A new expo is planned for Chattanooga to bring former felons turned entrepreneurs together with local business owners.
Troy Rogers, the public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga, said in a phone interview Friday that he organized the event in hopes of helping young people who are re-entering society from prison to establish themselves in the community and build relationships with business owners who can serve as mentors to people struggling to cope with life outside the prison system.
"This expo is going to be awesome," he said.
The expo will operate a bit like a job fair, but in reverse, he said. Entrepreneurs will set up tables and business owners will come to them and start a conversation.
"I want to expose them to different people in our community," Rogers said. "I want to bring the community out to come and visit the tables and hopefully do business with our guys.
"What I have seen is that our guys, they bring other young people who come home (from prison) and give them a job, and pay them and also mentor them. That little piece is so important because they understand how to navigate the criminal justice system ... when it comes to getting a job, there's a lot of red tape, but we want to trudge forward. We want to trudge forward. We want to continue to apply pressure and help them get where they need to be."
The Returning Talent Entrepreneurial Expo will be from 6-8 p.m. July 28 at the Family Justice Center on Uptain Road.
Rogers said he's hoping more than 150 people from the Chattanooga area will show up to support men who are working to rebuild their lives by starting a business after being convicted of a crime.
IF YOU GO
What: Returning Talent Entrepreneurial Expo
When: July 28
Time: 6-8 p.m.
Where: Family Justice Center, 5705 Uptain Road, Chattanooga, TN 37411
To register call: 423-305-2707
Tony Oliver overcame a life of crime and crack addiction to operate his business, TNT Cleaning LLC, with his wife LaToya Oliver, the owner and CEO of the company.
"We started it right when the pandemic hit," Oliver said Friday in a telephone interview. "I went to the dollar store, bought about $50 worth of cleaning supplies, then went to Home Depot and bought ... $60 more ... I didn't have any of my trucks. Then I went out to Lowe's and I bought me a little fold-up pressure washer, and I just took off like that, knocking on doors."
Since 2018, Oliver has grown his business to serving 12 buildings and employing 15 people — some convicted felons and others with no criminal record.
Oliver and his wife started the cleaning company after he was sent back to prison when his parole officer inspected his home and found a gun on a nightstand.
"We had the firearm — as my wife said, 'just in case' — because we got broken into twice," Oliver said. "And they had moved me to the third shift on the job that I worked at as a machine operator.
"They sent me all the way back to prison, I beat the charges on the gun — they dropped the charge, but they said under the parole laws that I'm not supposed to be around a gun," Oliver said. "I had to do the remainder of my sentence, which was one of the hardest times in my life, to be out here doing the right thing, doing what I'm supposed to do for 18-19 years, and that happens and I was stripped away from my family. I watched my girls scream and holler and, you know, just was ugly, real ugly."
Once released from the parole violation charges, Oliver began to think about what he could do to earn his keep and began offering his cleaning services to businesses around Chattanooga.
"Troy Rogers, one of my friends, introduced me to a guy named Jonathan Frost," Oliver said. "We talked, and he shared his story. I shared my story, and when we got through, he said, 'Man, it's just something about you, I'm going to do everything in my power to help you,' and he really stood up to his word."
Oliver said that with the help of Frost and word-of-mouth advertising, his business grew to what it is today, which is the primary goal for the expo, according to Rogers.
"The relationship is what we're after," Rogers said. "That's the money these days."
Rogers said that building relationships will lead to better connections and opportunities for future investments and growth and reintegration into the community.
"They'll get to talk and shake hands and give out flyers and any giveaways they have," Rogers said.
For Oliver, breaking the cycle of poverty is an important driving force for him to continue to reach out to those people who have a criminal record and are trying to rebuild their lives.
"Poverty can cause anyone to make poor choices," Oliver said. "I don't care who you are. I come from poverty. I come from nothing. I don't want them to make excuses; there's so many opportunities out there."