This post was originally produced for Forbes.
“Getting mail in prison is like hitting the lottery ,” says successful entrepreneur and “returning citizen” Marcus Bullock, 36. That knowledge inspired him to launch Flikshop, a simple app for your phone that allows you to send a postcard to an incarcerated friend or family member.
Bullock’s first post-release enterprise, which he continues to operate, is a contracting firm that employs returning citizens. The firm employs 18 full-time staff, most of whom had been incarcerated.
Because people in youth detention facilities, jails and prisons don’t have access to phones and the internet, receiving mail is important. “That’s the one thing that you have to know that someone on the planet cares about you,” Bullock says.
Originally, Bullock anticipated that the app would be used exclusively by family and friends to communicate with their loved ones in jail. Rob Brown, Chair of the JUST Capital Research Advisory Council, praises the app, “Flikshop provides incarcerated individuals an important communication pathway with loved ones at home. This critical connection is a straightforward reminder that a full life awaits outside prison, and a motivation to seek self-improvement inside prison. Once released, the individual is more likely to be in a frame of mind to stay on a responsible course from the moment of release from prison.”
Two other use cases have developed.
First, nonprofit organizations that work to improve the transition from prison to society, use the application for its efficiency in reaching their target audience. Mary Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice connected with Bullock when he was released from prison and became one of the first Flikshop customers when the company was launched in 2012.
“When Marcus launched Flikshop, we were one of his first ardent supporters–we have a mailing list of 400-500 individuals who have been incarcerated since they were children. We wanted to make sure they knew we were thinking of them, so we sent them a Flikshop postcard,” Mistrett says.
That experience opened a door to communication that the organization hadn’t previously enjoyed. They sent postcards asking for them to share their stories and original artwork.
The Campaign for Youth Justice has also engaged with the second unanticipated use case: sending cards to incarcerated strangers. The Flikshop Angels program allows people to send postcards to people they don’t know but who may need contact with the outside world. The Campaign for Youth Justice partners with Flikshop to provide a list of incarcerated children so that people can send them notes.
“Flikshop is a perfect way to get the message that ‘We love you. We haven’t forgotten you. You are still here with us. Get home soon,’” Mistrett adds.
Flikshop has over 180,000 users who have sent over 400,000 postcards to friends in all 50 states, Bullock reports. The business is now breaking even on prices from $0.79 to $0.99 per postcard.
Bullock’s success allowed him to join the selective Techstars accelerator. Ryan Kuder, its Managing Director, says, “We ended up offering them one of the 10 spots in the 2018 class of Techstars Anywhere, our mostly virtual mentorship-driven accelerator program. Today, Techstars is an investor in Flikshop and we’re working closely with Marcus and Tony to help them leverage the global Techstars network of mentors and investors to accelerate and grow their business.”
Kuder says that Techstars supports the Flikshop mission. “We think that Marcus’ story of serving his sentence and then founding a tech company is inspiring and we wholly support his mission to help anyone who is in prison stay in touch with their loved ones. At Techstars, we believe that great founders can come from anywhere if they’ve got the right support. Flikshop helps friends and families provide that support to their incarcerated loved ones and we’re proud to be a part Marcus’ mission.”
One of the Flikshop supporters is the venture philanthropy firm New Profit. Managing Partner, Tulaine Montgomery joined Bullock for a recorded discussion about the impact that Bullock and Flikshop are having on mass incarceration.
New Profit boasts, “Over the past 20 years, New Profit has provided this catalytic support to help build 100+ organizations, including Teach For America, Year Up, KIPP, Health Leads, BELL, Food Corps, the Pathways Fund, the Reimagine Learning Fund and others.” Most of its funding comes from a mall group of individuals, corporations and foundations. It has “helped mobilize $1.5 billion.”
New Profit’s Unlocked Futures Accelerator is intended to provide help and support to the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated. Their challenges don’t end when they are released; in many ways, their problems are just beginning. A convicted felon will face challenges in finding housing, employment, government welfare and voting rights that will dog them for the rest of their lives.
Montgomery explains the New Profit strategy. “Finding a job after a period of incarceration can be enormously challenging, in some cases impossible. Many businesses are are wary of hiring ex-offenders, and state licensing laws can prevent them from entering trades. These obstacles make entrepreneurship a viable option for those with a criminal record. Unlocked Futures offers funding, strategic support, and access to a vast network of resources in order for the entrepreneurs to catalyze the growth of their mission-driven organizations or businesses.”
“There is this disproportionate incarceration of people of color in the United States,” Montgomery adds, suggesting the difficulty of fixing the problem. “This is not about a set of individuals making bad decisions but about a macro set of systems from education to housing to health that feed into the prison pipeline in ways that really are impacted by race bias that’s built in at the institutional level.”
Will Flikshop, the “Instagram for prison,” as some have called it, solve all of these issues? No. But Flikshop is more than just a piece of the puzzle, it typifies the sort of work that needs support to scale to address these issues from many angles.
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