NBC Bay Area
Ex-cons are landing top tech jobs in the Bay Area. Stephanie Chuang reports.
From recent college graduates to those who are still trying to bounce back from losing their jobs – finding work has been a big struggle. But there’s one group that’s ahead of the pack – nabbing great Silicon Valley jobs. Who are they?
Men who have been locked up in San Quentin State Prison. From armed robbery to shooting and killing a man, prisoners are taking courses and meeting Silicon Valley leaders inaccessible to people outside prison walls.
For instance, Kenyatta Leal, who spent 19 years behind bars under Three Strikes for an armed robbery and then possession of a firearm, just got released from San Quentin in July. He started his new position at RocketSpace, a tech start-up accelerator based in San Francisco, just two weeks later.
“There are a lot of guys in San Quentin that I know can get out and be successful if they are just given the opportunity,” said Leal. His job offer came before he was even released.
It’s all thanks to The Last Mile, a program founded by Chris Redlitz and wife Beverly Parenti, a venture capitalist couple. Redlitz said the idea first came to him when he was invited to speak at San Quentin. He began to research the prison system. He said what came next was total surprise.
“The fact that 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population is here in the U.S. and it costs us $45,000 per year per inmate.”
Both Redlitz and Parenti said that was the start of their interest, but turned into so much more when they met some of the prisoners.
“Listening to some of the men’s stories, hearing how they articulate and hearing some of the issues that face them,” Parenti began. “And being in a place that I knew that I could help make a difference. That just reached me some place that I realized if I can just make some difference in their lives, it would make a very big difference in their communities, in their families.”
They launched The Last Mile at San Quentin in 2011. It’s a six-month program that teaches entrepreneurial and tech skills, connecting these prisoners with leaders in Silicon Valley who people outside prison walls don’t have access to – from Guy Kawasaki to MC Hammer.
The ultimate day for these men is their Demo Day. The first one took place last year, said Redlitz, with roughly 100 people in attendance to listen to the prisoners’ business pitches, including venture capitalists. He added every man got a standing ovation.
Duncan Logan, CEO of RocketSpace, said he was taken aback by the skill level. Logan is the one who offered Leal the gig at his company when he was still locked up at San Quentin.
“The quality of the pitches was as good as many pitches you see around the Valley. That was the first interesting thing,” said Logan. “The second thing was they were pitching technology companies, internet companies - but none of them had ever used the internet.”
One of those guys was Heracio “Ray” Harts, who spent eight-and-half years at San Quentin, convicted of shooting and killing a man. But that seems forever ago for Harts, who was released in March. He was interning at Rally.org, an online fundraising platform headquartered in San Francisco. Just three months later, he turend that internship into a job.
“I’ve been focused on really rebuilding my life and learning from my bad choices,” said Harts.
Still, those who support The Last Mile acknowledge there’s been criticism for hiring ex-cons instead of college graduates or anyone else who has no criminal history. For Logan, the answer is complex.
“I think we’ve got a lot to learn from Kenyatta,” said Logan. “Our whole business here is about managing an equal system, an environment, managing a community and he has come from a community that manages itself.”
But it goes beyond that for people like Redlitz, Parenti and Logan.
“[Kenyatta] was brought up and born into a bad environment; he became a product of that environment,” Logan continued. “And I would probably argue if 90 percent of the people at RocketSpace were born in that environment, they would probably become a product of that environment as well.”
Redlitz said beyond the fact that he felt prison was a “terrible investment for taxpayers,” was the chance to perpetuate success through a second chance. “We are far from done. This is the beginning of what we want to do.”
For his wife, who admitted she was not a big fan of the idea at first, it didn’t take long for it to became clear this was something she wanted to get behind.
“it was understanding what the impact is on society and that we are spending so much for incarceration than we are for higher education,” said Parenti, the VP of Operations for KickLabs, a San Francisco-based technology accelerator. “That just doesn't make sense and then there’s no opportunity. Pretty much the men at San Quentin are set up for failure because they don't have the tools when they leave.”
Rehabilitative prison programs like The Last Mile have shown results, according to numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), whose research shows the prison university project cut down the recidivism rates. For inmates who graduated the educational program, the rate of recommitting a crime was at about five percent. For a group of comparable inmates who did not complete the university program, the recidivism rate was four times more at 21 percent.
This week, a fifth graduate of The Last Mile is set to walk free. Redlitz said there’s already some movement in getting him an internship at a Silicon Valley start-up. The goal now is to expand to other prisons in and outside of California, talks that are already underway. Redlitz added that the program may also be adopted at Los Angeles County Jail – the largest county jail in the country.
For men like Harts and Leal, there are thoughts that keep them grounded. Thoughts about their brothers still locked up. They became family graduating The Last Mile together, but most haven’t graduated the prison system just yet.
“I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now because there’s some really, really, good solid men who deserve a chance,” Leal explained, tears welling up for the first time in the NBC Bay Area interview. “That's what motivates me on a day-to-day basis.”