As an inmate working in the kitchen at La Tuna, a low-security federal prison in Anthony, Texas, Seth Sundberg pulled a box of chicken out of the freezer with a label warning, “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.” Unsure of what happened to the meat once the container left his hands, Sundberg never ate at the prison dining hall again and decided to come up with a healthy alternative to the cafeteria meals. Using honey, peanut butter and other items stocked in the commissary, he and a partner (who’s still incarcerated) made granola bars. Within a short time, Sundberg had a sales team working the prison yard. Technically contraband, the bars were “criminally delicious,” he says. He moved 3,000 in the first seven months.
Standing seven-feet-one-inch tall, the former professional basketball player who transitioned from playing in the NBA to working for a mortgage lending company, was sentenced in 2010 to seven years of hard time for swindling the IRS out of more than $5 million. Out of prison, Sundberg is now cobbling together his own business venture, Prison Bars. Adapted from his jailhouse recipe, the granola bars are produced by a team of four formerly incarcerated individuals. (To meet demand, they are transitioning from handmade to commercial production.) Sundberg has plans to sell the bars to Silicon Valley tech companies as snacks for employees and to San Francisco tourists at attractions like Alcatraz Island. Eventually, he wants to see them stocked at grocery stores nationwide and envisions hiring 100 formerly incarcerated individuals as account managers, easing their re-entry into society.
“You think everybody that’s in prison fits into three groups: those not intelligent enough to have avoided it, those not wealthy enough to have bought their way out of the system or paid a good attorney and those who are really bad people and deserve to be there,” he says. But after serving time, his opinions changed dramatically. “The degree of separation between someone behind bars and someone that’s not is much less than I ever thought. Once you start hearing those stories, you think, ‘Wow, that’s not too different than an avenue I could have gone down. Or one I have gone down but didn’t get in trouble for.’”
In lockup, Sundberg says he often felt “worthless.” The way the system is designed made him feel like “you screwed up so bad,” making it difficult to reclaim “anything left that you have to offer to anybody else,” he explains.
Once he’d been released, with a box of Prison Bars in his pocket, Sundberg looked for support from outside organizations. He enrolled in school full-time and worked at a laundromat on the weekends as he planned his next move. In the prison library, he’d read about Defy Ventures, a New York-based organization that helps people with criminal histories develop careers as entrepreneurs.
“They say that America is the land of second chances, but it’s really not. Once you have an X on your back, you almost have no opportunities,” Catherine Hoke, the nonprofit’s founder, tells Fast Company. “Of people who are rearrested in America, 89 percent of them are unemployed at the time of their arrest.” Hoke, a former venture capitalist, says a tour of Texas prisons made her realize that organized crime rings were often sophisticated operations, on par with corporations in their management, marketing and bookkeeping. She wondered, was there a way to put those skills to work in a legitimate enterprise? Or as Sundberg puts it, can you “transform your hustle?” Through a Craigslist ad, he signed up for Defy’s first class of entrepreneurs-in-training in the Bay Area.
Sundberg hopes the granola bars will appeal to both the health-conscious consumer (gluten-free, non-GMO bars are on the way) and those who want to do good. “If you can make a small change by eating a granola bar, helping provide jobs, a lot of people can get behind that,” he says. With individual profiles of their employees on packages or their website, Sundberg wants to put a face to the 2.2 million Americans in federal and state prison. By humanizing felons who have been locked up, he hopes his business demonstrates the power of second chances.
Sundberg knows he needs one himself. Now managing his own business, he’s going to do things right this time — in the eyes of both IRS auditors and his employees. Prison “just rips your soul out, and it’s a process to get it back. It’s something I’m still going through,” he says. “I spent the first two and a half years being upset at other people, at the system, all these outside things, before I fully realized I’m truly responsible for all this stuff. These were my issues and my decisions.” He spent a lot of time thinking about how to make amends, pondering what else he had to offer. “I screwed up and made a mistake,” he says. “But I’m not doing that again.”