Freedom Unlimited Enterprises: the startup that is taking prisoners

The very definition of business is ‘goods or services exchanged for one another or for money’. And whilst Josee Scott of Freedom Unlimited Enterprises won’t dispute the technicalities, she will tell you - as she has told BQ - that her business is about much more than that.

Freedom Unlimited Enterprises, or FUE, is the result of the biggest personal tragedy that can happen to a person; the death of her 17 year old son. Josee tells us: “He had become involved with a group of youths who were and mostly still are, caught up in the re-offending cycle.

“They showed a depth of loyalty and love to my family and me that was deeply moving us and allowed me to see them in a different light.  I realised that they, and young men like them are often victims of the environment they have grown up in.”

With a focus on making a difference, Josee decided that she wanted to start a business which would help to break that cycle, recognising that a lack of employment is a major factor in re-offending. “Our company provides a live work experience and employment programme for people who have a criminal record,” says Josee. “This is to enable them to gain a CV of excellence to further their employment opportunities.  The main mission is to start up social enterprise businesses to provide those jobs, and to train and inspire others to do the same.” 

And that is a critical difference. Businesses already exist which specialise in working with the ex-offender community, which work with traditional mainstream employers to try to get them working. Such schemes have mixed success and feedback ratings, because they tend to be based on a framework which limits how personal the support can be. “Freedom Unlimited is not just about providing jobs, it is about the people themselves, about helping them to discover their identity and purpose and making positive and permanent changes in their lives as a result of that discovery.” 

With that in mind, Josee sets out to find business ideas which can be operated by those who are part of the FUE community. “The thing that makes FUE different is the fact that we are about changing the people and not just the circumstances. Our first business is a recycling and up-cycling hub with an emphasis on creativity.  One branch of this is making memory cushions out of a shirt or other item of clothing that belonged to a loved one who has passed away. This ties in with the inspiration behind Freedom Unlimited Enterprises, the loss of a loved one. 

“It is an area that touches everyone from all walks of life but many who come from socially deprived areas and criminal backgrounds, deal with loss more, and often in tragic or traumatic circumstances.”

So this is the bit that we would recognise as a traditional ‘business’. FUE make recycled and upcycled items, specialising in memory cushions. And whilst they are very, very proud of the people they employ, they also take no prisoners – no pun intended – when it comes to standards and work ethics. Josee is no pushover, and recognises that to achieve her aim of securing jobs for these people, she has to give them a real workplace experience.

“Make no mistake; this is not a programme for those who are not interested in working.  We are looking for those who want to change, who are hungry to work and make a contribution to the communities that they have formerly damaged.  We are looking for those with entrepreneurial skills and drive who are willing to leave their past behind them and move forward into a new future.”

The initial project was self-funded, and Josee has not been shy to take advantage of all of the different forms of advice and support that are available to young businesses. “The list of those who have helped us with advice and support is very long indeed and each person, whether an individual or a representative of an organisation has been key in us moving closer to our goals. However, the majority of the business support has come from First Port, Business Gateway, Social Firms Scotland, and Edinburgh Social Enterprise Network.

“As someone who is a complete novice in the criminal justice and social enterprise sectors, it has been a tremendous learning curve to take on this double-barrelled challenge.  It has definitely been ‘good for personal development’ as they say in the business world,“ Josee admits.

Your next target? “Premises, people and productivity!” she tells us. “Our next big target is to find premises that will enable us to upscale our model and provide employment for more people.  We also need more people to come along side us and give that invaluable support and advice that has helped to get us to where we are today.  Of course the key to any successful business is profit and that comes from productivity.  We need to design more products that will sell and give us the necessary sustainability we need to grow and succeed.”

It’s always refreshing to hear a social enterprise talk about profit. After all, it isn’t a bad word; the ethos of a business will simply dictate what happens to that profit – reinvestment, in this case. “In a year’s time I see us as being known and established as a growing business.  I see us having increased sales due to solid marketing and social media strategies and having shared our story to inspire support and growth.”

Josee’s passion is contagious, and it’s easy to see why people would be drawn to FUE as a business concept. “The best thing about being a start up is the excitement and newness of it all.  To be at the beginning of a thing and see it grow from nothing into something is quite inspiring.  The opportunities to learn new skills and also to discover things about yourself that can often be surprising have been invaluable. 

But it’s not all roses, of course. “The worst thing has been the slowness of it,” Josee laments. “ As a visionary, you always see the thing in your head as being a reality and it’s hard to work through the steps it takes to get there.”

But work through them she is, and her plans for the future continue to be as bold as ambitious as those which brought her here in the first place. “I see us linking in with the Scottish Prison Service and other third sector groups to form collaborative partnerships with the aim of reducing re-offending rates in this nation. Above all and most importantly, I see us making a real difference in the lives of the people we come into contact with on every level.”

Well said, Josee. And, unsurprisingly, we can see that too.