I swear I’m not guilty. But yes, I was super excited and honored to be among the guest for the Demo Day of The Last Mile.
The Last Mile is an entrepreneurship program, dedicated to prisoners who are aspiring entrepreneurs. It provides them with mentorship, resources to learn about technology and startups world. The aim is to reduce the rate of recidivism by providing inmates with a real formation and a goal.
Once we were cleared from the four big doors and the three IDs check, I finally entered in the Saint Quentin Prison. SQ is reputed to be a high security prison, where some of the most dangerous criminal in California are jailed and has the most populous “death row”. SQ is also known to be one of the most progressive prison in the US, where 75 programs of reintegration are followed by committed inmates. (Learn more about Saint Quentin on Wikipedia)
Note that we were walking in with nothing else than IDs (my passport where the ranger had hard time to pronounce my name) and some business cards (No iphone, No Macbook, crazy).
Visiting Alcatraz was already something unique, but be in a real prison… first sights, the place looks peaceful and well ordered, a path with a well sheared grass and nice fountains in the middle.
Then we walked in the chapel, where a dozen of inmates where already seated, all in blue jacket jeans and baggies. Some of them formed as a group started to play some really good piece of jazz. It made the place cozier. After few words from Chris Redlitz, founder of The Last Mile (also founder of Kicklabs), I had my first shock : 2 rappers came on stage to deliver a clear, peaceful, smart and well written rap. The main message was on how to seize the opportunity of a second chance. First standing ovation. True artists!
Then, the 7 aspiring startups founders gave their 5 minutes pitches… and that made another 7 standing ovations! I have been involved in the startup community for over 4 years, and have seen maybe over 500 pitches… those 7 are ranked in my top 30. Why? Because they had everything a public pitch requires:
- strong vision
- clear execution plan
- viable business model
- an amazing passion
Ok, they might lack some “secret sauce” or some “proprietary algorithms” here… but well, who cares? Who can blame them? Most of them have never seen an iPhone, but they were all including Mobile App in their business. Some of them, never used the Internet, but they already have the sense of online distribution and virality. They did better than some 500 startups or Y Combinator companies, to be honest.
Each of the presenters have been involved in the Last Mile program for 6 months, to build from scratch everything. They received visit from mentors like Guy Kawasaki, Brian Solis or successful startups founders from Yelp, Stripe, Rally etc. So they had only 6 months, to first understand what was going on outside, and then imagine a business that integrates both technology, which they had to learn about from books (no computer allowed at SQ), and a social impact.
The diversity of the projects was reflecting the diversity of each future CEO’s background. Truly amazing presentations and business ideas from people that are not considered to be citizen today… but might be creating jobs for their country tomorrow !
After the pitches we had about an hour to talk with members of the program, but also other inmates involved in the life of SQ. I had the chance to discuss longly with the presenters, but also with those fantastic rappers. I also met this former engineer at Nasa, who will be spending another 15 years in prison, but who is a columnist for the SQ Newspaper and a brilliant guy. He asked me to explain how QR works, how people can get connected remotely on tablets and was amazed when I talked about Google Glasses.
I remember having this discussion with a friend about why entrepreneurs and prisoners are close minded: both have the taste of the risk. When you start a company you have this one minute craziness, where you think that nothing can stop you reaching your goals. I never did, but I’m pretty sure, that you have the exact same feeling when you are about to rob a bank! That’s why, inmates today can make great entrepreneurs tomorrow, (Forbes has covered the topic few months ago). Hopefully the new graduates from TLM will!
I realized while talking with them, and spending time listening to their aspirations, how lucky I was. It gaves me a 1000% more motivation to build greater things, to have more impact, to change more things… I thank all of these “Men in Blue” for that.
I’ll do my best to help and be involved in some way with them. My first commitment is to have the rap group make a corporate song for Capseo.
I guess I’ll be spending some more hours in prison 🙂
Great article about the demo day on Techcrunch