Living on opposite ends of the San Francisco Bay area, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and San Quentin State Prison inmates usually are as far apart as two cultures can get. But for a day, the worlds of blue pinstripes and blue denim came together, as a handful of inmates exercised their newfound skills in digital technology by pitching business plans to professionals who one day might fund them.
The five-minute – or so-called “elevator” – pitches were a “Demo Day” final exam for five inmates graduating from the Last Mile Program. The program was developed by former inmates and volunteers at San Quentin with the help of Bay Area venture capitalists to give inmates technical and business skills marketable in the world of high technology.
The 36-week course teaches inmates, some of whom may have last used a cell phone when it was the size of a brick, about QR codes and other digital marketing techniques, as well as basic computer skills. The curriculum also teaches basic business skills and how to transform an idea into a business plan, with classroom academics complemented by group discussions with business writers, entrepreneurs and other mentors.
On Demo Day, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate and California First Lady Anne Gust Brown were joined by several venture capitalists who had volunteered to be a sounding board for the presentations.
“The hope is not just that these five guys get jobs, but that hire people like them as well,” said Cate.
The pitches ranged from businesses for mobile grooming, fashion and fantasy football to after-school programs for at-risk teens and a Facebook-like directory to allow musicians around the world to collaborate on compositions.
The inmates, all of whom are serving life sentences and who have yet to be given a parole date, don’t know when they will get the chance to put their plans into action, but that doesn’t diminish their rehabilitative value.
“Not all of these ideas will see the light of day, but what we asked them to do was think big,” said Chris Redlitz, a San Francisco venture capitalist who co-founded the Last Mile Program with a former inmate. He told a reporter after the event that an investor who had listened to the pitches emailed him saying that he loved the idea of an app for fantasy football fans and that, under other circumstances, it would have been funded.
That doesn’t mean that all of the elevator pitches are stuck on the ground floor.
James Houston’s idea for Teens in Tech is being developed by a volunteer for the Last Mile Program.
“In California, 58 percent of ninth-graders in minority schools don’t go on to graduate, often because they lack social support from adults,” said Houston in his presentation. The program will give those youth two hours a day of software training after school.
A sixth member of the class, Tulio Cardoza, who completed his sentence and has been paroled, has developed Collaborative Benefit with financial support from Redlitz. The job network similar to LinkedIn enables former inmates to list their skills and connect with potential employers. It is being tested by Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based jobs program for former gang members, and by Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon bread-making company founded by a former inmate.
“There is talent behind the walls,” said Redlitz. “You just have to find it and nurture it.”