On Sept. 25, 1995, Kenyatta Leal was a 26-year-old convicted felon who had just been told by a judge that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.
Leal had been arrested for possession of a firearm after two armed robbery convictions. His third arrest made him an offender of California’s three strikes law, which mandates that state courts give harsher sentences to those who have been convicted of three or more serious offenses.
When the steel doors closed behind him for the first time at San Diego County Jail, it was “by far the worst moment of the worst day of my entire life,” Leal wrote in a post on Quora.
Little did Leal know then, it would take 18 years for a law to change his sentence, and luckily, an entrepreneurship program for prisoners would prepare him to re-enter the real world.
Leal spent more than a decade in prison, like most inmates, angry at his circumstances and devoting no time to developing his skills. He blamed the judge, legal system, and society for his fate. After years of unsuccessfully filing appeals, Leal met fellow prisoner David Lewis, a former gang leader and drug addict, who spent 17 years in prison, turned his life around, and became a “mentor, advocate, and model for change.” After Lewis’ release, he often returned to prison to help facilitate rehabilitation programs for other inmates and served as a powerful mentor for Leal.
It was men like Lewis who helped Leal change his way of thinking. “I started thinking about how I was going to live my life, how I would get up in the morning, how I would treat people,” Leal tells Business Insider. “[If I got released], I knew that I would have to work extremely hard and dig a lot further than most people actually have to.”
Leal started taking classes at Patten University through the Prison University Project, a nonprofit that supports college programs at San Quentin State Prison, where he had been transferred to serve his long-term sentence. In 2010, he graduated as class valedictorian with an Associate of Arts degree.
It was also around this time that Leal was accepted into an entrepreneurship prison program called The Last Mile, which trains select participants in technological skills to increase their chances of employment upon release. The program was started by husband-and-wife team Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, who are both investors based in Silicon Valley.
When Redlitz and Parenti launched The Last Mile, they had no idea what kind of impact the program would have on rehabilitation. They just knew that the current rehabilitation programs for inmates weren’t effective. The idea came after Redlitz’s trip to San Quentin where he gave a talk about business and entrepreneurship to prisoners. He was surprised by how engaging and smart the inmates were and realised most of them would have serious issues integrating back into the job market simply because they have no idea how much technology has changed the world.
Leal was one of the first candidates to get accepted into the entrepreneurship program, which involves twice weekly sessions over a six-month period. It trains participants on social media skills, which include understanding Twitter, blogging, and Quora. To get into the program, candidates must apply, be recommended by their peers, and are reviewed by administrators. The program accepts 15 applicants in a given period. As of December 2013, there have been 13 graduates and there are 30 currently enrolled in The Last Mile.
Since launching in 2011, six alumni of the program have been released from prison, and Redlitz tells us they are all working. Besides Leal, other success stories include Tulio Cardozo, who was released in October 2011 and interned as a business analyst for venture capital firm KickLabs. Afterward, Cardozo started his own consulting platform, Collaborative Benefit, which works like a LinkedIn for prisoners and those who were formerly incarcerated.
Another graduate, Heracio “Ray” Harts, who spent more than eight years in prison and was released in March 2013, became employed by crowdfunding site Rally.org in San Francisco. A few months later, Harts was at the offices of Quora pitching his first entrepreneurial project for Rally called “Paving the Road to Success,” which sought $5,000 to provide basic necessities for his fellow parolees.
“Before The Last Mile, I was going to be an electrician [if I was ever paroled],” Leal tells us. “But when the program came along, I realised there’s a whole world out there I wasn’t aware of. When I was incarcerated, the Internet was just starting to take off, so I didn’t really get too much of an understanding for it. Once I started taking classes through The Last Mile sessions, all of those questions were answered.”
In the first two months of the program, volunteers explain to inmates how technology has transformed in recent years. Some inmates have been locked up for decades and have no idea the impact technology now has on everything we encounter. While in class, the inmates are encouraged to tweet and participant in Quora threads in order to introduce themselves to the world.
In 2012, Leal was recognised as giving the best Quora Answer of the Year when he answered a question about what it’s like to serve a long prison sentence.
Redlitz says participating in these forums can become a “living resume” for inmates because it allows them to tell their stories and allows potential employers a chance to get to know them. He’s witnessed firsthand how storytelling has helped inmates. One example is a man named Tommy Winfrey who responded to a Quora thread that asked “How does it feel to murder someone?” In his deeply personal response, Winfrey reveals how necessary he felt as a former drug dealer to take someone’s life to uphold his reputation. Since then, Winfrey feels “immense sorrow” and says that he never wants “anyone else to feel the way I do.”
“[Winfrey] was a very introverted guy with very low confidence,” says Redlitz. “Now he’s a class leader. He’s so animated and so articulate.” Winfrey has also been approached by the creators of TEDTalks about potentially sharing his story to the world from inside San Quentin.
The last four months of the program focus on developing business plans and pitching skills.
“We do ‘Shark Tank’-style sessions,” says Redlitz, referring to the ABC pitch show featuring investors Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran. “It builds [the participants'] confidence. They are pitching in front of everyone else. They learn to collaborate. A lot of them have never worked with other people.”
One of the entrepreneurs that Redlitz invited as a spectator was Duncan Logan, founder and CEO of co-working space company RocketSpace. Logan didn’t know what to expect, but like Redlitz, was positively surprised by the inmates he met. “I was blown away very, very quickly by the individuals there,” Logan tells Business Insider. “There were seven men in that group and all seven of them were impressive.”
“The [inmates] were so serious about their businesses pitches. The dedication that they had in their businesses and pitches — it was one of those moving moments,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of talent in [prison], and it’s all just wasted.”
Logan met Leal during his first trip in 2011, and the two quickly formed a bond. Leal, now in his 40s, was pitching his idea for a fantasy football-like app that would also serve as a social community for football fans. Logan was impressed by the inmate’s drive. When he left, Leal said to him, “If I ever get out of here, I just want that chance.” But the two never thought Leal would be released from prison — at least not any time soon.
“Kenyatta is a really unique individual,” says Logan. “If you put 100 entrepreneurs or CEOs into a room with [Kenyatta], I think 99% of them would say they want to hire him.”
Despite everyone’s expectations, California adopted Proposition 36 in November 2012, which revised the three strikes law and authorised re-sentencing for those who were sentenced to life in prison over a non-violent crime.
Leal received a release date for early 2013. When Logan found out, he decided to give Leal a chance as a full-time intern for RocketSpace.
On July 17, the newly released man started his internship at RocketSpace. Four months later, he was hired as the company’s full-time operations associate.
“When you interview people for a job or whatever, the really great people always jump out at you,” says Logan. “It’s different for every person. There was an absolute genuineness about Kenyatta that said he would do whatever it takes to get things done.”
Since its beginning, The Last Mile program has now expanded to L.A. County jails and plans to head next to the state of Michigan.
As for Leal, he tells Business Insider that he hopes to one day lead The Last Mile program in prisons all over the country. “I would not be sitting here today if it weren’t for the opportunities,” he says. “I want to create opportunities for the people who really need them.”