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Investors Said My Business Was Insane. I Raised $3 Million Anyway

This Y Combinator startup created an app to help solve prison overcrowding.

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BY Christine Lagorio-Chafkin - 12 Jul 2018

Investors Said My Business Was Insane. I Raised $3 Million Anyway

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Many of the two million prisoners in the U.S. are nonviolent offenders awaiting trial. Oakland, California-based Promise has an audacious solution: Work with cities and counties to release them, and provide an app and support system to keep them current with court appointments and hearings. Promise is operating in Alameda County; co-founder and CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins expects launches in several more counties this year. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

I came out of a community that didn't have many resources. There were violent households. Families doomed by drugs. My life was fortunate. I did labor organizing for South Bay Labor Council. I advised Prince on digital-rights management. I ran revenue at Honor, a home health care startup.

Then a friend called and said there were bounty hunters at her door. Someone she loved had missed a hearing, and there was a warrant out for his arrest. He was so scared. He just wanted to keep working, to support his family. He had no money for a lawyer or bail.

We called the public defender and had it fixed in five minutes. But many people don't have the resources to work the system. The reality is that it's broken. People of color are being arrested for sleeping. For walking. For shopping.

Seventy percent of people held in county jails have not been convicted of a crime. They can't afford bail and are just waiting for a trial. It leads to prison overcrowding. The longer you're in, the likelier you are to lose your job, be separated from your family, and end up back in jail. My co-founder and I realized we needed a technology that gets people to court, so they won't be jailed for missing a date. We also want the private bail industry to die.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, co-founder and CEO of Promise. The California-based company seeks to rework the bail system.

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People in Silicon Valley thought we were insane. Investors are afraid of working with government. Also, I think it terrified them to think people who have been arrested would be our users.

We decided to join Y Combinator. I drove up in my minivan with my co-founder, Diana Frappier, a lawyer with 20 years of experience. I'm a black woman, she's a white woman. We were visually and culturally so different. I thought: "Oh, we just changed the dynamic here." This was the youngest, whitest place I'd been in for a long time. Tech investors are so into pattern matching. But the support and credibility that comes out of Y Combinator is incredible.

As someone who'd spent most of her life outside of tech, I was so stressed about raising money. A friend pointed me to one VC. That VC just hit reply-all: "Not interested." It was so rude it was comical. But I'd run revenue at Honor, and that gave us credibility. We raised over $3 million from Roc Nation and First Round Capital before graduating Y Combinator.

I know technology can create better models for government. The purpose of technology is innovation--it's supposed to be a transformative tool, not just a tool to feed you ads or surveil you and arrest you. But if we don't use it to change the human condition, it will never be a positive force.

A Promise to Help

Promise's clients are city and county governments, which agree to release certain non­violent individuals from their bail obligations and their jail cells. Promise conducts a risk- assessment on candidates and, after they go home, a personalized app issues them tailored alerts--for example, to remind them of court dates or to comply with court orders, such as addiction treatment. Promise's Care Team checks in with them, and helps make sure each step along the way to legal compliance is met--which could include arranging transportation to, or child care during, a court appearance. Local officials are also provided tools to view participants' progress and their compliance with court orders.

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