I'm building a startup fighting mass incarceration – Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of PromiseFeatured

I’m Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO and co-founder of Promise, a startup working on decarceration by providing a more humane and cost-effective alternative to incarceration. Before founding Promise I was Head of Care at Honor and the CEO of anti-poverty organization Green For All. Before that I was also Prince’s manager. Ask me anything about building a company, government technology, fundraising, the music industry, or something else!
Thank you for giving us your time and wisdom! I'm in the early stages of my first round of fundraising. If you could go back to yourself at the beginning of your fundraising journey, what advice would you have for yourself?
I would have been bolder. I also would have better understood how critical investors are as partners. I originally thought brand was important. Now I realize it is a long term relationship and it should have a dating period. Good Luck!
Really appreciate that insight, Phaedra. Definitely resonates!
I'm so fascinated by civic tech - I have friends who worked at Nava and 18F, and I just can't imagine how hard it is and how much more effort it takes to push changes through. I would love to know how you define success metrics for Promise, knowing that the problem is deep and demoralizing. Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you! We measure revenue, impact, and sustainable change.
Thank you, @Phaedra! If possible, I'd love to learn more on the metrics, especially about sustainable change.
Thanks for your time! I'd like to know your thoughts about the education pipeline problem and the role schools/educators have in the mass incarceration discussion.
Thanks for your question. I think it is important to first acknowledge it exists. We also have to look at the long term implications of illiteracy, childhood trauma, bias, unfair punitive measures, etc. I think it is critical for educators to understand these issues and how they impact children. More importantly to shift the way they teach and the space they provide. I am also clear on how difficult their jobs are. I volunteer in my daughters classroom for a little over an hour, and it is the longest hour of my week.
Thanks for your thoughts! I've really appreciated reading through your AMA.
I saw you speak at the Female Founders conference and was really inspired. Thank you for the work you do! I've founded a mission-driven company that aims to reduce plastic waste in the environment by connecting families locally to share used toys. We're early stage and I would love ideas for developing strategic partnerships and finding investors who are aligned with our mission. Thanks!!
Hi Rhonda, Having investors that are aligned was very important to me. We looked at the demographics of the firm, what other companies they invested in and met with them. We wanted a mix of social impact and also traditional venture. It was important for me, as a women of color to make clear that we had the option of both but made a choice to have investors who were committed to our mission. Especially, because there are trade offs and we wanted investors to understand how we would make decisions. I also wanted investors to know me and me to know them. I had an advantage that I had run revenue at a start up, so many of our current investors came from that company. I think having investors know that we understood how to run revenue, we are committed to solving a big problem and we would hire a good team who could execute was critical. Hope that helps and good luck! I am always happy to know female entrepreneurs who are bending the arc of justice.
How do you compete with an institutionally and politically defined environment of mass incarceration and its corporate interests? Like, how do you say you have a better solution? Also, I think of COMPAS and the technological racial injustices in sentencing that the justice system uses that further enforce the problem. Is it purely a cost argument you propose? I’m just so intrigued in how you overcome the obstacles of the industry and change the status quo that has lots of motives that aren’t purely about business efficiencies and costs... thank you!
We make the case that decisions should be data driven. As someone committed to changing the system, I know that data shows treatment and rehabilitation are key. We also make clear that the system is biased and technology can be a positive force but it requires that we understand where it is flawed and then work to correct it. Because are are a new company, we have been able to find partners who agree with these principles. My guess is it will get more difficult as we scale.
Just wanted to say that I saw you speak Y Combinator's Female Founders Conference this past fall and thought your talk was incredibly inspriring. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us!
Thank you! I was so happy to be there because my 6 year old daughter got to see all of those amazing women in one place.
Wow, your career path is awesome -- do you have tips on transitioning out of the music industry and into something a little more civic-oriented? I've spent the past 8 years working exclusively in music and am interested in pursuing something that can help people a little more, but sometimes I find it hard to translate my experience (day-to-day, artist relations, lifestyle marketing, and one startup) to more traditional fields. Would love to hear more about how you jumped into Green For All!
Music is such a great teaching ground. You learn how critical culture is in scaling. I have found a lot of folks connected to tech and music. There is clear intersection. I worked with folks at the intersection. While I worked in music, I also partnered with organizations that matched the values of the values of the artists I worked with. They turned out to be very critical partners in my current capacity.
What is the immediate challenge your team faces? (i.e. selling to first customers, defining product-market fit, scaling, etc) What help do you need?
Hiring. Always hiring. Trying to find brilliant people, who move quickly and are committed to making the world better.
What are your suggestions and tips for startups looking to hire the formerly incarcerated? I am always surprised to learn that most startups or their payroll companies do not know about tax incentives and credits for hiring and retaining disadvantaged populations. In your experience, what would be the best way to get started? Promise is an awesome company! Thanks for doing this.
My advice is always to recognize that all people have value. Fundamentally, without committing to folks who have been impacted by the criminal justice system we are making our hiring pool smaller and not based on skill. I also have them speak with people we work with our other companies who have done it successfully.
If we've done research on what might help and/or want to provide info and resources that might be useful, how can we do that? You may know about all of them but doesn't hurt to ask.
Thanks so much for joining us for an AMA, Phaedra!As a reminder: this conversation is part of our ongoing series featuring experts from our community.Phaedra will be online replying to your questions later this week. She may not have time to answer every question, so we'll be sorting questions by popularity (based on most emojis!).
Love what you are doing! In my early activism and pre-startup days (a long time ago) I spent a little time inside some jails and prisons--all quick stays for civil disobedience. I learned a lot about how the system fails everyone. How can I help? Anyone on your team need media training? To tighten up some messaging? I'm happy to donate a little time.
Hi Phaedra! I would love to know more about your startup. I volunteer at , which share the same mission. Would you care for a quick call?Thanks!Marcela