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Unlocking Innovation at San Quentin

Luke Sykora, Stanford University August 7, 2019

On one side of the expansive video screen, graduate and undergraduate students arrive at a classroom at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. They sit on wooden stools amid hanging whiteboards and track lighting. On the other side, rows of men, all wearing blue shirts, sit at desktop computers beneath fluorescent lights. 

Tina Seelig, professor of the practice in Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, kicks things off by asking everyone to give a quick status update in ten words or less.

“Getting over a cold, but excited to be here,” says one of the Stanford students. 

“I’m a little bit tired, but ready to learn,” says a man on the other side of the screen. He’s sitting 50 miles north of Stanford, at a computer lab in San Quentin State Prison. 

Entering the invention cycle

Question Mark

The conduit for this exchange was Seelig’s “Creativity and Innovation” class, a course she teaches in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. To launch this unique learning experience, she collaborated with The Last Mile (TLM) — a nonprofit that builds tech-centered career training programs for incarcerated individuals — to connect Stanford students with men in San Quentin. The class was divided into eight teams, each composed of two men at San Quentin and two Stanford students. The teams were charged with conceiving and developing unique entrepreneurial projects. Along the way, through lectures and guest speakers, Seelig introduced the class to the invention cycle framework, including concepts like needfinding, pretotyping and product/market fit.

On the day I visited, the class guest was Stanford lecturer and serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, one of the key leaders of the “lean startup” movement. He explained how to test product-market fit with a “minimum viable product.” 

So who is the customer? Blank asked. Is it someone in prison? Nope, said a voice from the San Quentin side of the screen, it’s the CDCR, the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.

One of the teams presented an impromptu “business model canvas” in front of the class. Their idea was to connect incarcerated individuals to family and friends on the outside using virtual reality headsets. This would allow people behind bars to experience important events like weddings and anniversaries, and maintain key relationships despite being physically separated from loved ones. 

So who is the customer? Blank asked. Is it someone in prison? Nope, said a voice from the San Quentin side of the screen, it’s the CDCR, the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. “There’s actually government and state funding for rehabilitation programs,” his neighbor offered — so there’s not only a potential customer for the product, but a customer with money to spend. That’s a good sign. The prison administration might we willing to pay to help prisoners stay connected with their families, paving the way for a smoother re-entry experience. 

Why teach entrepreneurship in prison?

Seelig’s involvement with San Quentin started with a chance encounter. Ten years ago, she met Beverly Parenti on a cross-country flight and the two became fast friends. A few years later, Parenti and her husband Chris Redlitz – both technology investors and entrepreneurs –  launched The Last Mile, a nonprofit aimed at teaching coding and entrepreneurship to incarcerated individuals, starting at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Seelig invited Parenti and Redlitz to speak at Stanford, and then started volunteering at the prison, teaching the men about creative problem solving. 

Even when everything was rolling, there were weekly hiccups. An early San Quentin visit was cancelled because a power outage put the entire facility on lockdown.

Seelig was blown away. “The men were incredibly motivated, and really sharp,” she says. As a result, she started to incorporate projects with The Last Mile program into her classes at Stanford.  

Soon, she was envisioning a full course that would allow her students to learn alongside the men at San Quentin. This was much easier said than done. “It was super-complicated,” Seelig admits. There were approvals from Stanford, security clearances at the prison, additional hurdles for international students, and inevitable logistical delays. It took a full 9 months to plan, and even then, the Stanford students didn’t get final approval to make their first visit to the prison itself until two weeks after the course started.

Even when everything was rolling, there were weekly hiccups. An early San Quentin visit was cancelled because a power outage put the entire facility on lockdown. One week brought a quarantine for health inspections, and another week was complicated by an internet outage at the prison. Also, the echo-y San Quentin computer lab didn’t have optimal sound equipment, so communication between the two classrooms during the shared lectures could be challenging. Plus, the men in San Quentin didn’t have direct access to the internet even when it was working well, so project documents reached them as printouts rather than dynamic, real-time shared spreadsheets, slowing down collaboration between class sessions. 

Catalysts for innovative teams 

Despite all the challenges, the students and teaching team framed the moments of friction as opportunities to find creative solutions. The logistical constraints of the class brought some important teaching strategies into focus. Several tactics, Seelig found, particularly helped bridge the gaps between the two very different contexts of Stanford and San Quentin. And these can be useful tools for any project that needs to empower teams faced with geographic and contextual differences. 

When possible, facilitate in-person meetings. Getting Stanford students to San Quentin for occasional in-person meetings was a challenge. Even so, Seelig felt that it was important for the groups to meet face-to-face early on. Years before, she had taught a collaborative online seminar that brought together students from around the world, and at the end of the class, they all convened at Stanford. “I wished, in retrospect, that we had had them meet at Stanford first, before they started their projects,” Seelig notes. Digital tools can be great for productivity, but she’s found that in-person interactions help collaborators gel much more quickly and firmly. For many of the San Quentin students, in particular, the in-person group meetups did prove to be the most fruitful interactions. “Our group came together best through the times that we met here at San Quentin,” says Mark Radke, a San Quentin-based member of the aforementioned VR team. “The weekly Zoom sessions were needed to complete the project; however, nothing beats face-to-face, in-person contact.” 

By putting a project in context and clarifying the deeper reasons driving each participants’ involvement, full buy-in and engagement becomes much more likely.  

Create reliable digital spaces. In addition to the Tuesday lectures like Steve Blank’s, the individual teams met every Thursday via Zoom chats supervised by credentialed TLM staff at San Quentin. While in-person interaction is preferable — in her ideal world, the entire class would have been held on-site at San Quentin — Seelig found that the Zoom sessions brought together the four-person teams in a way that was also impactful. “That was where the technology really worked well — when they were sitting across from each other on screen,” she observes. “I loved watching those sessions.” For one thing, the audio quality was better than the microphones trying to capture an entire classroom. Maria English, one of the Stanford students, found that the unstructured nature of the Zoom sessions encouraged her team to find their own ways of maximizing the impact of their brief interactions: “Running our own video conferences was also really helpful, because we had to work as a team to design a process and get the outputs we needed in the limited time available.”

Stress bonding before building. Especially for geographically separated teams that won’t last very long, it’s easy to just launch right into the nuts and bolts of a project. Why bother making friends? But Robert Barnes, a San Quentin student whose group envisioned a life skills and mindfulness network called “Through the Gate,” found that even highly time-sensitive projects can benefit from pausing first. “Begin with some exercises designed to break down barriers and create an accepting and informal environment,” he advises. For his group, that turned out to be an exercise called “One Hundred Ideas,” in which the teams were challenged to come up with at least 100 solutions to a single problem. Everything was fair game, from the most practical to the most outrageous. By encouraging unusual ideas, the exercise built trust and put the team in a mindset that spurred innovative ideas.

Zooming out first, even for a really specific project, can lead to a more committed team.

Go deep and reveal motives. Dale Cottrell, another student from San Quentin, was part of a team that came up with the concept for a “What I Wish I Knew Foundation,” a platform that would allow people to share mistakes they’ve made, and encourage others to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Their journey to the idea started with a brainstorming session in which each team member discussed an event that had a major impact on them or society at large. Cottrell points out that the brainstorm helped them zero in on the drama, emotion and meaning that inspired their project. In other words, it aligned the team around motives rather than simply productivity. Zooming out first, even for a really specific project, can lead to a more committed team. By putting a project in context and clarifying the deeper reasons driving each participants’ involvement, full buy-in and engagement becomes much more likely.  

It’s about much more than startups

The teams’ final presentations included ideas for a programmable pillow that encourages kids to reflect and deal with stress as they fall off to sleep, a “Mom App” that emphasizes healthy lifestyle choices, and a peer network to help ease newly released prisoners back into the world beyond the prison walls. 

No, none of them are being developed into actual companies (at least not yet). But that’s not the point. Learning a framework for innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, Seelig has found, fosters  critical life skills that are useful in contexts far removed from formal venture creation.

Seelig breaks down entrepreneurship into knowledge, skills and mindset. The technical knowledge required to create something new can come from many places, but the skills required — like a hunger for unfiltered feedback from customers and the courage to pivot when something isn’t working — can absolutely be taught, and are taught best by practicing how to move vague ideas closer to becoming real-world solutions.

“The mindset that gets fostered is really powerful in other aspects of their lives,” she observes of her students. “They learn how to leverage limited resources, how to see problems as opportunities, and how to go beyond the first right answer.”

“They learn how to leverage limited resources, how to see problems as opportunities, and how to go beyond the first right answer.” -Tina Seelig

Seelig’s students deploy their entrepreneurial skills in all aspects of their careers, whether that’s bringing creative problem solving to a product development role, infusing collaboration tools into management consulting, or using opportunity recognition and customer discovery methods in a venture capital firm. In the case of the San Quentin students, many are also enrolled in The Last Mile’s coding curriculum, and are now primed to bring a dose of entrepreneurial thinking to digital product teams. Graduates from The Last Mile program have, in fact, already earned roles in the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem. And while Stanford may be more immediately associated with entrepreneurship than a state prison, it’s worth noting that formerly incarcerated individuals do become entrepreneurs

In other words, if in three years you find yourselves downloading something called the “Mom App,” it might have been born within the walls of San Quentin.