It’s hard to imagine an investor going inside a prison to discuss putting his money into a business idea dreamed up by an inmate, but that’s exactly what Jason Calcanis did on June 22 when he visited one of the most innovative prison programs in the world.
“If you’re a great coder, you win. The world needs great coders,” Calcanis told the inmates. “Nobody cares about the background of successful people. They care about the great product. Get up every day, making great stuff. You have the time.”
The program, Code 7370, teaches inmates how to develop apps based on their inspirations that have a social-conscious component. The program is the brainchild of venture capitalists Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, who established the coding program in conjunction with California prison officials.
Redlitz and Parenti invited Calcanis along with podcaster and author of Unmistakable, Why Only is Better Than Best, Srinivas Rao, to hear the inmates pitch their ideas.
The ideas included a mobile app that helps parents and teachers track students’ educational and athletic progress, another that follows the recovery of substance abusers through a fitness regimen, and one that uses technology, sensors and fire-retardant to fight wild fires.
“I had a family member who lost a beautiful home in San Diego, and I also worked as a firefighter. I always wondered why technology wasn’t interfaced with wild fire protection,” said Azraal Ford, 44, who has been in prison for 18 years. He said that he’s been in and out of jail since he was 14 years old.
Ford’s app, F8 Fire Protection Systems, stores 1,500 gallons of water along with a smaller unit of a fire-retardant substance. The system is controlled electronically through sensors that are programmed to douse wild fires that get too close to a home.
“The fact that F8 uses sensors, and they are cheap, and if each person in the community installs sensors, and they were linked, that could be something relevant,” Calcanis said.
The next presenter, Jason Jones, is finishing the last 10 months of a 12-year sentence.
His app, Getting Parents Attention (GPA) “would make parents more aware of what’s needed toward public education and sports,” he said. “Younger people need to be aware of the value of education, if they want to succeed in life.”
“You are a good communicator, because it’s personal to you; it sounds exciting,” Calcanis told Jones. “There’s a gem of an idea in there because the app brings the parents closer to the children. The features need to be tested. Since it has a bunch of features finding the one that grabs users will be the challenge.”
Chris Schuhmacher created his app, Fitness Monkey, because he said, “16 years ago, drug and alcohol addiction led me to prison.”
“Fitness Monkey allows recovering addicts to track recovery and relapses in real time,” Schuhmacher said. “And, it allows its members to connect with each other for support.”
“Treatment centers could pay commissions if Fitness Monkey delivers clients,” Calcanis told Schuhmacher. “Build the platform and allow recovery centers to place their names on it. Plant a flag, and then it’ll be like clockwork.”
Later Calcanis took on questions from the class.
In recognizing the advantages of taking prison programs, he said:
“You guys made a mistake, and now you’re paying a big price. However, I’ve seen a lot of people make mistakes and recover. Being an entrepreneur is the most rewarding thing you can do because everybody begins in the same place when it comes to creativity. You guys are starting with the world against you. You are counted out. But the truth is, your product will speak for itself.”
To keep the inmates motivated and focused, Calcanis said:
“A lot of people are going to try to stop you from being successful. Don’t listen to them. You’ve got to use the fact that people count you out as motivation to be successful. To the extent you can do it, take the hand you were dealt and go and do it.”
Calcanis gave his take on failure:
“Failure is something you have to deal with to be successful. As an angel investor I have to try a lot of things, and some don’t work. But I’m going to continue to keep knocking on doors. You have to have that mindset, even being in prison. We are running around at light-speed out in the free world, while you’re running with a huge brick on your ankle and still being successful.”
An inmate asked Calcanis if he would come back:
“How can I not? I want to hear how it turns out. There is strength in numbers. Entrepreneurship is a team sport. Work together.”