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Business Grants for Felons

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Content was accurate at the time of publication.

If you’ve been incarcerated, you know that you may face a tougher path than most in finding good employment that’ll help you enjoy the freedoms you’re entitled to. That’s why people leaving prison are 41% more likely to start their own business. If no one will hire you and you’re determined to make it work, you can always hire yourself.

Starting a business takes money, however. Business grants can be a great way for returning citizens to get started in the business world since they don’t need to be repaid and they’re not dependent on creditworthiness.

Unless the eligibility criteria says otherwise, formerly incarcerated people are generally eligible for all the same small business grants as the general public. Focusing your efforts on specific business grants for felons may narrow the applicant pool and improve your odds, however.

NASE Growth Grants

  • Grant amount: Up to $4,000.
  • Eligibility requirements: You must have a paid NASE membership.
  • Application process: Applications are available quarterly on NASE’s website.

The National Association for the Self-Employed accepts applications on a rotating basis each quarter for these Growth Grants, which are awarded to people who can show a demonstrable need for the funds in their business plan and grant application package. Membership costs as little as $11.95 for one month, although you’ll need to be a member for at least three months to apply for this grant if you’re on a monthly plan. You’ll get access to lots of other helpful benefits with a NASE membership, including personal access to business and legal experts to answer questions.

TRANSFORM Business Grant

  • Grant amount: $1,000, plus a year-long personalized business development plan.
  • Eligibility requirements: Members of marginalized groups (including felons) who need financial help in starting or running a small business focused on positive social impact.
  • Application process: Applications open online twice per year; the next window is September 15-30, 2024.

In TRANSFORM’s own words, it’s an antiracist and anticapitalist organization that provides $1,000 wealth distribution microgrants for systematically marginalized entrepreneurs, including people who were formerly incarcerated. The funds are helpful, but perhaps an even bigger source of support is its year-long mentorship program, where you get to call the shots in terms of who you work with and what support you need.

Amber Grants

  • Grant amount: Three $10,000 grants each month for startups, established businesses and businesses within certain categories. Three grantees are awarded a further $25,000 at the end of the year.
  • Eligibility requirements: Businesses at least 50% owned by women 18 or older in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Application process: Apply by submitting a simple form on the WomensNet website and paying a $15 application fee.

Founded in memory of a young woman who passed away before realizing her entrepreneurship dreams, WomensNet has been giving out Amber Grants since 1998. Funding opportunities are frequent, with the organization awarding over $435,000 throughout the year, although you can only apply once every three months. WomensNet chooses its award winners not based on their business plan (it doesn’t even accept them in your application), but rather on your ability to write a compelling story about your business and how the funds will assist you.

LEAP Virtual Entrepreneurship Academy

  • Grant amount: $1,000 microloan, plus a 12-week training program and additional grant funding opportunities.
  • Eligibility requirements: Women who have been incarcerated in the past, have access to a computer and webcam and are able to attend three-hour online training sessions two evenings each week.
  • Application process: Applications are accepted for twice-yearly classes on LEAP’s website.

The Florida-based Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP) offers online entrepreneurship mentoring programs, teaching formerly incarcerated women the ins and outs of planning, launching and then following through with managing their own businesses. Participants also get personal access to a business mentor and the LEAP alumni network, and each class ends in a pitch competition for real funding from investors, plus the opportunity to apply for a $1,000 microloan.

Georgetown Pivot Program

  • Grant amount: Weekly stipend over the course of a year-long college program, plus additional opportunities for funding and business training.
  • Eligibility requirements: Must have been formerly incarcerated within the past five years, age 25 or over, have a high school diploma and be able to attend full-time online and in-person classes for a year in the Washington, D.C. area.
  • Application process: Apply online on the Pivot Program website.

In 2018, Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University launched the Pivot Program as a part of its broader Prisons & Justice Initiative. Not for the faint of heart, the program requires a full-time, in-person commitment for a year, but at the end you’ll leave with a college certificate in business and entrepreneurship. The program is split up into a few different parts, starting with coursework, followed by a three-month internship and culminating in a choice between two additional training tracks: employment or business incubation.

The federal government generally doesn’t offer small business grants directly to individuals — felons or otherwise — and instead prefers to offer grant funding to organizations that support reentering citizens. Private grants are generally your best option for direct funding.

However, while many small business owners won’t qualify for federal grants directly, you can use a roundabout method to obtain some of this funding. You’ll need to research which organizations received federal grant money for relevant programs on sites like — and then apply with any groups listed that offer assistance to small business owners. Here are a few examples of federal grant programs that may fund organizations offering business grants to entrepreneurs with a criminal record:

Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grants

The USDA offers this annual grant for organizations and governments in rural areas to build programs and facilities to train workers and entrepreneurs. You can research who’s received a grant and for how much on the USDA’s grant awards website to find out if you’re eligible for any sort of training or assistance. You’ll need to download an Excel file, which you can then search through for the name of the grant program to locate where the funding went.

Second Chance Act Community-Based Reentry Program Grants

The Department of Justice offers this annual grant to organizations and Tribal governments that support formerly incarcerated people in reentering society. You can research past grant winners on the DOJ website and follow up with those groups to see if they offer any relevant funding opportunities for you specifically. In 2023, for example, the DOJ offered over $11 million to 15 different organizations through this grant.

Small business grants for people with a criminal record are also offered at state and local levels. These grants may be similar to how federal business grants for felons are structured (i.e., with funding going to organizations that support you, rather than you directly), or they may be targeted toward individual people. Many also have several different small business grant programs available. But regardless of which state you live in, there are some commonalities for where to look:

Local Small Business Development Centers

Every person in the country falls within the territory of one of nearly 1,000 local Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), which offer free or low-cost access to a team of support staff designed to help local entrepreneurs start, manage and grow their small businesses. This includes training and workshops for how to manage the day-to-day tasks of running a business, legal issues, tax compliance, business plan reviews and more. Your local SBDC is an excellent resource to help you find any business grants that you may be eligible for.

State and Local Government Economic Departments

Each state has one or more specific departments dedicated to helping residents expand the economy, often through small business grants. Washington state has both an Office of Minority & Women’s Enterprises, for example, and a Department of Commerce – both of which offer small business grants themselves or maintain a directory of other grants.

It’s also worth checking to see if your county or city government offers any specific business departments and programs, too. Dialing down even further into our example, the City of Seattle also maintains an Office of Economic Development which occasionally offers grants to business owners within city limits. Since these local government departments vary so much across the country, you may need to get a bit creative with your Google search terms, but local options may be available to you.

While entrepreneurship programs do not provide direct funding, they offer valuable skill development courses, mentorship and other resources. Some organizations even work with individuals while incarcerated, preparing them for entrepreneurship after being released.

Noteworthy entrepreneurship programs that target inmates and ex-felons include:

  • Defy Ventures: Defy Ventures’ various programs equip entrepreneurs with the skills and habits for launching and growing a new business.
  • Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP): Under PEP’s four-month entrepreneurship program, participants work one-on-one with volunteers to brainstorm business concepts, work on their business plans and learn other business skills. Graduates earn a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.
  • Inmates to Entrepreneurs: With their free online eight-week course, students can learn the basics of starting, running and growing a business. They learn various business skills, from business ideation and marketing to sales and customer service.
  • Project ReMADE: This 12-week entrepreneurship training program teaches formerly incarcerated people basic business skills, including accounting and negotiations. Program graduates can then present their business plans to a panel of executives and participate in a completion ceremony held at Stanford Law School.
  • The Last Mile: This nonprofit offers a year-long bootcamp-style education program to teach current inmates in seven different states valuable skills in coding and digital video post-production editing. It also offers an employment support program to help place graduates in jobs with partner organizations where they can continue learning once they’re on the outside.

In addition to government grants for felons, former inmates can secure business funding through angel investors, business loans and crowdfunding platforms. These financing solutions may be options for those who are capable of taking on debt or willing to give up a portion of their business ownership.

Angel investors for felons

Angel investors are high-net-worth individuals who provide financial backing to new businesses. In exchange for investing their own money, angel investors sometimes receive a stake, or equity, in the company.

Not all angel investors are profit motivated the way many commercial lenders are — some genuinely want to offer their support in helping startups achieve liftoff. They may even refer their own consultants or executives and play an active role in the growth of your enterprise.

Rising Tide Capital, for example, is a nonprofit organization that aims to “transform lives and communities through entrepreneurship.” This organization has provided educational resources, networking opportunities and financial capital to those living in underserved urban neighborhoods.

Business loans for felons

If you have poor credit, it can be difficult to qualify for loans from lenders that require credit scores and extensive business experience. Fortunately, microloans from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and online lenders typically carry more lenient requirements that can help. SBA microloans can come in handy for entrepreneurs that need up to $50,000 to launch their startup, but don’t qualify for a conventional bank loan.

In 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration directed SBA lenders to disregard “irrelevant criminal history records” when evaluating applicants for all of its loan programs, making it easier for reentering citizens to get access to SBA loans. This means that a criminal record won’t necessarily disqualify you.

Online lenders also serve borrowers who do not meet the stricter requirements of traditional commercial lenders. For those who want to make moves quickly, some online lenders will provide funds within days. The relaxed requirements and fast funding can come with some drawbacks, however — typically higher interest rates and smaller amounts.


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Crowdfunding platforms

Crowdfunding platforms, like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, allow individuals to raise funds from the general public. This financing option has relatively low risk, since you typically aren’t required to repay any funds you raise — even if your startup goes belly up. Since there are no minimum time-in-business or credit score requirements, crowdfunding can be a viable alternative for those who don’t qualify for traditional financing.

While repaying the capital you raise isn’t always required, you may still need to offer something for your investors’ support. Many crowdfunding campaigns offer tiered rewards — the more you contribute, the more you receive. A food truck startup may offer a free lunch voucher, for example, or a clothing company may give away free t-shirts. In some cases, you can also crowdfund capital by giving up small ownership shares to your contributors.

Since crowdfunding typically involves contributions from a large number of people, marketing your campaign can be time and labor intensive. You should also be conscious of any fees a crowdfunding site might charge. Kickstarter and Indiegogo, for example, collect credit card processing fees and a percentage of your funding total.

Having a felony conviction can put up some speed bumps or even roadblocks for some of the avenues you’ll need to travel to start a business, but it doesn’t block it off entirely. Rather, it depends on the type of business you’re opening, where you’re opening it and what assistance — financial or otherwise — you apply for to get your business off the ground.

Your criminal record may not even come into play in many cases. Your criminal record doesn’t appear anywhere on your credit file, for example, so unless lenders or landlords ask whether you have a felony conviction, they may not even know. Some funding options, such as SBA loans, are even prohibited from considering any criminal past that isn’t relevant to your ability to run your business.

Some people convicted of felonies and even misdemeanors report being discriminated against when seeking employment or applying for small business funding, and that’s a potential problem. You may also be banned from working in certain industries, especially ones that require a license for handling dangerous material or working with children. However, as we’ve shown here, there are also many assistance options and business grants for felons as well — you’ll just need to pick your business startup idea wisely and find the right group of people to support you.