The ambitious entrepreneur who found himself in jail for drug dealing – Wales Online

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When Ryan Stephens arrived in prison on his first night, he closed his cell door and slept for 12 hours straight.

He was just 21, was facing a nine-month stint behind bars for dealing drugs and was in a “depressive state of mind”.

But even then, he knew he wasn’t on a path to self-destruction; he’d just made some terrible decisions under enormous pressure. Even the judge who sentenced him to prison said he’d been “na├»ve”, he said.

Ryan hadn’t written himself off, but he was worried others might. In fact, that is one of the greatest fears for many people inside, he said.

“You do think ‘I’m not going to get a job’ or ‘Will I be seen as a scumbag’ or ‘Will I be able to travel abroad’, he said.

“But 90% of what you think is going to happen is in your head, and isn’t really real. As soon as I went in there [prison] I closed the door. I thought this is day one. Every day in here is one day closer to getting out. And every day is a day to grow and learn. I made that decision straight away.”

It’s clearly worked because the enthusiastic entrepreneur is now a mindset and accountability coach based in Swansea and is a big advocate of building mental and physical resilience. In his spare time, he’s an ultra marathon runner, as well as a keen surfer and advocate of cold-water immersion therapy.

ambitious entrepreneur

“We are always reflecting on our lives and lessons are always hidden in that reflection,” said the 27-year-old sagely. In no way whatsoever does he sound like he’s preaching but rather softly encouraging a different perspective on life.

His route to prison was not the typical route for someone caught dealing drugs: the ambitious entrepreneur had already set up his own business – a tattoo studio with a business partner – and was living a comfortable and safe existence in Swansea with his family.

He’d flown through school – at Swansea’s Daniel James Comprehensive – and went on to study business at college after his GCSEs. His dream was to set up his own business and so that’s what he did with his tattoo studio.

“That was the first time I was being creative, it set me alight,” he said about his studies. “It was a big pivotal moment. Then with the tattoo business, I had a good income for someone aged just 19 and respect from my peers.”

But financial difficulties in the business crept up on Ryan’s mental health and while he’s careful to say he wasn’t depressed, he was very much in a “depressive state of mind”.

“I got into my own head about it,” he said, not blaming anyone specifically. “This cloud came over me. I thought I was going to be seen as a failure.”

Daniel James Comprehensive

Feeling like he had no way out or no other option, he turned to selling drugs as a way of trying to create a sense of financial security.

It was only meant to be for a couple of months but naively, he walked into a nightclub in Swansea and was stop searched and immediately arrested after being found with a stash. The following weeks and months are a bit of a blur as he went to court. But he does remember sleeping for 12 hours straight during his first two nights inside.

“The stress had built up,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Thereafter I was just focused on learning and moving on. I knew I’d made bad choices under stress.”

He had already decided to stop dealing at the time he was caught and believes that part of his subconscious probably wanted to get caught: “It wasn’t making me happy, it never felt right, it felt like I was being disingenuous with myself as a person,” he said with the benefit of hindsight. “But I was so caught up in everything that was going on I didn’t recognise that.”

By this time, he’d left his tattoo business and was working part time in a call centre. In prison, he had time to “sit there and reflect on it”.

“I look back at that period and I don’t recognise that person, he said about himself. His own experiences have proved inspirational for many who’ve found themselves in a similar situation.

“If someone wants to change and turn their life around, the option is there,” he explained. “It’s about looking at life with the people you’re surrounding yourself with, the books you’re reading. It’s easy to hang around with negative people.

“If you want to make a change, it’s got to start with you.”

Drug policy of the United States

For Ryan, it started with making the most of every opportunity. He signed up to as many courses as he could in prison and when he was freed, he had qualifications in counselling and substance misuse.

He faced the same uncertainty leaving prison as he had entering nine months beforehand, but undeterred he went straight to work.

“I didn’t know how people were going to be or how things were going to pan out,” he said. “I used it as a clean slate. I knew I had to go and find work and earn an income.”

Although on that first day as a free man, he did put his car back on the road and catch up with friends and family. Within three days, he had a job. And while he admits he “bounced around” jobs for a bit, he didn’t stop working.

Working for a drugs charity, he ended up delivering workshops back in the same prison he’d spent time in.

From there he did a short-lived stint as an entrepreneurship officer at Swansea University but he quickly realised the job wasn’t for him.

“I’m helping people but I need to be helping people on my own terms,” he said. And so he set up Ideas and Beers – a podcast hosting people from all walks of life, including business, self-development, technology, fitness, health and well-being. And, during lockdown, the Wet Bandits – a voluntary sea-dipping community. He’s also raised thousand of pounds for charity with extreme physical challenges.

enthusiastic entrepreneur

His mission is simple: “I want to make sure someone can take at least one bit of positivity from it, because that’s really easy to achieve,” he said. Based on the testimonials he’s received, he’s helping more than one person at a time. The Wet Bandits especially, which gained a following during the uncertainty that came with the coronavirus pandemic, has been rewarding.

You can read more about how wild swimming helped some people through lockdown here.

“People have told me they don’t think they’d still be here if they hadn’t of discovered the Wet Bandits,” he said.

Ryan might only be 27 but he talks with real empathy about how he works with people to help them overcome their individual obstacles in life.

“I was always the person people approached for help,” he said about his early years growing up. “People came to me and now that gives me fulfilment, job satisfaction and a real sense of purpose. I was always trying to be this entrepreneur before, but I never had a reason why, I had no real values attached to my business ideas.”

He knows he’s lucky to have the support of his family and friends, including his mum and dad, who stood by him through it all.

“I don’t want to settle for stuff that doesn’t make me happy,” he continued. “Hardship makes you who you are but only if you look at it in a positive light; as lessons and stepping stones rather than anchors holding you back.”

Starting out after prison and setting up his own business after his last job at Swansea University was scary, he admitted.

“I really did go out on a whim setting up as a mindset coach, I knew full well it was a nightmare, financially, but I was determined to stay the path. I trusted myself. It was daunting and it still is.”

Now he works with clients and is a regular speaker and delivers workshops to various businesses and organisations. He is still resolutely committed to The Wet Bandits and Ideas and Beers, rolling out his podcast to encourage more debate around self growth and mental resilience.

Sharing his own experiences gives people something to relate to, he said, and the confidence that other people have turned corners. But none of that was possible until he’d forgiven himself and accepted the choices he’d made.

“You’ve got to have accepted it and forgiven yourself or other people that you might blame for getting you there,” he said with his customary thoughtfulness.

“It’s my overall mission now to positively impact as many people’s lives as possible, so they don’t fall into the same trap as I did and think that they can’t get out of it.

“What I’ve learned is mistakes we make or bad things that happen to us are only a weight or hinder to us if we choose to look at them that way. I think if we choose to look at them as a stepping-stone to a brighter future then it can make all the difference in the world.”