03/05/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Going From Inmate to Entrepreneur


By Hass Saddique, SWAGG

It wasn't long ago that I was in prison. Now, I'm travelling the country, spreading positive vibes and running a business on my Shopify store.

I grew up in an urban neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, NY. I saw things that kids should not see including drug dealing, and people getting shot and stabbed.

These things go on in so many urban neighborhoods across America that it's almost accepted to a point.

My father, a Vietnam vet, worked his way to becoming a master plumber and my mother was a registered nurse that went on to get her MBA. I split time between both my mother's and father's homes. They always stressed the importance of education and sent me to a private school, which was predominantly filled with white kids. Those kids' parents were married, they lived in nice neighborhoods, and they all had cars. All my friends went to public schools, except me. So I felt different in both environments: home and school. This feeling lasted throughout grammar school as I tried to fit in.

By the time I got to high school, I was an up-and-coming basketball player. My dream, just like millions of kids, was to play at the highest level: the NBA.

I made it to a Division 1 black college in Florida and then went on to play professionally in Argentina. It was a dream come true.

I was only in Argentina for three months when I was cut from the team. I was devastated to go back to the same run-down neighborhoods back home, and see the same people doing the same things as they were when I left years before.

I couldn't find another pro basketball gig - not because I wasn't good enough. I felt I was overlooked. I felt that I had to do something with my life. Basketball was not an option anymore. I had a daughter on the way.

A guy came to me about running guns for him. He said he would pay me $3,000 per gun and I just had to get the guns from Georgia to Buffalo. My awful decision to try this got me a 14-month sentence in federal prison.

While in prison, for the first time in my life, people saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. I began to feel that old familiar feeling that I was different. That feeling had plagued me my entire life, but now feeling different felt great.

I used my time in prison to write scripts, and not long after being released I created SWAGG University, Project SWAGG, and PiNK SWAGG. SWAGG is a acronym for Simply Winning Applying God's Gifts.

I always had a fantasy about creating something in the apparel realm and the TV production industry. About a year after being released from prison, I created SWAGG University, which was a local television production in Buffalo, NY.

Myself and another host competed for who could give the best makeover, or SWAGGover, in each episode. We would ambush young people and give them makeovers for events they had coming up.

I had no previous experience in producing a TV series, so I turned to the Internet to research how to pitch a TV series. The experience did not go as planned and my target networks for the show - BET and MTV - never gave me a chance to pitch it.

I still believed in the show, so I decided to produce a pilot that I could show advertisers to sell them sponsorship and commercial time. The city I'm from is very segregated and has outright racist tendencies when it comes to black people building businesses in an industry dominated by Caucasians.

SWAGG University was new, fresh, and urban. Even with this great idea and pilot, local companies wouldn't meet with me. I hired a white guy named Steve to make calls and set up meetings for me. I knew all I needed was the opportunity to get in the door.

It worked. The same companies that never called me back actually set up meetings with Steve, and the thing was, it was Hass Saddique that walked into the meetings. I was able to get the sponsors and I produced six episodes of SWAGG University and aired it on WBBZ, a Buffalo-based station.

The most important (and sad) lesson I learned in business was to hire white people to make initial contact if you're a black-owned business.

What changed my life forever was filming the finale episode of SWAGG University. I wanted to give a kid with cancer and his family a holiday surprise.

In December 2011, I met a kid named Jason that was battling leukemia. We filmed for three days. I brought over a NHL hockey player and the family told me their story. On day two, I took the family to a hockey game, and on day three I gave Jason a room SWAGGover while he was at school. It was great!

In June 2012, I met another kid in Atlanta named Jarel that was battling brain tumors. I surprised him with tickets to a concert, helped him meet the performer TI, and helped him launch a t-shirt line.

These stories would become a docu-series entitled Project SWAGG, where I would meet kids like Jason and Jarel and give them a platform to tell their story, then help each kid do something EPIC.

I decided to raise the funds to do this by creating a mascot named LEE the pink elephant, and sell it as a stuffed animal with shades. I put our logo on t-shirts, hoodies, and crew necks. That logo would become my PiNK SWAGG apparel line.

In closing, the most important lesson I learned is don't be afraid to be different, fall in love with the journey, and having a team is essential.

Watch the Project SWAGG trailer:


Hass Saddique is the CEO of PiNK SWAGG, which is a unisex lifestyle apparel and accessories company. Their theme is "All Classic All PiNK" and their iconic Lee the Elephant logo characterizes the brand. SWAGG is a acronym for Simply Winning Applying God's Gifts. Besides being a clothing designer, Hass is a single father of two daughters and a content creator.

This year, Shopify's Build A Business Competition is bigger than ever. Shopify is giving away more than $500,000 in cash, prizes and mentorship in its fourth annual competition. Contestants create a store and try to sell the most in their category for a chance to win $50,000 and a VIP trip to NYC to meet their mentor.