Tulsa FATE event highlights strengths and weaknesses of Oklahoma's entrepreneurship ecosystem

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 07/14/2022, 6:54 PM
Edited: 07/14/2022, 9:36 PM

(TULSA, Okla.) VNN and Big If True's first "From Adversity To Entrepreneurship" in-person learning session was held at She Brews Coffee House in Tulsa on June 18.

The event was attended by representatives of VNN, Big If True, Partner Tulsa, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and local entrepreneurs who have overcome adversity. 

After a round of introductions, Jason Hall with ODMHSAS kicked off the conversation, describing his work of allocating resources to certified sober living facilities to aid in recovery and reentry. 

Reentry is the transition from life in prison to life in the community.

As Hall shared his own life experiences before coming to work for ODMHSAS, the candid conversation took a vulnerable turn and remained that way until the end. 

He said he left Tulsa as an addict and a fugitive, and later became an entrepreneur himself but lacked the resources to make his business an actual business.

After joining ODMHSAS, Hall said he helped people get sober and find employment at local stores, but something was missing. 

“When you start to look at long term outcomes, they were not good,” Hall said. “People were not staying in those positions, and so people were not able to sustain the housing that they were getting because that type of employment is not for everyone. Working a set schedule like that is not for everyone. Having a boss is not for everyone.” 


Attendees agreed that recovering addicts need a purpose in life, not just a path to sobriety. Passion is important. 

Hall said his department currently lacks an entrepreneurial focus and they are interested in identifying more resources.  

Michelle Barnett shared a list of entrepreneurship resources through Partner Tulsa, a local economic development entity that helps direct funding to other community organizations in Tulsa. 

She told us, given Tulsa’s well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem, they are currently focusing on underserved populations. 

Barnett also addressed some of the harsh realities of entrepreneurship, like the fact that most small businesses will not turn a profit for one to two years. 

“Not a lot of people can deal with that,” Barnett said. “Can handle that. Most people have to be working another job to make their life work until their other business really takes off.” 

And it takes money to make money. 

Tulsa entrepreneur Maria Morris of Carabelle’s Eats and Treats said funding has been one of her biggest barriers. Not only is she a woman and a minority, two categories that have historically been granted less access to capital, but Morris is also a felon

She told the group she completed the Kitchen 66 food entrepreneur program at Mother Road Market but hit a snag getting off the ground. 

“One of the people who came in and talked to us was Kiva,” Morris said. “And so a lot of my classmates were able to get a Kiva loan. Everybody’s getting their $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, you know. And I apply and they’re like, oh. You have a felony. We can’t fund you.” 

Attendees discussed the fear background checks instill when people are applying for new opportunities. Felons also have difficulty opening bank accounts. Often times crimes committed are substance use disorder or poverty related. 

Holding entrepreneur community support groups and looking for volunteers with similar missions were decided as low-cost solutions to support small business owners. 

The lack of trauma informed entrepreneurial resources was identified as one of the major barriers to small business ownership, and Barnett said Partner Tulsa is in the very early stages of plans to address that. 

As for mental health services in general, attendees said Oklahoma does not have the capacity or funding set aside to provide residents with the on-demand care they need, such as QR codes to set up appointments online and in-home services. 

“Like my daughter, she has CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder),” Hall said. “From having parents that were addicts. She’s seen her mom nodding out. She’s seen her dad come home stabbed and bleeding from drug deals that have gone wrong. She’s seventeen and she can’t pick up the phone and order a pizza. Because of the anxiety that comes with that. She could never pick up the phone and make an appointment. That’s not going to happen any time soon for her.” 

Lack of continuity of care is also an issue, as caseworkers and other providers leave to find better job opportunities elsewhere.  

Hall admitted to working two other jobs in addition to his job at ODMHSAS.  

Next came discussion of the treatment itself. Attendees shared their experiences of overcoming mental health problems with the help of EMDR counseling and neurofeedback treatment and said these effective treatments should be funded over prescription medication when appropriate. 

Local entrepreneur Julie Bennett said she ended up in a shelter after leaving her abusive ex-husband. After joining the sex trade and becoming addicted to substances to cope, Bennett said neurofeedback treatment saved her life and got her back on the right track. 

The lack of access in more rural communities was identified as another major barrier to entrepreneurship statewide. 

“There’s not as many resources, and there’s not as many jobs that pay a living wage,” Hall said. “They don’t have the access to these opportunities just to learn about what is available.” 

Hall said for some people working odd jobs in a small town, there’s probably not any hope out there for anything different. 

“Teaching people that it’s worthwhile, and that it’s possible,” Hall said. “And they’re not leaving their community behind by doing something better for themselves. That is the hardest part of direct care.”

Find VNN's FATE list of resources here.

This story is part of VNN's Community Voices series, dedicated to reporting diverse perspectives of social issues. 


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