Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership alumna impacts lives of Tennessee prison inmates through entrepreneurship program

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Karen Vander Molen (’14), says she has always had a dream of educating prison inmates.

As part of Lipscomb University’s Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership Master’s program, Vander Molen turned that dream into a reality when she co-founded the Building Entreprenuers for Success in Tennessee (BEST) program in 2014.  

The BEST program was launched in partnership with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and prepares inmates for the job market while equipping these men and women with tools to build a better life through personal transformation and entrepreneurship education.

“I saw the need for better options for returning citizens. If someone is able to start their own business, they are not reliant on others hiring them,” said Vander Molen. “This opens up many more possibilities for a successful reentry to society and possibly giving them the chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.”

While attending an information session about Lipscomb’s ICL, Vander Molen met Linda Peek Schacht, who she says played a pivotal role in helping her bring this dream to reality.Karen_SIDE

“Linda was very enthusiastic and remains so about my idea of teaching character development and entrepreneurship to inmates before release to better equip them for reentry a la PEP,” Vander Molen said. “She has always encouraged me to draw upon the unique resources available to us here in Nashville – and she was right!”

Vander Molen says that it was under Schacht’s mentorship that she learned firsthand how impactful networking is to laying the groundwork for the success of BEST.

“Lipscomb’s Master of Arts in Civic Leadership offered exactly what I needed to bring the vision of BEST to life: how to have government (TDOC), nonprofits and private enterprise (our corporate partners like IDS and DevDigital) collaboratively working together to solve the problem of recidivism,” said Vander Molen.

The BEST program is currently in its third cohort made up of 17 women, who graduated on Friday April 28 with a commencement address from attorney and entrepreneur Phylaniece Nashe.  She and her husband Turner Nashe have been instrumental in the success of BEST and recently presented Karen with a $100,000 check to continue her work. The women produced plans for entrepreneurial ventures including “Build a Book” to encourage childhood literacy to cleaning services to food trucks.

“It is a tribute to Karen’s faith, work and leadership that she draws support from so many community leaders and entrepreneurs, the Department of Corrections and nonprofits focused on reentry,” Schacht said.  “It is an honor to be her friend and mentor as she so diligently affects the lives of the men and women of the BEST classes.

“Karen exemplifies our goal for our graduates: launching civic leaders and civic change,” Schacht continued. “She excelled as a committed change agent, thriving in a theory to practice curriculum focused on leading change through collaborative leadership.”

Vander Molen says so far, 17 BEST graduates have been released. Six have been out for over a year and none are back in prison, giving BEST a zero percent recidivism rate. Typically, in Tennessee, at the one-year mark about 27 percent are already back in prison, and many are working either one their entrepreneurial venture or in the same field, The first cohort started with 22 men, the second included 17 women. A wide variety of volunteers, professors, community leaders, business people and professional speakers regularly engage to share their entrepreneurial stories with participants in the program.

BEST is a six-month long program. The first three months are spent on character development to get heads and hearts in the right place, and then students get to develop their own business plan. In partnership with a local university, a class of students visits the prison each Tuesday to consult with BEST program students on their business plans.

Throughout their time BEST participants learn Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and financial literacy and business education principles. A key part of BEST is its public speaking curriculum. With the guidance of local Toastmasters, students learn how to create and deliver a speech, practice effective public speaking and more importantly, learn how to listen.

The Master of Arts in Civic Leadership is a project-based degree that allows students to address the community’s most pressing needs. Students in the program learn through a project-based experience and gain the transferrable skills of problem identification and analysis, cross-sector collaboration, consensus building, strategic planning and execution. 

For more information about the Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, and the Master of Arts in Civic Leadership visit