A VC Helps Prisoners Start Over, With Startups

outofsfsan-quentin-19991Lately, the Bay Area tech community has come under fire for being overly detached from the broader community. But no one could accuse Chris Redlitz, a local venture capitalist, of being elitist.

Three years ago, Redlitz cofounded the non-profit Last Mile program — an entrepreneurship course for inmates at California’s San Quentin prison. Today, Redlitz, who also cofounded Transmedia Capital in San Francisco (it has backed NewsleRap Genius, and TrialPay among others) is busily teaching volunteers how to replicate the model at L.A. County Jail. A state prison in Michigan is next, according to Redlitz, who says there’s “a lot of interest from different facilities. The challenging is managing it.”

I talked with Redlitz last week about what’s driving him:

Why start the program?

I live in Marin [County], pretty close to San Quentin, and know people who were doing mentoring there – it has a [college degree-granting] program – so I went in and met some of the guys. I’d never been in a prison before and had the same perception of it that many have, that it’s ominous and everyone there is Charles Manson. I realized how wrong I was and I went home to my wife and said, “I think we could do something inside.”

Last Mile has been cited as evidence of startup mania. Are you turning prisoners into founders or providing them with basic business skills?

Several former inmates have created their own companies since Last Mile was started. One, whose goal was to become a programmer, now has his own Web consulting business and is totally self-sufficient. Another started a project inside [prison], a teen tech hub, and is now growing it in Richmond, [Calif., 15 miles northeast of San Francisco]. We want [former inmates] to go through an internship [first] so if they want to start a business eventually, they’ll have some experience. But there’s no anxiousness that, “You have to start a business.” Some of these people have been incarcerated for 15 to 20 years, so it’s a process to re-acclimate and get some confidence.

The program involves twice weekly meetings over six months with up to 15 inmates who then present at a Demo Day. Who comes?

We had 100 people from the outside during our last Demo Day, including 12 VCs. The room holds about 300, so the rest were invited inmates. Some [investors] said the pitches were as good or better than they’d heard on the outside.

Do the most successful candidates have a particular profile?

I’m not sure yet to be honest. There are people who’ve been through the program who I thought were never going to make it. Others who we think are shoo-ins struggle. They’re from all different ethnicities and economic backgrounds, though we don’t accept anyone [who has committed] crimes against women and children and other things that we consider less appropriate.

What about murder?

We have guys who are in for murder. I think it’s important not to judge all crimes the same. Many of the guys have been in gangs, so you have to look at that background and where they come from.

We do require that they’ve graduated or are close to graduating from the prison’s university program. Otherwise, it’s just like in the real world: Some people don’t know they have special talents and can be effective entrepreneurs. Maybe these guys are A Type personalities. They were just selling the wrong stuff.

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