From Life in Prison to a New Life in San Francisco Tech Scene

03/30/2015 09:39 am ET | Updated May 28, 2015
Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal

I'm the manager of Campus Services at RocketSpace, a technology campus in San Francisco. Along with my team, I help manage the environment and experience for tech entrepreneurs trying to create the next big thing to hit the market.

In 1994, I was sentenced to life in prison, and up until 20 months ago, I was known as inmate H10983. In some ways, my journey from a young kid living the street life to a tax-paying citizen invested in his community is a miraculous one. In other ways, it is a path taken by countless people before me, whose footsteps I followed to find freedom. It is the path of self-reflection, hard work, and hope.

Every day, men and women are released from prisons and jails across the U.S. after taking this same journey. Most incarcerated settings do not provide programs that teach relevant job skills for reentry to society. As a result, recidivism -- the rate at which people return to incarceration -- is enormous. Society blames these individuals for their failure. Had I not been fortunate enough to be a founding member of a program called The Last Mile, I too could have ended up back in prison.

Founded in 2010 by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, The Last Mile is a six-month business and entrepreneurship program. The goal is to provide skills needed to succeed in today's business environment and provide opportunities for paid internships within companies in their business network. They believe that having a job is the key to successful reentry and breaking the cycle of incarceration.

The program is divided into three phases: Learning about social media and the current technology and business environment; business ideas and planning; and the art of pitching a business idea. I entered the program with a great deal of excitement yet not knowing exactly what lay ahead. I had spent 17 years locked away in prison trying to understand how the world was changing around me, but The Last Mile helped bring the world to me so that I was better prepared to enter it when I got out.

In the first phase, we read books about technology, entrepreneurism, and how to utilize social media to re-create our personal brands. This was key because, at that point, had you Googled me the search results were all about the crimes I committed. TLM homework included writing posts on Quora and tweeting thoughts and ideas, all of which were uploaded by volunteers (since we didn't have Internet access). We quickly gained a huge following on social media and the world began to see the members of The Last Mile as human beings with thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perspectives. This changed everything.

In the second phase of the program, we learned about business planning and development. We identified our passions and were taught how to use our passions to help solve a problem in the form of a business. I took everything I learned and came up with an idea for an app called Coach Potato. The other participants focused their businesses on their individual passions.

The third phase of the program focused on developing a one- and then five-minute business pitch, in which we identified potential customers, market opportunity, and a revenue plan. TLM culminates in a Demo Day, where we pitched our ideas to a live audience of VC's, entrepreneurs, media (including the likes of CNN, USA Today, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal), and our fellow incarcerated peers. After our presentations, we had a short time to speak with the audience. It was here that I was offered a job upon my release at RocketSpace, by its Founder/CEO Duncan Logan.

In 2012, California's 3-strikes law was changed by voters and I was eligible to be considered for re-sentencing and release if the judge who originally sentenced me in 1994 could be convinced that I was no longer a danger to society. In 1994, he had been certain that I deserved to be in prison for life. In his consideration of my re-sentencing, he Googled me. The search results contained my writings on Quora, blog posts, and information about The Last Mile. He was able to "hear," in my own voice, how I changed and what my thought processes were today. He mentioned in his ruling that those pieces helped to convince him that I was no longer a threat to society and if released I would not return to prison. He gave me a second chance .

I was released on July 3, 2013, and began my internship at RocketSpace on July 17th. The training in technology and business planning from TLM definitely helped me to assimilate into my job. In fact, in my position, I am responsible for providing an environment to help technology entrepreneurs thrive. TLM also taught me that if you work hard, people will recognize your value. I have been dedicating myself to the success of RocketSpace since day one and, as a result, was promoted to the Manager of Campus Services in 2014. And in my capacity as Manager, I was able to hire two other graduates of The Last Mile Program for my team, Caleb Hunter and Floyd Hall. Helping to "Pave the Road to Success" for other people coming out of incarcerated settings is one of the greatest passions of my life and with help from TLM, I hope to share my passion with the world.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.