Seth Sundberg used incarceration experience to create Prison Bars

Prison Bars

Seth Sundberg, founder of Prison Bars (center).

A growing number of inmates and those in reentry are using skills they learned in prison and in post-release programs to start their own businesses. But it’s not easy.

Just ask Seth Sundberg, founder and CEO of Prison Bars, a company that launched commercial production of its “criminally delicious” snack bars in late September.

The former professional basketball player – for the Los Angeles Lakers and 10 European teams – and mortgage company branch manager was convicted of tax fraud and served five years in prison where he worked in the kitchen.

One day he took out a box of chicken labeled “unfit for human consumption,” an experience that ultimately inspired him to search for healthy things to eat and create nutritious handmade granola bars that he sold to other prisoners. They were so popular that Sundberg not only made a fair amount of pocket money but once released thought they might have appeal on the outside as well.

Defy Ventures offered support system

Fortunately for him, about the time he left prison New York-headquartered Defy Ventures was expanding to San Francisco. This entrepreneurship development program works with formerly incarcerated individuals (and now works inside prisons as well) to help them create businesses.

While some participants need to develop the skills to run a business, for Sundberg the organization benefited him in other ways.

“I had the skill set to do the business, but had it not been for the support system at Defy and the accountability system of Defy, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he says. “It’s not easy to come back to life and repair relationships and everything and start a new business. Without that support and the structure of Defy this would not have happened.”

But happen it did, and now Prison Bars, which manufactures snack bars that are non-GMO and gluten free, has eight employees in its day-to-day operations. Five of them, including Sundberg, were incarcerated, and most of them he knew from prison.

After graduating from Defy in October 2015, Sundberg and a team began to make Prison Bars by hand in a commercial kitchen in San Francisco. The company also took tons of pre-orders, did events and sold T-shirts and coffee mugs to get the word out.

And the word is getting out.

“We have commitments from Bi-Rite Grocers to be in a couple of their stores,” Sundberg says. “Our primary market is local tech companies that provide all kinds of snacks for their employees and want to have a social impact. We have commitments from Google and are talking with some other large tech companies as well. That’s our primary model. We will get into retail distributions as a secondary piece.”

Need to be patient

One of the biggest challenges Sundberg is facing is the need to be patient and not grow his company too fast, but patience is something one develops in prison, he says.

One of his goals is to educate people on the issues related to incarceration, and that takes time. “Part of this is raising awareness among people who may not have been involved with incarceration. There are a lot of people who are receptive, but there’s still a lot of pushback as well,” he says. “We want to be a catalyst to start conversations.”

Now that the business is in commercial production, the next step for Prison Bars is to raise additional funding. He’s already taken out two Kiva zip loans, partly for the exposure that the organization offers.

Sundberg is currently creating bigger fundraising plans, although venture capital is not in the mix at this point. “We’re going to take on private investors. We took on two small private investors, and they’re going to get involved with the next round of funding and introduce us to more people,” he says. His goal is to expand inventory and develop new flavors.

Tips for budding reentry entrepreneurs

Sundberg has advice for those coming out of prison who may want to start their own businesses.

“One of Defy’s key points is to prove your concept quickly and become profitable quickly. A lot of guys inside have a lot of time to think and have a lot of grand visions, and those are great, but they are for company number two,” he says.

Beyond that, “Stay with it. Stay humble. Nothing is easy. The reentry piece is especially tough. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The only way successful reentry occurs is through community. Be vulnerable and let people help you.”

 

Defy Ventures expands CEO of Your New Life program

Entrepreneurs-in-Training at California State Prison-Solano in Vacaville, Calif.

Entrepreneurs-in-Training at California State Prison-Solano in Vacaville, Calif.

Defy Ventures, a New York City-headquartered nonprofit that provides entrepreneurship, employment and character training to people in re-entry, is expanding its new initiative, CEO of Your New Life.

The program, which began last summer, takes the organization’s work into prisons and jails, working with incarcerated men and women to provide the knowledge and skills that will help ensure their re-entry will be more successful and less traumatic than it would be without them.

Launched in California State Prison-Solano in Vacaville, Calif., and the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, Calif., in July, CEO of Your Own Life also operates in Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, NY, and Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, NY. Defy also plans to launch the program in New Jersey’s Essex County jail system.

Here’s how it works. Forget the label inmate, prisoner or whatever. A participant is known as an Entrepreneur-in-Training (EIT), and the instruction has been created as a 10-step series designed to be administered over a 10-week period, although it could vary depending on the institution. Ideally, there will be two video-recorded courses with three hours of instruction time four days per week.

EITs also keep a Defy Journal in which they complete assignments and reflect on their thoughts and self-discoveries as they progress through the program.

The curriculum focuses on job readiness, entrepreneurship, tech basics, personal finance, etiquette, character development and re-entry planning. The faculty who have created the videos include formerly incarcerated individuals, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, Harvard and Stanford professors, and top career coaches, as well as character development experts.

In addition to the instruction, Defy hosts a couple of events per cohort within each facility where it operates CEO of Your New Life. These usually include a business night when it brings in professionals to do interviews and help with resumes, as well as a business pitch competition for those who are interested in starting their own businesses upon release.

One of these competitions took place at the California State Prison-Solano on December 17, with the top five finalists receiving prizes of between $100 and $500 that they will be able to collect upon release.

Overall, successful participants are expected to experience one or more of three likely outcomes. They will be able to:

  • gain the confidence, learn goal setting and create a vision to run their own business and secure financing to make it happen.
  • receive the assistance, coaching and training they need to create resumes, develop interview and communication skills, and effectively use email to secure meaningful employment.
  • transform themselves through personal growth in areas that include character development, parenting, self-discipline, relationships, and dealing with guilt and shame.

After release, participants can continue involvement with Defy Ventures by contacting the organization within seven days of leaving prison or jail. By doing so, they can take advantage of employment resources and further assistance in launching their new lives.

But those just coming out or prison or jail aren’t the only ones who can take advantage of what Defy has to offer. Anyone with previous criminal justice involvement may apply for a free five-month scholarship to participate in the organization’s program, which is dedicated to helping those with various levels of experience and education.

Defy’s post-release employment program offers three tiers of service, depending on the need of the individual:

  1. Tier One is for those who have education and previous work experience. It is known as guided self-help and provides job leads and referrals to other agencies and a weekly review of the participant’s progress.
  2. Tier Two offers short-term support with group or one-on-one counseling for those with barriers to employment, whether a low level of education or lack of sufficient work history. They receive job readiness and retention skills training and vocational counseling.
  3. Tier Three provides long-term support with one-on-one intervention and the services offered in Tier Two, as well as job placement resources.