The Nevada Independent

Nuestro estado. Nuestras noticias. Nuestra voz.

The Nevada Independent

Federal small business agency aims to cut red tape for formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs

“Ban the box” initiative works to make it easier for people to start businesses after returning to their community from prison.
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman

After a career working as an executive chef at restaurants inside resorts such as Bellagio, The Ritz-Carlton and Caesars Palace, celebrity chef Jeff Henderson sought a dramatic change: He wanted to instill “middle-class values” into at-risk youth.

He started The Chef Jeff Project leadership academy to help marginalized kids who, Henderson said, are typically born into family instability, trauma and crime-filled neighborhoods. 

He began the program in 2020 with his wife, Stacy Henderson, harnessing his professional expertise: culinary arts, a skill he said he picked up while incarcerated for a decade. He said his teachings are based on professionalism, entrepreneurship and “simple life skills,” which hinge on Henderson’s desire to help youths “avoid the massive school-to-prison pipeline.” 

“It's important to create these opportunities and pathways out of poverty, out of gang culture and into the workforce,” Henderson said at an event in North Las Vegas on Saturday — where five young chefs showed off their cooking skills for Vice President Kamala Harris. “So it impacts violence and it impacts crime and workforce training.” 

Participants showed off the meal of the day: News Orleans-style jambalaya, “correctional fried chicken,” chocolate cupcakes and cinnamon rolls.

Harris was joined by Isabel Casillas Guzman, administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA), who announced that the federal agency plans to ban loan program restrictions against people with criminal backgrounds, if applicants have completed their sentence. The two were joined by the Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Steven Horsford (D-NV), whose district they were in.

Historically, applications for federal SBA loans have asked aspiring entrepreneurs to share whether they have criminal records — a barrier that prevented millions of people from accessing economic support for businesses.

Henderson, who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for drug trafficking charges and released 27 years ago after 10 years served, started the catering company and leadership academy to train disadvantaged youth facing barriers to success in the culinary arts. 

He said his team prioritizes working on participants’ mindsets and getting young people to see themselves as resilient and accountable so that “one day they’ll be moving out of those communities and being productive.” 

The six-week program consists of a four or five person cohort and stems from Henderson’s 2008 Food Network television show, “The Chef Jeff Project,” which took “six at-risk young adults and committed to turning their lives around by putting them to work in [Henderson’s] catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine.” Henderson also wrote three books, becoming a New York Times bestselling author for his memoir “Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove,” and has been featured on shows such as “Oprah’s Life Class,” “Good Morning America” and “Today.”

“What makes today an important day is because … they're going to remove ‘check the box,’” Henderson said about the SBA’s plan. “That will allow people coming out of prison that want to be entrepreneurs, get loans and continue building their own version of the American dream.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly 450,000 people were released from state and federal prisons nationwide in 2022. In Nevada, nearly 4,500 people joined the “re-entry population” in 2022. 

Despite finishing their sentences, formerly incarcerated people face disparities and discrimination in housing and employment amid requirements to share their criminal histories.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV 4th District) talking with youth at The Chef Jeff Project, a culinary leadership academy founded by celebrity chef, Jeff Henderson, on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (Courtesy of Rep. Steven Horsford)

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that out of a study of 51,500 people released from federal prisons in 2010, a third remained jobless for the first four years post-release and, at any given time, the group’s employment did not exceed 40 percent.

During fiscal year 2023, the SBA doled out $52 billion in “capital, disaster relief, and bonding to small businesses and disaster-impacted communities.” Leaders announced that 16 million new small-business applications had been filed since President Joe Biden took office, including 185,000 in Nevada.

SBA loan reforms are pending and the agency did not provide a clear timeline of when they will roll out.

Youth call for more engagement

Youth chefs told The Nevada Independent that they hope local leaders will expand their support and promotion of programs such as The Chef Jeff Project, which recently received a $250,000 grant from the American Rescue Plan to operate a mobile culinary arts academy. 

The mobile academy will park at central locations to serve various cohorts, adding to the weekly programs inside of the kitchen in North Las Vegas and another in Lorenzi Park in West Las Vegas. The mobile school already trains young people incarcerated at Summit View Youth Center, a maximum security facility in Las Vegas with 48 beds.

“Even if you're not interested in culinary [arts], it’s a good leadership experience,” said Anya, 19, who graduated from The Chef Jeff Project and was hired on as a culinary assistant. “It definitely helps build character.”

She learned about the program through Employ NV Youth Hub after completing continuation school. Anya, who declined to provide her last name for privacy reasons, said youth need more access to resources such as The Chef Jeff Project.

“I feel like they should have more support behind the programs that are already here because there are a lot that nobody knows about,” she said. 

Culinary assistant Kam Winslow, 25, who graduated from The Chef Jeff Project and was hired onto the team, said many youth need more knowledge and education about resources in their communities so they can take advantage of them. He said the leadership aspect of the program is essential to children growing up without guidance.

“They don't choose the environments that they grow up in,” Winslow said about at-risk children. “So in our best way possible, we should better the environment where children are raised.” 


Featured Videos

7455 Arroyo Crossing Pkwy Suite 220 Las Vegas, NV 89113
Privacy PolicyRSSContactNewslettersSupport our Work
The Nevada Independent is a project of: Nevada News Bureau, Inc. | Federal Tax ID 27-3192716