it start a reintegration training program at entrepreneurship to help returning citizens start their own businesses. Rentas says the program – a free 12-week course – is designed to teach people to be savvy in business, unlike traditional workshops that focus on particular trades.
Clark University is co-sponsoring the program, and Dr. John Dobson, who has taught and researched entrepreneurship and innovation for over a decade, will be one of the instructors.
Dobson, founder of the DYME Institute, a program that reflects his own business pedagogy, says it will be the first time he’s taught entrepreneurial skills to returning citizens. But he says he has worked extensively with vulnerable communities in Latin America and elsewhere in the world – work that ultimately led to meeting Rentas about the project.
“Entrepreneurship is one of the best ways to change people’s lives,” Dobson said.
Based on what he knows about prison populations, Dobson said returning citizens likely have the “guts and resilience” to start businesses.
He intends to teach them more “soft skills” like communication, cooperation and teamwork.
Dobson also stresses the importance of such reintegration initiatives to help keep people from a life of crime. Recidivism rates in the United States vary depending on a number of factors, including a person’s age. Re-arrest rates are highest among offenders under the age of 21, at around 68%, according to federal data. The rates for those over 60 are much lower, at around 16%.
More than two dozen people have signed up for the course, which will be taught in English and Spanish, Rentas said. The first class will be held at Centro Inc. on Monday.
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