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.”