A New Beginning
In 2011, I started Marc Nelson Denim, a designer clothing and lifestyle brand specializing in small-batch, limited designs. By 2015, I was heralded in the community as an entrepreneurial leader and role model, and in May of that year I was presented with the Pinnacle Minority-Owned Business Excellence Award from the Chamber of Commerce - one of the city’s highest honors. Knoxville celebrated and trusted me.
By June, I was sitting in the back of a police cruiser, in handcuffs.
You see, I’d been leading a double life; I was hiding the dark secret that I’d been running an illegal gambling operation for a decade. The money was impossible to walk away from, and I was addicted to the adrenaline rush. I’d grown up struggling to find my next meal, or clothes to wear to school. Now I had enough “income” to become an entrepreneur, and own all the material possessions I could dream of.
In fact, starting Marc Nelson was my exit strategy. I was convinced I’d get the clothing business off the ground and step away from the gambling. But I kept putting it off… until it was too late.
In 2016, I was sentenced to 33 months in prison, serving 14. The words “a humbling experience” can’t describe my time while incarcerated. I had to get permission to use the bathroom, was told what to eat, and when to eat it.
At the time, I had a 4-month-old and a 15-year-old entering her freshman year of High School. I felt like a failure as a father even as my teenage daughter stood by my side. And I didn't believe Marc Nelson would survive. The jobs I’d created in my local community, the pride we had inspired with the quality of our products made locally; I had gambled with my business and those who believed in me, and lost.
Just after entering prison I tore my Achilles tendon. Frightened, and in pain, I had a confrontation with God. He said to me, “What do you think success is, anyway? Why did you think that was the answer?” At that moment, I knew the only path to peace was to find happiness not from external sources, but in my own skin.
In 2018, I returned to Knoxville, but my journey wasn’t over. I was on probation for three years. My freedom was still compromised; I turned in a monthly report of how much money I had made and spent, where I lived and with whom, and other personal details. Each time I wanted to travel outside of the eastern district of Tennessee, I would have to ask permission - and that was limited to once a month.
My probation ended on February 28th, 2021. I can’t describe the changes that have taken place because I’m still in the midst of growing, adjusting, and healing.
Don't misunderstand me, I'm relieved that it's over, and excited for the future. I now realize how much I've taken freedom for granted, and what I learned is this: if you live life for yourself, it's easy to get off track. I realize that time spent with your children is more valuable than money spent on them. The richness of life lies not in financial wealth, but in making sound decisions that will leave a legacy for your family and bring positivity to the world.
I’m thankful for the many people who stuck by my side from day one. My daughter's mother, who faithfully brought my youngest to see me every other weekend for more than a year. My Knoxville community, who never gave up on me, and embraced me upon my return home. My friends, including the last remaining Marc Nelson employee who kept the doors open while I was gone.
I’m back, and I’m making the most of this second chance. And now it’s time to thank you: my customers, for wearing Marc Nelson Denim garments with a smile and sense of pride. I still battle my inner demons, and most likely will for awhile. But life is much simpler now without secrets, and though I’m exhausted emotionally, I’m a whole person again.
We at Marc Nelson Denim had accomplished so much before; with faith, and strength of character, I can only imagine where life will lead us now.
Thanks for taking the journey with me.