A Mind-Saving Occupation
For Michael White, working with leather is more than an occupation. The entrepreneur credits his craft for helping him survive nearly two decades of incarceration. “It’s mind-saving,” he said. “It takes you away from the negative parts of being in prison. You can engross yourself into the product you’re making, and the next thing you know, two, three, or four hours have gone by that you were not part of the negativity. You take that same calmness back with you and you try to relay that to other people that you’re around.”
The facility where Michael was imprisoned in Arkansas offered a hobby craft program for inmates. After 18 months on the waitlist, Michael was accepted into the leatherworking program. “The next thing you know, I was out there at the shop with the rest of the guys. I didn’t know anything about leather. The state doesn’t provide you with any materials. They just give you a little space, and that’s it.” Thanks to Michael’s fellow inmates in the program, he was able to learn the craft and begin building a clientele – including prison employees, friends and family members who valued the quality of Michael’s personalized purses, bags, wallets and belts. Participants had to purchase their own tools and materials, so Michael learned early on how to generate enough profit to operate a sustainable business. The prospect of losing his opportunity to seek refuge in the hobby craft shop also kept him motivated to steer clear of disciplinary violations for more than 17 years. “It keeps you focused because you know if you lose your class, you’re going to be back in that in that same area where the negative stuff is going on.”
Support Through a Challenging Transition
Michael’s transition after being released from prison was daunting on multiple levels, from adapting to a reality where smartphones are the norm to navigating the mainstream financial system with a limited credit history. Staying with his brother in the Southern suburbs of Chicago has helped him keep a positive outlook through the process. “It’s real quiet where I’m at. You get the deer and the antelope roaming through your yard. It’s peaceful and it helps to keep you into perspective of what life is about.” Thankfully, Michael also had many of the tools and relationships he needed to translate the leatherworking skills he had gained while incarcerated into a thriving business. Michael was able to send the equipment that he purchased while incarcerated home, and he maintained the longstanding relationships that he had built with leather vendors that enabled him to purchase materials at wholesale prices. “They help you along as much as they can because you’ve been dealing with them for so long,” he explained.
An entrepreneurship training program offered through the Safer Foundation and sponsored by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI), both long-time partners to Accion in Chicago, helped Michael learn critical aspects of growing a business, including marketing and financial management. While participating in the entrepreneurship training program, Michael connected with Accion through a resource partner workshop and received a $1,900 loan to help him buy sewing machines and build his credit. After successfully repaying his Accion loan and completing the Safer Foundation entrepreneurship program, Michael received a subsequent loan from CNI to purchase additional equipment for his business. Accion previously trained CNI to become a sustainable microlender through the Chicago Microlending Institute, a partnership with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Community Trust.
Investing in Opportunity
In 2018, Michael opened his leatherworking company, Michael’s Handcrafted Luxuries. While he prides himself on using premium leathers with top-of-the-line hardware, Michael makes sure to sell his products at a fair and reasonable price. In addition, all of his products come with a lifetime guarantee. “If something breaks, I will redo it free of charge.” Two and a half years after receiving his loan from Accion, Michael’s credit score has increased from zero to nearly 700. He is dedicated to continuing to build his business and his financial security, including saving enough money to open a storefront and own his own home. He also wants to provide opportunities for his community by hiring employees, because he knows that people who have overcome challenges like him are worth investing in. “A lot of us who are returning are knowledgeable about things; we want to use our skills and help the community,” he said. “I think what I’ve been through has helped me become a better person. It has helped me to realize that you don’t take anything for granted. You just live the best way that you can and do it the right way.”
Photo credit: Gretchen Villaluna Baria, Moonhouse Productions