Silicon Valley is one of those special places where people with disparate interests and skills come together—coders and artists, writers and engineers—to build things, to turn dreams into businesses.
An overlooked group with startup ambitions but few resources to make them happen has been teaming up with Stanford students and alumni to learn about entrepreneurship. First conceived by Angela McCray, JD ’13, during her 1L year, Project ReMADE is on a mission to help formerly incarcerated individuals succeed in starting businesses of their own. Now entering its third year, this student initiative has brought together venture capitalists, lawyers, businesspeople, and Stanford Law and GSB students to help some of the most unlikely entrepreneurs achieve their goals.
Russell Pyne and his wife were rushing to get to the Project ReMADE graduation on time. And they had a cake. For Pyne, this was more than a Stanford Law event. His mentee, June Lee, was graduating from the three-month-long program. And it was her birthday.
Pyne and Lee are about as odd a pair to come out of Silicon Valley as any. She went to prison when she was 21 years old and spent most of her early adult years behind bars. “I left home when I was 17 and went to Hollywood and it ate me alive,” she says. He’s a successful venture capitalist with 30 years in the field and two graduate degrees from Stanford. Project ReMADE brought them together in 2012. Two years on, the mentor/mentee bond is stronger than ever.
“Have you gone to her website? Her crafts are wonderful—really professional,” Pyne says, describing Lee’s business with the same enthusiasm he might show for a new tech company.
The founder of Atrium Capital, Pyne, JD/MBA ’80, has had a long career as a venture capitalist helping to get companies off the ground. He also has a reputation for giving back. Among other things, he was on the board of JobTrain, a local nonprofit, for 17 years and he teaches in its life-skills boot camp—helping unemployed and sometimes homeless people get back into the workforce.
Pyne didn’t know what to expect when he signed up to be an executive mentor for the first class of Project ReMADE and again for the second one. What he experienced impressed him.
“I was blown away by what I saw, particularly in the final presentations,” says Pyne. And the program put together by McCray and the team was likewise impressive. “I really believe that any nonprofit, with a full-time professional staff, would be proud of this program. And the fact that it has been developed and organized by law students is remarkable. They all have lives. They all have classes. They’re busy. And to layer on top of that the responsibility for not just putting a program like this together but executing it is inspiring.”
Project ReMADE’s goals are bold—to teach formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs about launching a business. Key to its success are the mentors, who share their experience and contacts. Stanford students and Silicon Valley executive mentors meet every other week with participants to help them develop their business plans. On alternating weeks, Stanford Law and GSB students also lead the classroom aspect of the program, often bringing in relevant guest speakers. The 12-week program finishes with participants presenting their business plans to a panel of executives from local micro-development organizations. Project ReMADE has a challenging curriculum and high standards and competition is stiff, the number of applicants far exceeding the seven spaces in each year’s class. Successful applicants have to have been out of jail or prison for at least one year, have a job, or be enrolled in school—and have a business idea. Some come with full proposals and well-developed plans.
“Project ReMADE participants are expected to perform at a very high level, and I honestly believe that some of their business plan presentations were as good as or better than many that I’ve seen in my role as a venture capitalist,” says Pyne.
But he says the program goes much deeper than its stated objectives. He pauses for a moment to reflect on what it has really meant to be a “mentor” in the program. He describes Lee as an “amazing person,” whom he has stayed in regular contact with—she has come to his home for dinner, they meet for coffee, they email and text. It’s the same for his second mentee, Malik Wade, who is trying to launch a nonprofit.
“Project ReMADE is changing the lives of both the clients and the mentors,” says Pyne.
McCray hit the ground running when she got to Stanford Law School. An accountant with a successful career under her belt, her goals for coming to Stanford Law were clear: She wanted to further her interests in economic development. Wasting no time, McCray started to formulate what would become Project ReMADE during the winter quarter of her 1L year. She was taking a criminal justice course with Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “We were discussing the collateral consequences of a felony conviction and what it means to have a criminal record—the challenges to finding a job. Yet the most accurate predictor of somebody staying out of prison is having a job,” says McCray, who was familiar with the challenge firsthand from a relative who had been in prison. She also knew something about starting a business—her father and uncle are both entrepreneurs. “I had sort of grown up with both worlds. And so I started to think about how people can use entrepreneurship when job opportunities are hard to come by.”
McCray wrote a paper on the subject for Petersilia’s class, citing a report published by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Venturing Beyond the Gates. As luck would have it, the author, Debbie Mukamal, had just been appointed the new executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC). McCray quickly reached out to Mukamal and the two dug further into research and program design. Over the course of two quarters, Project ReMADE took shape.
By the fall of McCray’s 2L year, Project ReMADE was an official pro bono project run through SCJC. Students from the law school and GSB signed up to become teachers and mentors and took on leadership roles, helped by Mukamal. One of the first tasks was to come up with a curriculum. McCray and Mukamal, and in the second year Nayna Gupta, JD ’13, worked from a program they received from Mercy Corps Northwest, a microenterprise development organization in Oregon that has been providing entrepreneurship courses inside Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for several years. They adapted that program to make it their own—one better suited to people no longer in prison and paced for the quicker turnaround of Project ReMADE, with meetings alternating between mentor group sessions and classroom lessons including accounting and banking. Jack Donahoe, JD ’14, took the lead in recruiting executive mentors, working with Stanford’s law and business schools to find alumni with both the startup experience and mentoring qualities necessary for the work. Meanwhile, McCray and Mukamal recruited applicants for the program, reaching out to local criminal justice and workforce development agencies and nonprofits to find the right candidates.
June Lee had known she wanted to start a company when she got out of prison. She studied too, making the most of her time in prison, earning her GED, and taking additional classes in fashion and merchandising and upholstering. With hindsight, she credits prison with saving her life. “It took a while, but then something clicked in me and I started working on myself while I was in prison. I went to the drug program and the self-help groups and I looked at myself and at how to improve my community,” says Lee, who was also a teaching assistant and groundskeeper during her detention. “I’m thankful in a lot of ways for prison. If I had stayed where I was, I would have died.”
By the time she was released, Lee was ready to start again—and to realize her dream. She heard about Project ReMADE while she was attending San Francisco City College and it was just the help she needed to launch her business—selling custom-designed belts, purses, wallets, and other accessories made from scrap metal, leather, old jeans, and other recyclable materials.
“I really liked the team effort, people working together and brainstorming—that’s when a lot of great things came out,” she says of Project ReMADE. The relationships she formed with her mentors, including Pyne and McCray, have lasted too. “I text Angela, and I see Russell regularly. He helped me with a boutique contract recently. We’re in touch pretty frequently.” A year after graduating, she has launched her business, Leo Designs SF, on Facebook and is selling her crafts at fairs, in boutiques, and online. She admits it’s hard work and building a business can take time—more than she imagined. She’s thankful for the opportunity Project ReMADE offered her, the education and mentorship she received, the friendships she formed. But it goes beyond that. “It’s not just me, it’s also about the community. We’re modeling a certain behavior for others. I hope people say, ‘If June can do it, I can do it.’ ”
For Macio Lyons, a graduate of the Project ReMADE class of 2013, the idea for his business came to him when he was already out of prison and looking for work. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco near Candlestick Park where there is still undeveloped land, so lots of construction—and jobs. But many companies weren’t hiring local residents. He saw an opportunity to help himself and his community by starting a construction transportation and sanitation company. “In prison, thinking about what you might do, you have lots of ideas,” says Lyons. “When I was thrust into the situation that I needed to get a job, that’s when I saw the need for companies owned by locals, hiring locals.”
He applied to Project ReMADE, with a fairly well-developed idea for his company, Lyons Transportation and Logistics Corp., already in place. And he says he would have started it no matter what, but the program helped in ways he couldn’t anticipate.
“People who come from our kind of background never get the opportunity to meet and connect with Stanford and Silicon Valley executives. And having them as mentors, helping build a business plan and talking through ideas, was invaluable,” says Lyons, who is also regularly in touch with his mentors about his progress. “The classes were informative, but the connections I made were really helpful.”
While the final business plan presentations are meant to expose participants to potential investors, funding can be challenging. One of Lyons’ mentors, Ibrahim Elshamy, JD ’15, helped Lyons secure startup funding for his company through a pilot program launched in the spring by Kiva, the micro-lending website. Called Kiva Zip, the lending model originally targeted to developing economies is now expanding to the United States. And Lyons Transportation and Logistics was one of its first recipients.
“His company raised initial funding of $5,000 within two weeks, from something like 90 people,” says Elshamy, who explains that Lyons’ startup costs are significant. With the loan, rather than purchasing trucks and equipment, he can lease and get his business going.
“It’s great news. Macio called me the moment the loan target was met. He was pretty excited and humbled by the generosity of strangers,” says Elshamy.
That generosity continues as Project ReMADE enters its third consecutive year, now as an official student organization. And Stanford Law students are again gearing up for the new crop of participants. Elshamy will continue with the project, this year taking on a key role. Besides reviewing the curriculum and making plans to recruit participants, he’s busy fielding questions from interested students and meeting with the core leadership team to sign up new executive and student mentors. He’s in close touch with McCray, who was recognized last spring before graduation with the Stanford Deborah L. Rhode Public Interest Award and is now an associate with Simpson Thacher in New York. And the program continues to evolve. One tweak in the second year was the addition of “cultural training” for mentors, to make them aware of possible issues in working with the formerly incarcerated. This year, the team plans to extend the classroom sessions to four hours, bring back past participants to share their challenges and successes, and explore ways that technology might help the businesses. But Elshamy is also very focused on his primary job—finding new budding entrepreneurs who can benefit from the program. “It all comes down to them. They set the tone for the whole project.” SL