One by one, the entrepreneurs, clad in crisp blue jeans and armed with
PowerPoint presentations, stood before a roomful of investors and tech
bloggers to explain their dreams of changing the world.
For these exuberant times in Silicon Valley, the scene was familiar; the setting, less so.
the young and ambitious flocking again to northern California to launch
Internet companies, there were signs one recent morning that startup
mania has taken hold even behind the faded granite walls of California's
most notorious prison.
"Live stream has gone mainstream. Mobile
video usage went up and is expected to increase by 28 percent over the
next five years," said Eddie Griffin, who was pitching a music streaming
concept called "At the Club" and happens to be finishing a third stint
for drug possession at San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco,
after spending the last 15 years behind bars.
Griffin was one of
seven San Quentin inmates who presented startup proposals on "Demo Day"
as part of the Last Mile program, an entrepreneurship course modeled on
startup incubators that take in batches of young companies and provide
them courses, informal advice and the seed investments to grow.
to business news website Xconomy, incubator programs - which it tracks -
have tripled in number for each of the past three years, proliferating
from Sao Paulo to Stockholm at a pace that has fueled talk in tech
circles of an "incubator bubble".
Last Mile founder Chris Redlitz,
a local venture capitalist, says his goal was never to seek out a
genuine investment opportunity inside a prison but to educate inmates
about tech entrepreneurship and bridge the knowledge gap between Silicon
Valley's wired elite and the rest of the region's population.
after all, are not allowed to run businesses. They do not have access
to cellphones - much less Apple Inc's latest iPhone developer toolkits -
and they use computers only under close supervision.
A lot to learn
his presentation in San Quentin's chapel, which received a rousing
reception from an audience that included prison warden Kevin R.
Chappell, Griffin told a reporter it was unlikely he would launch his
startup idea immediately after being released this summer.
still have a lot to learn," said the soft-spoken Detroit native. "I've
never used a cellphone. Technology is kind of foreign in this
But to hear the inmates use jargon such as "lean
startup" and "minimum viable product" speaks to an unmistakable truth
about the Bay Area zeitgeist, where startups, for better or worse, have
come to embody upward mobility, ambition, and hustle.
were doing this in the '80s there may have been a different theme or
model," said Wade Roush, Xconomy's chief correspondent. "But in this day
and age, becoming an entrepreneur or starting a business is a form of
Situated on prime waterfront land, San Quentin is
perhaps California's most storied prison and home to the state's only
death row. But it has also kept a longstanding progressive reputation,
boasting a rare college degree-granting program and vibrant arts
The Last Mile accepted 10 inmates out of 50 applicants
for its latest batch. The program, which graduated its first class of
inmates last year, meets twice a week to discuss startups and lasts six
months, although the most recent class took seven months due to a prison
lockdown last year.
Some Last Mile participants, under official
supervision, have also joined the online question-and-answer site Quora
to respond to questions about prison life or describe what it felt like
to commit murder.
The latest batch of startup ideas included a
fitness app that would motivate drug addicts to exercise, a
cardiovascular health organization, a social network for sufferers of
post-traumatic stress disorder, a food waste recycling program, and an
e-commerce site for artists in prison.
the likelihood is not great that these companies will become funded and
succeed, Redlitz said he was also working to place the inmates in jobs
at tech companies after their release.
Rocketspace, a startup
co-working space in downtown San Francisco, has agreed to host an
internship. Rally.org, a crowd-funding site that counts Redlitz among
its investors, said it hoped to begin a program to seek
micro-investments from the public for the inmates' ideas.
in the Demo Day audience was John Collison, the 22-year-old co-founder
of online payments startup Stripe, who noted some stark differences
between the inmates' proposals and the fashionable startups du jour in
"What's frustrating is that all these companies in
the Valley, they're ideas for the 1 or 10 percent," Collison said. "You
have startups like Uber or Taskrabbit, that's like, 'Oh, here's
something to help you find a driver or find someone to clean your
house.' Are they solving real problems?"
The San Quentin inmates
"were talking about urban obesity, or PTSD", Collison said. "It's a
completely different perspective. We actually really need that."
© Thomson Reuters 2013