Kenyatta Leal spent almost 19 years in San Quentin prison in Marin County, Calif., for possession of a firearm.
While he was behind bars, where prisoners had no access to computers, the world changed dramatically: The internet became a huge part of our lives, smartphones hit the market, and generations of tech startups were born, grew and struggled to make it big in Silicon Valley.
'One of the mantras in Silicon Valley is that we have this ability to dust ourselves off and start over again and failure is not necessarily a negative.'- Chris Redlitz, co-founder of The Last Mile
Since being released into this daunting, new technology-driven world in July 2013, Leal has blended right into it. He now works as a team leader of Campus Services at RocketSpace, a San Francisco tech startup that offers office space, workshops and other services to fledgling tech startups.
Leal's transition from prison to the technology world was catalyzed by a program called The Last Mile, founded by venture capitalist Chris Redlitz.
Redlitz, managing partner of Transmedia Capital in San Francisco, said he came up with the idea for the program after being invited to speak to San Quentin prisoners about business and entrepreneurship a few years ago.
"The response I got and the general interest and enthusiasm was overwhelming," he told CBC Radio's Spark in an interview that airs Sunday. "It was probably one of the most engaged audiences that I’d ever spoken to."
Redlitz and his wife, Beverly Parenti, decided to create a business and entrepreneurial training program for prisoners, focused on technology.
"The guys that are coming out have a lot of challenges to overcome. We wanted to mitigate the technology challenge as one area that they could at least be well versed in," Redlitz said.
He also thinks that tech startups in Silicon Valley are natural partners for the program.
"One of the mantras in Silicon Valley is that we have this ability to dust ourselves off and start over again and failure is not necessarily a negative," he said. "The fact that these guys coming out are rebuilding their personal brands is pretty natural in Silicon Valley."
Pitching a dream business
During the program, prisoners learn from books, videos and guest speakers about how the world has changed technologically. Then they are asked to dream up and plan a business. At the end of the program, they pitch their ideas to potential employers.
"Whether or not the businesses ever see the light of day, what these guys really do is they gain a lot of knowledge and confidence through the process that will help them become a lot more employable," Redlitz said.
That was how Leal caught the attention of Duncan Logan, founder and CEO of RocketSpace. Following Leal's demo day pitch, Logan offered him a paid internship.
Leal said Logan and his team "embraced me and [have] given me every possible tool I need to be successful."
Other graduates of the program have managed to get internships and jobs at companies such as KickLabs tech incubator, mobile payments startup Ribbon and innovation software maker Mindjet.
Leal recently returned to prison to offer support to the some of the Last Mile program participants who came after him.
"I could see the smiles on their faces and the hope in their eyes," he recalled.
Leal said the main thing that holds many people back after being released from prison is a lack of opportunity.
"The Last Mile provides a ton of opportunities," he added. "It's those opportunities that are going to make a difference in a lot of people's lives."
Redlitz is currently expanding the program to other prison systems in California and Michigan.