It’s rare enough for any entrepreneur to lead a company to a $275 million sale—in cash. The odds are significantly slimmer when that person is a convicted felon who previously served 15 years in prison.
But that’s how much Dave Dahl sold his family company, Dave’s Killer Bread, for in 2015. Today, it claims to be the largest organic bread company in America. And as much as that has put him in the spotlight as the exceptional prison success story, he doesn’t want to be the only one. Since then, he has volunteered to help formerly incarcerated people get back on track through training and job placement programs.
His latest effort involves a $250,000 investment in Nucleos, a startup trying to make online educational and vocational programs more accessible to those behind bars. He learned about it when the company reached out to him last November.
“Nucleos gives people a chance to do what I’ve done in prison, and I want to help put other people in that direction,” says Dahl in an interview with EdSurge. He credits a computer-aided drafting class that he took in prison for “giving me a skill … and opening my mind that I was a capable person beyond being a thug, a drug addict and a drug dealer.”
The San Jose, Calif.-based company has developed an online portal for tablets and computer labs in prisons, where prisoners can access educational materials on traditional academics, mental wellness and vocational training. So far there is content available from 10 companies, focused on high school credit recovery, literacy, typing and job-related skills. Some programs offer certifications recognized industry associations like NCCER (for construction) and OSHA, a standard workplace safety program.
When it comes to educational materials, Nucleos prioritizes programs that lead to credits and credentials that schools and employers will recognize. “There’s a difference between something that’s just video content, and something that can count toward high school or college credit,” says Noah Freedman, the company’s CEO and co-founder. In the works is a partnership with an online course provider that partners with major universities, which he kept mum about.
The company also provides a way to track the educational programs and certifications that inmates complete. “It’s very common for prisoners to move around from one facility to another, and in many states they don’t keep any record of educational programs,” says Freedman. As it stands, some inmates ask judges to delay transfers to complete ongoing credits.
“We want to help people get the skills and accreditation they need to get out,” he states. “And stay out.”
He can’t claim credit for much—yet. So far Nucleos, founded in 2017, has a small footprint. The software is used at one juvenile facility, though the company is in discussion with several community colleges, county and state departments of corrections, according to Freedman.
Recidivism rates remain discouraging. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 5 in 6 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once over the next following nine years.
But correctional educational programs show promise. According to a RAND report, “inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.”
To Freedman, such results offer a promising indicator that state and government will pay for services like his. Nucleos plans to charge correctional facilities directly for the use of its software.
He is not alone in this market. Other upstarts include American Prison Data Systems, which provides tablets and educational content and has raised about $20 million in investment since its launch in 2012. There are also the private equity-owned giants, like GTL and Securus, which also provide access to learning materials (but directly charge inmates fees for communication services, a model often critiqued for being costly).
To support Nucleos’ team of five, the company has raised funding from friends, family, and a fund for alumni of Princeton, where Freedman went for undergraduate studies. The company also received a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2018 to prototype and test its platform. And the $250,000 from Dahl is part of a $1 million seed round that Freedman hopes to close later this year.
Beyond contributing funds, Dahl says he will also help Nucleos develop a curriculum about building positive mindset. Based on his own experiences, simply making educational programs available is often ineffective if inmates are not mentally ready to take advantage of them. He recalls struggling with suicidal thoughts while in prison, and that even deciding to reach out for help “required a big attitude shift.”
One possible obstacle he sees to Nucleos’ growth is overcoming an “old, extreme mindset, where people are afraid that if you give education to criminals, they’ll just be super criminals.”
But he’s living proof that’s not the case. Dave’s Killer Bread, his former company, makes a point of hiring qualified candidates with criminal backgrounds, who now make up 30 to 40 percent of staff.
“There has been a recent softening of attitudes toward hiring ex-felons,” he notes, and “some prisons are now more about positive reinforcement and accountability-based growth. If we present this right, I think the corrections people will come around to it.”