Stanford gives ex-cons boost in starting businesses

Project ReMADE partners ex-cons with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and business executives

con-stanford-remadeTed Stanton lives in a 120-square-foot subsidized room in the Tenderloin, which he has converted into an incubator for his candy startup, Good Karma Karamels.

There’s barely room to sleep among his kitchen equipment, where the 63-year-old Vietnam veteran beta-tests new chocolates and dreams of reinventing himself from a guy who just served a decade in prison to an entrepreneur in a city where anything is possible.

“I want to have wooden candy pushcarts on the sidewalks of San Francisco,” said Stanton, who honed his skills in the prison bakery.

He has reason to be confident. Stanford University is rooting for him.

In May, Stanton graduated with five other formerly incarcerated adults from Project ReMADE, a 12-week program created by Stanford law students that aims to turn ex-convicts into entrepreneurs. The program matches former prisoners with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and business executives, and with students from Stanford’s law and graduate business schools, who mentor the ex-inmates to become small-business owners.

“Stanford brings social capital to people who don’t have … the networks that you and I and everyone else leans on and takes for granted,” said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, who oversees Project ReMADE. “We’re here to open doors for them.”

(Next page: How the program works)

8 spots per year

The class is limited to eight people a year who come highly recommended by the Reentry Council of San Francisco, a consortium of city and county law enforcement, public health and government agencies that assists parolees. Nonprofits, probation officers and Stanford alumni also suggest candidates.

Students are encouraged to focus on their futures, not their pasts, and refrain from talking about their crimes.

Applicants to Project ReMADE must be currently working or in school, have a high school diploma or GED, and have been out of jail or prison for at least a year. Most important, they must have a business idea.

Stanton was paired with an intellectual property lawyer and two Stanford students who helped him craft a mission statement and figure out funding, price points and a marketing plan. He had just completed the six-month CHEFS culinary training program run by the Episcopal Community Services in San Francisco when he was chosen for ReMADE.

“My mentors are a miracle,” Stanton said. “We talked about costs, how much do you charge and who do you sell to and how do you promote it? My passion is making candy, so I hadn’t really thought about the other stuff.”

Through his mentor connections, Stanton has shared his small-batch caramels at birthday and dinner parties on the Peninsula. New friends are helping him build a website, and meanwhile he is perfecting his recipes and giving candies to neighbors, to workers at Project Open Hand, where he volunteers, and to the employees at Hayes Valley Bakeworks, where he works part time.

“If you want a job, you have to make a job. No one is going to hand one to you,” said Stanton. “You have to give things away if you want things to come to you.”

Starting with a class paper

Project ReMADE was started three years ago by first-year law student Angela McCray, who was assigned to write a paper with suggestions to reduce California’s 67 percent recidivism rate.

“The main indicator of whether a person returns to prison or jail is employment, and there are all these barriers to getting a job if you have a criminal record,” said McCray, who is now a corporate attorney in New York.

She and Mukamal designed Project ReMADE and sent an e-mail blast to the Stanford alumni network to find volunteer mentors.

Since then, 19 ex-cons have gone through the program. Fourteen have graduated, and 10 are running their own businesses. (Three dropped out, and two have yet to present their business plan.)

One woman turned her prison upholstery skills into a business making jewelry, leather wallets and pillows from scrap metal, old jeans and other recyclables. She set up a table at the ReMADE graduation in May and sold $400 worth of her handcrafts.

Another graduate is now managing and promoting Bay Area musicians. One ReMADE student is working on a clothing line geared toward the queer community, and another graduate, Tyrone Mullins, was honored in June at the White House as a “Champion for Change,” for starting a Bay Area recycling business that now employs 18 people, many of them parolees.

“I applied to like 20 or 30 places after I got out of prison … hotels, McDonald’s, Macy’s, doughnut shops, Safeway, Jamba Juice, everywhere along Market Street and Church Street … no one called me back,” said Mullins, who served a two-year prison sentence.

(Next page: Preventing further crime)

A much-needed break

In a moment of desperation, he said, he even considered returning to crime, until someone gave him a break. The nonprofit Rubicon Programs found him temporary work installing solar panels at several San Francisco housing projects. One day, one of the property owners mentioned his frustration with the overflowing trash bins in the complex courtyards. There were no compost or recycling bins on site, and everything was getting tossed in the trash. Mullins offered to sort it and truck out the recyclables. The property owner’s monthly garbage bill was cut in half, down to $14,000, and Mullins had his business: Green Streets. He now has contracts at low-income housing complexes in Oakland and Richmond.

“People in my old neighborhood couldn’t believe it when I told them I was going to Stanford,” Mullins said. “It was a challenge to travel and stay in those Stanford classes, but it made me a better businessman and a better person. Just to be accepted into that world; I’d never been respected in that way.”

When Stanford alumnus Russell Pyne, founder and managing partner of the Menlo Park venture capital firm Atrium Capital, got the e-mail requesting volunteer mentors for ReMADE, he immediately signed up.

For the past 30 years, Pyne has been helping people start businesses as a venture capitalist, while also helping the disadvantaged do the same, by volunteering and creating a career training curriculum for Job Train in East Palo Alto.

“Some people grow up surrounded by an entire community dedicated to their support. They are mentored by parents, friends, teachers and bosses,” Pyne said. “Others are less fortunate, with no positive role models, and they can get stuck in a cycle of poverty, chronic unemployment and incarceration. It’s been my experience that people stuck in these cycles simply want a hand up, a little guidance to get on that ladder to success. Not a handout.”

Real-life scenarios

Second-year Stanford law student Sarah Salomon said Project ReMADE is one of the most exciting parts of law school. She created scenarios for ReMADE students to learn business skills, having them take roles as movie producers and agents, and negotiate an actor’s employment contract. In another scenario, she had Stanton confront an imaginary Good Karma Karamel employee who was perpetually late for work.

In January, Salomon will take over as student coordinator of ReMADE.

“What I feel is lacking in law school is contact with people,” she said. “You’re holed up with books in the library, but this is rejuvenating to get to deal with clients directly, and the results are tangible.”

Increasing attention

Project ReMADE is starting to draw attention on campus, Salomon said. This year, the program received $3,600 in grant money from the Stanford Public Interest Law Foundation, a student-administered fund that steers alum donations and auction proceeds to student-run public interest projects. Half the grant paid for graduation, and the rest was divvied among ReMADE students for start-up expenses.

Vanderbilt Law School is looking to replicate the program, Mukamal said. Columbia Law School and UCLA have also expressed interest.

In the meantime, Stanton hopes to settle on five caramel recipes soon. Inside his tiny apartment, a card table takes up a majority of the space, where he stirs organic ingredients in a pot on an induction oven. His caramels are heart-shaped and come in surprising flavors like spiced apple and coconut cayenne mango and the traditional salted, or covered in white, dark or milk chocolate.

“I’m in my 60s and a convicted felon, so it’s very difficult for me to get a job,” Stanton said. “So this is why I want to do this and take responsibility for my own life. Yes, I made a mistake, and I paid the price for it. But in our society, there are people who will always look backward at you. That’s why I love Project ReMADE – they empower you to move forward.”

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle. Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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