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May 2, 2012

Stanford students share the entrepreneurial spirit with women just out of prison

Law and business school students participating in a new pro bono program teach formerly incarcerated women the basics of starting and operating a successful business.

By Brooke Donald

Angela McCray, right, is the law student who founded the program. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

The list of successful businesses started by students while at Stanford is well known. Think Google, Yahoo, Kiva, Cisco.

Now, students are taking that entrepreneurial spirit into the community with a new pro bono project at the Stanford Law School to help women recently out of prison.

Project ReMADE, which stands for Reentry: Making a Difference through Entrepreneurship, is a 12-week program, taught by students, on the nuts and bolts of starting your own business.

Founded by law student Angela McCray, who comes from a family of self-starters, Project ReMADE hooks up the recently released women with mentors from Stanford and the business community to help them design a business strategy.

"Working for yourself actually is a really good model for the formerly incarcerated," McCray said. "There are certain barriers to employment for those with a criminal record, not least of which is simple bias. So if they go it alone, they aren't subjected to those judgments or the scrutiny they may get under a boss."

One of the goals of the program, which is supported by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, is to help reduce the rate of recidivism among participating women.

"They are committed to making better lives for themselves so we're just trying to lend our skills to help them do that," McCray said.

During the program, the women alternate each week between two-hour group classes in San Francisco and two-hour meetings with mentors.

They are taught business principles, marketing and accounting, as well as negotiation and financial literacy and how to secure funds and get credit.

"They are also building social capital," said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Criminal Justice Center and co-author of Venturing Beyond the Gates: Facilitating Successful Reentry with Entrepreneurship. "Through mentor meetings and classes, they are creating a Rolodex that they never had."

That social networking component is what sets apart the Stanford program, Mukamal said.

"Stanford sits in the middle of Silicon Valley with myriad entrepreneurship programs, resources and connections," she said. "We're giving them a pipeline to these connections, making them a little better resourced. It's a natural fit."

By the end of the program, each participant will have drawn up a detailed business plan and a pitch that she can take to potential investors.

The women will get a trial run on June 1, when the members of the group present their plans to a handful of local micro-development organization executives at a Law School ceremony marking completion of the program.

Building a business

The project is based on a curriculum the Law School received from MercyCorps Northwest, a microenterprise development organization in Oregon that has been providing entrepreneurship courses inside Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for several years.

A team of Stanford students condensed that 26-week program and added additional subjects on social networking and technology.

Currently, the program has four participants, down from five after one dropped out for personal reasons. Candidates were selected with help from the San Francisco Reentry Council.

There were certain criteria: Participants had to be working or be enrolled in school, had to have been out of prison for at least a year, and had to show true dedication to wanting to start their own businesses.

"They bring knowledge, common sense, enthusiasm and energy to their ideas," McCray said. "We try to meet them with the other stuff – the nitty-gritty of accounting, regulations, all of that."

The women in this group are pursuing a variety of businesses, including event planning, domestic services and retail.

At a recent group class, the women heard from two law students about loans, banking and credit. 

"You be the bank and decide who gets a loan," said Nayna Gupta, a second-year law student who served as a fellow for an education microfinance project in Peru before beginning her studies at Stanford.

After explaining how to evaluate credit worthiness, Gupta and fellow student Max Carter-Oberstone provided the women with various scenarios of people looking for loans – contractors wanting to build homes, a couple wanting to open a restaurant, a woman looking to start a hair salon, for example.

"Well, you'd want to know how they plan to pay the money back," offered Chloe Turner, who is hoping to start a business selling LGBT apparel and accessories.

"It seems a little risky for these people since they haven't had success in the past," added June Lee, who makes purses, bracelets and other jewelry using such materials as leather and denim.

During the class, McCray also spent an hour going over marketing, advertising and creating a brand image.

"I have learned how to be a part of a team and to work together with a specific goal in mind," said Mary Campbell, who wants to plan events. "I was ready to make a major career choice in my life and really wanted to get some direction about where I fit."

Students become teachers

The lecturers, recruiters and curriculum developers all are students – most from the Law School, some from the Graduate School of Business. And two of the three mentors assigned to each woman are students. (The third is a business leader.)

"It's a great opportunity for our students to work directly with people who've been involved in the justice system," Mukamal said.

Distinguishing it from many other pro bono programs is that Project ReMADE has attracted students from many disciplines within law, not just criminal law, including student-entrepreneurs and students with tutoring or teaching backgrounds.

Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning provided workshops for lecturers and mentors in how to be effective presenters. The San Francisco Reentry Council also provided cultural competency training.

McCray said she is hopeful the program can accept more applicants next year, and possibly add more weekly sessions.

"We're the first stop," McCray said. "We fully expect that they'll go on to other programs that will help hone their skills even more. We can't make them full-fledged entrepreneurs in 12 weeks but we can give them a foundation on which to build."



Angela McCray, Stanford Law School:

Debbie Mukamal, Stanford Criminal Justice Center: (650) 724-5786,

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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