Tulio Cardozo realized he had a problem the day he bumped into a stranger in Macy’s while searching for a birthday gift. The lost shopper, who happened to be the president of a CRM software company, struck up a conversation with the tech-savvy Cardozo. By the end of their chat, the stranger wanted to hire him. But Cardozo didn’t know how to tell the executive that he had just been released from a six-year stint in prison for manufacturing concentrated cannabis.
If it hadn’t been for his experience in the Last Mile prison startup accelerator, Cardozo may not have realized that this moment was guiding him towards a market need just waiting to be filled. But he did. Cardozo’s idea: Collaborative Benefit—a LinkedIn for prisoners and the formerly incarcerated. "I want to support people in the [prison] ecosystem. I know I’m the right person to do this," he tells me during a meeting at San Francisco’s Rocketspace, a co-working space that’s home to KickLabs, a startup accelerator where Cardozo works as a business analyst.
In order to understand Cardozo’s drive, you have to first understand the Last Mile. Chris Redlitz, the cofounder of the Last Mile and founding partner of KickLabs, was inspired to create the program after being introduced a couple years ago to some people working on education programs at San Quentin, a prison located just outside San Francisco.
"Places like San Quentin—they’re dark places where people have very little hope. What we found was that there were a lot of guys in there with a lot of talent, intellect, desire, and passion that want to rebuild themselves," he says. Besides the prison’s college program (run through Patten University), there are few places for inmates to learn about re-entering the work force.
Redlitz decided to fill that gap with a prison startup accelerator. He explains: "I wanted to replicate what we do with KickLabs working with young entrepreneurs—we’re going to teach you business fundamentals, bring in exterior resources, and give you an orientation about the how world has changed." That last point is an important one: prisoners don’t have access to computers, so the Last Mile had to get a little creative in its teaching methods.
The first Last Mile class of five men graduated from the program earlier this year after six months of learning about the digital marketplace, taking in business basics, learning computer skills, and turning ideas into business plans. Guest speakers included MC Hammer and Guy Kawasaki, and like any startup accelerator worth its salt, the program ended with a demo day. That first graduating class included Cardozo, who was introduced to Redlitz by a mutual friend (Redlitz later hired Cardozo at KickLabs).
Unlike all the other Last Mile participants, Cardozo joined after he had already been released from prison. "We wanted him to participate in the Last Mile on the outside to provide support and present a business plan," explains Redlitz. Initially, his startup idea was a bit scattershot—he wanted to help "nonprofits and private [citizens] generate revenue assistance to push forward [prison rehab] programs." And then he had his Macy’s moment, which made him realize that there was a gaping hole in the way prisoners are reintroduced to the professional world after they’re released.
Cardozo knew that the technology world was accelerating at warp speed while he was incarcerated. "I saw it coming before I was released through magazines like Fast Company, Wired, and Popular Science," he says. "I put in years of work that prepared me mentally. I was building a commitment to practice, patience, and reiterating." While at San Quentin, he spent years binging on programming books and saving money that his family sent so that he could support himself upon release.
When he left prison, Cardozo felt ready to take on the challenges of programming. He bought a nice laptop, installed Microsoft Visual Studio and promptly realized that this was going to be a lot more difficult than he expected. "I understood programming on a technical level like you’d learn in school, but you have to have your hands on a keyboard and get stuck," he says. Instead of focusing on software development, Cardozo is now working more on web and business-related development.
Cardozo is knee-deep in his work on the Collaborative Benefit platform. On a basic level, the platform will allow prisoners and the formerly incarcerated to display their skills, while potential employers will be able to browse through the prisoners’ list of jobs, skillsets, and programs that they participated in while incarcerated in an easy-to-read format.
Collaborative Benefit will package together candidate documentation for employers, connect them to the candidate’s mentors, and list resources that could support the candidate once they’re in back in society (housing assistance, education help, etc.). The idea is that "when an employer picks up a living resume on collaborative benefit, they know this person is a package and is supported," says Cardozo.
Instead of asking employers to hire candidates outright, Collaborative Benefit instead will give employers the chance to hire jobseekers for three to four month internships. "We’re asking employers, if [the jobseeker] is really a candidate and you want to see and help them go on, help them get a job with a company that you’re in business relationships with," explains Cardozo. Collaborative Benefit has gone public with four hiring partners: Rally, KickLabs, RocketSpace, and Dave’s Killer Bread (started by a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur). More partners will be announced soon.
Cardozo is also ramping up technical work on the site, which is fairly bare-bones at the moment. "That is the component that’s slowing me from publicizing any more information about other partners," explains Cardozo. The entrepreneur is hoping to get input on the site from partners before launch. Collaborative Benefit recently crowdsourced a $5,000 loan from Kiva Zip to work on development.
For now, Cardozo plans to keep the Collaborative Benefit platform free. The site’s main source of revenue will be through private donations and grants. By December, he hopes to move the platform even closer to a beta release.
Meanwhile, the Last Mile program is continuing with a new class of budding incarcerated entrepreneurs. Says Redlitz: "One guy when he applied said, 'I want to be the next Tulio.'"