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This Former Inmate Found a New Life Through Entrepreneurship

Ralphy Dominguez left prison with nothing but a new skill and a powerful yearning for the dignity that comes from building a business.
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Ralphy Dominguez used to make more than $1 million a year running one of the largest drug rings in New England. After spending several years in prison, he’s reinvented himself as a legitimate entrepreneur at the helm of New York City-based leather goods maker Pen & Pistol, which produces accessories such as wallets with a minimalist aesthetic.

Dominguez took a course in leather craft during his time behind bars. He found it therapeutic and rewarding to work with his hands, so he applied those skills to build Pen & Pistol. After his release, the Bronx native found his way to Refoundry in Brooklyn. It's a nonprofit that coaches ex-cons to start their own ventures by training them to turn discarded materials into beautifully designed products.

“Refoundry lent itself to the first major problem that you face coming home, which is trying to find a decent paid living wage," Dominguez says. "Refoundry offered that and then it offered me a way to dream bigger, to start my own business."

Related: How My Life as an Entrepreneur Shaped My Time in Prison

Dominguez’s company continues to use discarded materials, including leather from old sofas and handbags, as well as scrap leather from manufacturers that would otherwise be tossed out. He crafts hand-stitched wallets and business card holders, which retail for between $30 and $75 on Pen & Pistol’s website.

Dominguez credits the artisan and entrepreneurship skills he learned behind bars and at Refoundry with helping him discover a new and rewarding life outside of prison.

“I was a hothead, I was a young gun, I was troublesome,” he says, “and going through that experience, going to prison, I really had the opportunity to redraft and re-pen my life.”

The entrepreneurial story he’s writing is one of revival through persistence. Pen & Pistol has started to gain momentum, and a growing number of consumers have been inspired by his story of reinvention and his brand’s beautiful designs. Dominguez has set up shop at flea markets throughout New York City, such as Brooklyn Flea and Artists & Fleas. He’s also secured shelf space at Lazaro SoHo, a high-end boutique in Manhattan.

Related: 3 Entrepreneurial Skills Inmates Perfect

Today, the Pen & Pistol founder comes across as an unassuming young man with a story to tell. He appears thoughtful and determined -- a far cry from the tumultuous youth he describes from his former life. Dominguez's past motivates him to pay it forward. He helps others with criminal records -- including Pen & Pistol president Walter Escobar -- take back control of their lives through his leather craft business.

Dominguez says that ex-cons are well positioned to become successful entrepreneurs.

“That hustle was there, that spirit, that thirst for entrepreneurship is there,” Dominguez says. “I think coming from a place where we had nothing and we can only gain -- this is really what motivates people coming home from prison.”

Watch the video above for Dominguez's whole story.

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