When the first ASPIRE MO participants leave prison in the coming months, they intend to re-enter their communities equipped with the professional skills, solid business plans and confidence they need to become entrepreneurs.

Since December 2018, ten women have been fellow travelers on a 20-week journey to self-discovery and employability, from inside the visiting-room-turned-classroom at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Vandalia. There they have gathered each week to learn what makes them tick and then figure out how to turn their strengths, skills and passions into careers.


A multi-agency collaboration between the Department of Economic Development's Missouri Women's Council, the Missouri Department of Corrections and the Missouri Women's Business Center, the ASPIRE MO entrepreneurship program is rooted in the LaunchU curriculum, a nationally recognized intensive business training course developed at Southeast Missouri State University. Students complete assignments designed to help them learn not only how to start a business but also how to get and keep a good job.


Missouri women who are business owners and industry experts give guest lectures on topics such as business etiquette, résumé building, cost projections and marketing strategies. Retired banker and Missouri First Lady Teresa Parson led a financial literacy session for the group in February and will return Wednesday, June 5, 2019, to deliver the commencement address at the graduation ceremony.

For each student, the coursework culminates in a finished business plan and a pitch delivered before graduation.


While incarcerated, student Lorie Barnes has spent six years training dogs in the C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs program to prepare them to serve people with disabilities  — skills she hopes to turn into a business. She said she’s grateful not only for the professional tools the class has given her but also for the compassionate guidance the instructors have shown.


“They have gone out of their way to build us up and make us see our worth,” Barnes said about the guest speakers, as well as Missouri Women’s Council Executive Director Kellie Ann Coats and Missouri Women’s Business Center Director Jessie Yankee. “After you’re shunned from society for so long, you have that grief, that loss. They have worked so hard to make us feel like we’re citizens again and we can get out there and we can do this.”


In 2017, Missouri had the country’s fastest-growing population of incarcerated women, more than 90 percent of whom were entering prison for technical probation or parole violations or substance-use treatment — not for new crimes. Employment reduces recidivism and helps ensure success for former offenders and stability for their families.