Stanford gives ex-cons boost in starting businesses

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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