SAN FRANCISCO â If you are, for whatever reasons, seeking a large number of young white men in plaid shirts who are partial to standing desks and seminars on âgrowth hackingâ and âjourney mapping,â look no further than San Franciscoâs RocketSpace.
When Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal first turned up for his job at the co-working space in 2013, he often seemed to be the only black person around. But one thing made him feel instantly at home: the energy â a frenetic, wild, letâs-do-this energy. He knew this energy, but from where?
Oh, yes, the prison yard.
Mr. Leal is the rarest of migrants, having leapt from one of Americaâs bleakest, least-admired ecosystems to one of its brightest and most-admired ones. Like many travelers, he has gone far enough to feel, at times, back home â although the bravado and failure, rule-breaking and renegade attitudes surrounding him in his new life in Silicon Valley are evidently considered virtues here.
Mr. Leal, who is 47, doesnât remember his fatherâs voice. He was 6 months old when his parents divorced and his father left. Before he knew it, Mr. Leal said, âI went from this little kid that wanted his father to an out-of-control adult that ran around with a gun.â
Growing up in San Diego, he quit school and began to deal drugs. An armed robbery of a restaurant in 1991 sent him to prison for three years.
He got out, all of 25, and melted into the âsame crowd, same attitude, same mentality.â Five months later, he was arrested for possessing a gun as an ex-felon. Having pleaded guilty to two lesser counts instead of one heftier one for the 1991 crime, he had now committed, under Californiaâs brand-new âthree strikesâ law, his third strike. He was sentenced to prison for life.
For the first five or six years inside, Mr. Leal said, he blamed everyone but himself. But relatives and friends who visited told him to take responsibility.
He wrote letters; he read; his mind grew. By the time he arrived at San Quentin State Prison in 2006, he was ready to take advantage of its multitude of programs and courses. He enrolled in college classes and graduated with an associate degree.
When some entrepreneurs came around the prison to explore creating a program to teach inmates business skills, Mr. Leal was drawn in: âA great opportunity for me to transform my hustle.â
In May 2012, the Last Mile â as the program, created by the husband-wife duo of Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, was called â kicked off publicly with a âdemo day,â to which scores of Bay Area business leaders came.
One of those in attendance was Duncan Logan, the founder of RocketSpace, which provides offices and a supportive ecosystem for start-ups. He met Mr. Leal and liked him. He offered him a job, a bittersweet accomplishment for a man serving a life sentence.
And then, six months later, California voters adopted Proposition 36, gutting much of the three-strikes law.
A judge reviewed Mr. Lealâs case and prison files. The appropriate sentence was now calculated to be seven years. Mr. Leal had served 19. He was set free.
Mr. Leal had missed the Internet revolution while in prison, but the Last Mile had emphasized âlearning how to leverage social media to rebuild our personal brands,â as Mr. Leal put it.
For ex-convicts, the first search result of their name would usually involve their criminal case. That had to change. So the program started the inmates posting on Twitter from prison: They would scribble messages on pieces of paper with 140 boxes, and the program would type and post them.
Mr. Leal was somewhat prepared for the new world he entered after accepting Mr. Loganâs job offer. He has risen quickly since that initial internship, becoming RocketSpaceâs manager of campus services.
âI think that thereâs a parallel between the entrepreneur and the prisoner,â he said. âA lot of these guys, theyâve failed before. They know what it feels like to fail. And so do I. They failed, and they got up, and theyâre trying again. And so have I.â