With a nonprofit's help, Jason Buckley crowdfunds to open his own business

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JULES ROGERS - Sonja Skvarla, founder of A Social Ignition, teaches an entrepreneurial business course inside the Columbia River Correctional Institution and at Multnomah County Jail. The criminal justice system was never designed as a social services agency.

In fact, its development coincides with the end of slavery in the 1860s and the stagnation of middle-class wages beginning in the 1970s, and in the meantime, the prison population keeps going up.

However, Portland-based nonprofit A Social Ignition (ASI) is beginning to change that culture by helping people like Jason Buckley, who is attempting to outgrow a splotchy criminal past by crowdfunding for a $5,000 to $16,000 loan to start a New York-style hot dog stand.

With the support of Community Sourced Capital (CSC), a Seattle-based business development service that is matching 50 percent of the crowdfunding donations, Buckley’s loan will cover a New York-style cart to operate in Tanner Springs Park in the Pearl District. Once he’s up and grilling, he’ll pay back the loan 100 percent — free of interest.

CSC’s initiative is to offer small business an option to borrow affordable, responsible capital, strengthening communities and raising the bar for the financial industry.

At $65 annually for street corner space, Buckley hopes to be approved for a few areas so he can be mobile.

“To start it, I need $16,000 to sustain business; $1,300 is a two-week projection. With $10,000 I can do it, but that’s a shoestring-tight budget,” Buckley said. Depending on how much he can raise, Buckley browses Craigslist daily looking for used, local carts — the beautiful one with the umbrella he wants to ship (for $500) from New York costs $3,200.

Charting a path

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JULES ROGERS - Jason Buckley, student of A Social Ignition, is crowdfunding for a loan to start up a hot dog stand, Hottie Das. ASI spent more than two years researching and developing a curriculum before founder Sonja Skvarla taught its debut class in July 2014, coaching Buckley on the information and connections he needed to start up his hot dog stand business, a longtime dream of his.

“The idea of (ASI) is that we use entrepreneurship as sort of a Trojan horse, if you will, to teach the language of business, as it’s a serious leverage point for change,” said Skvarla, who founded ASI in 2012. “There’s a lot of power in business, and so if somebody is not able to get a job or participate in that piece of the economy, it makes it much more difficult.”

ASI’s program is in its fifth cohort and already has 29 graduates — classes range from six to 12 students. ASI has five board members and one other employee who coaches the Long Haul program, one-on-one coaching which Buckley was accepted for after his graduation and release.

“We’re not the innocence project, we’re not saying nobody did it, we’re saying these things happened and I did these things, and this is how I’m learning and this is how I want to improve my life,” Skvarla said. “The more shame and stigma and legal discrimination that we slather all over people, the less prepared they’re going to be to do different things in the world.”

There are only a few entrepreneurship programs in the country taught inside prisons, but ASI is set apart from even those because it targets male learners and addresses risk factors. Skvarla’s course covers finance, marketing and general business by reading books, discussing, and applying ideas to their business plans.

“Not only does it address men, it addresses the criminogenic risk factors that the corrections industry uses as an assessment of how likely someone is to commit more crimes,” said Skvarla, who is skeptical of recidivism rates that are skewed because they include only a three-year history. According to Skvarla, the readmission rate, which calculates over a person’s lifetime, is more accurate and reflects about 80 percent of those incarcerated.

In 2008, 753 out of 100,000 people were incarcerated — 240 percent higher than in 1980, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and about 60 percent in the U.S. are nonviolent offenders.

COURTESY: JASON BUCKLEY - ViennaBeefSausage (donated by Jason): Shipped in from Chicago, the Vienna beef sausage is rarely found anywhere else.

Hottie Das development

Buckley was a resident of Vancouver, Wash., who worked at Craig Stein Distributing, a beer distributor.

“Five bucks a case of beer to me is the nature of the beast,” said Buckley, who earned himself three DUIs in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

“On my third DUI, they gave me four months’ work release and 10 months of home confinement,” he said. Being shuttled between alcohol classes, the courthouse and work, Buckley was dropped off and given two hours to be at his next scheduled duty.

“I had to cross this hot dog guy on Main Street (Vancouver), so every day I’d get a hot dog so I had about a month and a half to pick his brain,” Buckley said. “I had this idea that I wanted a hot dog stand, but when I got out of jail from these DUIs I always had a job.”

Then one night about nine months ago, he crossed the line — over the Willamette into Portland.

“I actually got in trouble and got caught in a stolen car,” Buckley said. “Now I’m on probation and I’m required to stay here for three years.”

He admits his Vancouver crowd wasn’t a success team, and now in Portland he is visited by family members, involving them in his business plans and enjoying reconnecting with his spirituality and family.

Buckley is finishing up a reduced sentence, during which time he has taken advantage of several rehabilitation opportunities. It was through one of those programs that he met Sonja Skvarla.

“I met Sonja in jail, she has that class (The Ignition Option) ... that helps you develop everything, has ideas, a plan and an opportunity,” Buckley said. “She helps you cultivate a business plan through many steps with fundamentals of small business, and breaks down how to put a business together.”

Skvarla designed the curriculum for men using her research. It is offered as a six-week course at Columbia River Correctional Institution, and for 10 weeks at Multnomah County Jail, where Buckley took the class.

“We start day one with the power of choice and recognizing that while much of their lives are in control of other people, they actually have a lot of choices that they make every day,” Skvarla said. “We believe life is cumulative and all of the experiences that came before are valuable and make the person and communities a richer experience on which to learn and to build a new life.

“He is so dedicated to this; this has been a dream of his for a long time. I personally believe he was born to be a hot dog vendor,” Skvarla said of Buckley. “I come from Chicago and hot dog vendors in Chicago are definitely characters, so I think Jason fits that really well.”

Buckley plans to order authentic Vienna beef hot dogs from Chicago.

Skvarla meets with Buckley once a week since he qualified for the Long Haul program, an intensive coaching mentoring track where she coaches him on refining his business plan.

His business plan is based on a $16,500 monthly revenue, a low-ball estimation for the street food market he’s anticipating. As soon as his campaign ends June 8, Buckley is poised to get his inventory approved by the Health Department in 10 days to get Hottie Das up and running as soon as possible.

So far, 27 shareholders have committed to loaning him $3,250 toward his minimum goal of $5,000.

“I am a 39-year-old man, and for me the way I see it, this isn’t an opportunity that comes around a dozen times,” Buckley said. “I think it’s going to come around one time. It’s like do it now or think about doing something else, because I’ve been doing great being mediocre, but working on being great is something different. I just want to make that next step.”

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