LIFE program spurs TPFW officer to start sweet company and further education

By Janel Shoun on 12/19/2011


When Jekei Edwards took a job in corrections, she had no idea it would eventually lead her to cupcakes. Strawberry cupcakes; lemon mascarpone; three kinds of chocolate mousse; and more.

It was an unconventional path that led her to establish her own cupcake business in Goodlettsville, Tenn., and it was a path filled with support from unlikely sources, including professors and staff at Lipscomb, a university she knew little of until 2008.

In that year, Edwards was working as a correctional clerical officer at the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPFW) in Nashville, and she got an unusual assignment. Edwards was assigned to watch over the 15 inmates taking courses through Lipscomb University’s onsite program. Each Wednesday, university faculty, as well as 15 traditional students, travel to TPFW to study side-by-side with the inmates. The courses are for-credit and cover general humanities topics such as literature, art history, judicial process and history.

So each Wednesday, Edwards had to sit through a college class. Pretty soon, people noticed the classes were starting to rub off on her.

“Dr. Goode noticed me listening in, and he approached me and asked if I had thought of going back to school,” said Edwards, who had two semesters in 2001 at Tennessee State University (TSU) behind her. “I told him I was working full-time, but he asked what I thought of taking (the Lipscomb) classes with the inmates.”

So Edwards, whose job was to enforce security among the inmates, became a fellow classmate of the inmates, and like practically all the “outside” students who have taken a class in what is called the LIFE Program, Edwards found that watching the inmates’ positive transformation through education was inspiring.

“Just seeing the transformation in them from the day to the evening, the way they look forward to the classes and how they start perking up. They have something to look forward to,” she said. “They encourage the other inmates to take correspondence courses. (Their enthusiasm) extended through me as well. We would study together and share notes, and it was neat to see how I needed them and how they needed me.”

Throughout this time, Edwards was also baking goodies for her co-workers and classmates. Each semester the LIFE program hosts an end-of-the semester party, and Edwards’ sweets were in high demand.

“The inmates knew about my cupcakes because I would bring them in for staff members,” Edwards said. “They wanted to help get my name out there, so they talked to Dr. Goode, and the professors and Lipscomb staff started ordering cupcakes from me for end-of-semester parties.”

Then in the summer of 2010, Lipscomb brought its fundamentals of business class to TPFW, and Edwards found herself working with Lipscomb staff member Christin Shatzer to prepare a business plan for a dessert catering business.

Edwards outlined a plan to run a catering company out of her home, offering a line of cupcakes for $1.25 per cake.  She takes pride in providing lots of flavor for a little cost, and has developed unusual cupcakes flavors such as banana pudding, snicker doodle and lemon ricotta. The company even has an unconventional name -- Iekej: The Sweet Company (ikej – Jekei’s name spelled backwards).

“In business class, I learned how to market my cupcakes, how to get investors and what types of investment I can receive and how to think about overhead. That’s how I was able to set a good price and know I could make a quality cupcake without going into the red,” Edwards said. “I ended up with an almost 20-page business plan. The people who are interested (in investing in the company) are interested because I had a business plan ready to go. It’s proven to be good.”

Now Edwards – surely one of the most unique Lipscomb alumnae ever – has left TPFW with 21 college credits to transfer to TSU, where she is now in school full-time. And on the side, she is running a thriving catering business. “People I have never met are calling me now,” she said.

“I knew very little about Lipscomb (prior to joining the LIFE program), but I love you guys,” Edwards said. “The people who know me have really taken an interest in me. Knowing that they are there to help me with my school and my business, changed my view about education at the prison. The LIFE classes were a joy to be in.”

The Lipscomb LIFE Program recently announced that it will be offering associate’s degrees to the TPFW inmates who complete the required 63 hours of coursework. Begun in 2007, the LIFE program provides for-credit college education to 45 women at the prison through grants and private donations. The goal is to improve the inmates’ self-confidence, life skills and general education so that they can be a positive influence both within the prison environment and to society at large when they are paroled.