How to turn a gangster into an entrepreneur

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A few years ago I asked Camila Batmanghelidh of The Kids Company to help me out with an idea I had. I'd read in the brilliant book Freakonomics about a psychology student in Chicago who was sent on an assignment to spend a day with a gang leader to understand their leadership processes. He ended up spending three years with them.

The gang – selling drugs of course – had spreadsheets for everything, just like all businesses do for sales and profit forecasts. But they also had additional ones that your or my business would not normally need; they had one for how many members would be killed and need replacing, another for the costs of sorting out the families of those who had to deal with the tragedy.

I wanted to see if gang leaders in London were as sophisticated in their operations as their Chicago counterparts, and whether we could work a way out for their talents to be brought over to the safe side of the road. So Camila gathered a group of guys from Peckham and Brixton in south London to meet me for breakfast one morning at The Cinnamon Club. The ministers and permanent secretaries who usually dine there would have been alarmed had they known who was in the private dining room and what was in the jackets of my guests.

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I explained my interest as stemming from me also having been a gang leader back at school and that I have subsequently used my entrepreneurial DNA to create and run legitimate businesses. After all, gang leaders possessed the skills of a CEO – leadership, management, marketing and quick numeracy.

Unlike most CEOs, though, gang-leaders often end up stabbed or shot. One guy from Brixton I have been mentoring to get away from crime and into business told me at the age of 24 half of his closest friends were dead. I gave them a phrase to take away with them; if they wanted to be "alive at 25" they needed to make money more sensibly. Some have made the switch, like Terroll Lewis who was part of Brixton's nastiest gangs and now runs a successful street gym company.

But we don't make it so easy for these transformations to happen in Britain. I've visited the west African state of Togo, where the local YMCA helps finance prisoners who want to go into business. In Texas, there is a much lauded Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which has a massive success rate in getting inmates to set up in business on release rather than return to crime. Here, ministers are gripped by the fear that the Daily Mail will pounce on them if they helped do anything to criminals other than lock them up.

I became aware of the talent that lies wasted in our jails through Business in the Community, for which I led a delegation to visit Wormwood Scrubs. Just look at the horrific pattern of re-offending – as many as two thirds of inmates will be back within a year of being released.

Soon after that I was asked to be part of Gordon Ramsay's TV series teaching prisoners in Brixton how to cook. Talking to some of the guys who cooked lunch for us there one day, it struck me how much we were missing a couple of tricks; firstly, and quite selfishly, restaurants are generally short of chefs and here were people whom we could recruit (and I did, very successfully) and secondly, there was an immense desire for offenders to go into business.

A recent report by the London-based Centre for Entrepreneurs found that 79% of prisoners they surveyed wanted to run their own businesses – twice the national average. But who's going to back them? In Texas, the prison does as it's so much cheaper than having them back in. Recently, local authorities and the Metropolitan Police have started diverting their budgets for monitoring gangs and paying for the consequences of their awful actions and using them instead to get these same guys into businesses away from crime.

We can look at universities and business schools for our next generation of managers, but if you're an investor looking to back entrepreneurial talent, visit your local nick. Or perhaps contact Michael Corrigan, who first me in his cell in Brixton. A former Deloittes partner, now he has set up a business with his former governor to help offenders team up with agencies that can help them make that transformational shift.

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Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of London restaurants The Cinnamon Club and Roast. He also chairs two social enterprises Bounce Back and Mums The Chef


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