Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti are venture capitalists who run a business incubator -- in San Quentin State Prison.
I know. I would have thought they were nuts, too. But then I met Heracio Harts and Tulio Cardozo, both ex-cons, but for purposes of this column, you can think of them as productive members of society.
"I made a bad choice that landed me in prison," Harts, 39, told me recently. "Now I'm dedicated to giving back to society and being socially responsible."
Harts and Cardozo are among the first graduates of Redlitz's and Parenti's The Last Mile program. Well, they're the first who have graduated and been released from prison. An additional 11 graduates will have to hold off on being productive until their sentences are up.
The program is a serious six-month curriculum with classes meeting for two hours, two or three times a week. Redlitz says he covers digital media (which is a challenge because the prisoners aren't allowed to use computers), building a business plan and developing a pitch. Husband-and-wife team Redlitz and Parenti bring in tech CEOs to provide real-life lessons. And each student presents a product pitch to investors and other prisoners during a Demo Day behind bars.
"The pitches that they do on Demo Day are as good or better than anything you see in the valley," Redlitz says.
Maybe that sounds over the top, but when you consider Harts and Cardozo's stories, you've got to figure that Redlitz might have the goods to back it up. Harts was released from San Quentin in March after serving more than eight years for manslaughter. Within weeks, he landed an internship at Rally.org, a San Francisco crowdfunding site for social causes.
"His commitment has been unquestionable," says Nick Warshaw, Rally's communication manager. He says Harts' work on search optimization has led to greater exposure for Rally's customers.
Cardozo, who's been fascinated with programming since he was a kid on the Peninsula, heard about The Last Mile after serving nearly seven years for processing hashish oil and an alleged immigration violation. He completed the business course while working as an intern at Kicklabs, a more traditional incubator for entrepreneurs that Redlitz and Parenti run in San Francisco. He's launched a consultancy and has landed a number of clients who want help with Web design, digital security issues and other online advice.
"It was really a fantastic opportunity to start to weave together all the things I had been learning for a long time," Cardozo, 31, says. "I was at the point where I felt I had to start producing."
Redlitz and Parenti say seeing the change in men who could have lost hope keeps them going.
"You get started and you make a little difference," Parenti says, "and it kind of fuels the fire."
Which makes sense, but what got them started in the first place? The vision took shape when Redlitz agreed to give a brief talk about business at San Quentin. "I'd never been in any prison," he says. "I went in, frankly, out of curiosity."
And it wasn't what he expected. Well, some of it was. It was a little scary. But the prisoners who attended his lecture were interested, engaged and motivated. And they had a lot of time to study.
"Some of the guys handed me business plans," Relitz says. "Here is a group of guys that is really smart." He figured that he and Parenti were already running an incubator, so they had a curriculum. Could they tweak it and take it into prison?
There were challenges: Teaching programming was out. No computers, remember? There was the question of accountability. Redlitz wanted to be hard-nosed about getting the work done and being respectful of classmates' time. "We didn't know how hard to push it," he says. "You think about coming in and getting in the face of someone who's a convicted murderer; that's a little daunting."
But it turns out, Redlitz's students were determined to take advantage of a class that might give them a boost.
"It took some studying and dedication," Harts says, "but this was our opportunity of a lifetime."
You hear a lot in Silicon Valley about changing the world with the next great innovation. But how about changing a life or two? Sure, its very early going for Heracio Harts, Trulio Cardozo and The Last Mile itself.
But I got a glimpse of the potential recently. Harts, Cardozo, Redlitz and Parenti were giving a presentation to promote the program at startup social site Quora. Harts stood in front of dozens of employees in a Spartan chic lunchroom and talked about his transformation. (He was not talking about the details of his crime, as he says he prefers not to.)
He was back with his wife and three kids. He was loving his job. He was looking ahead to bigger things and marveling at how technology had changed in the eight years he'd been locked up -- like when his son asked his smartphone a question and the phone answered back. That son, Heracio Harts II, who was 11 when his father went to prison and is now a sophomore at Clark Atlanta University, stood in the back, holding up his smartphone and recording every single moment of his dad's speech.
"It's one of those absolute moments of 'Wow, look at my dad,' " the younger Harts says. "It's a big, big deal."