#10 Aly Tamboura: From San Quentin State Prison to becoming a software engineer and joining a $350M criminal justice fund
1st Strategic Advisor at Justice Accelerator Fund ($350M org to accelerate criminal justice improvement). Ex Manager at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Formerly incarcerated for 12 years in San Quentin
Aly Tamboura is the 1st Strategic Advisor of Justice Accelerator Fund, a grant-making organization that launched in early 2021 with a historic $350M commitment from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to accelerate positive change in criminal justice.
Previously Aly was a Manager within the Justice & Opportunity team of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic arm of Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder, CEO, Chairman and controlling shareholder) and his wife Priscilla Chan, that is channeling 99% of their wealth to leverage technology, community-driven solutions and collaboration to accelerate progress in Education, Justice & Opportunity and Science through a mission-based on building a more inclusive, just, and healthy future for everyone. Since CZI launch back in 2015, they have awarded $2B+ grants in what is one of the most well-funded philanthropies in human history.
Aly was originally the founder of a small geotechnical company based in San Jose (California) in the 90s until he was sent to prison for assault and sentenced to 14 years, first in Corcoran State Prison and then in San Quentin State Prison, two of the most notorious prisons in the US. There he learned to write computer code thanks to The Last Mile, a program based on teaching incarcerated people to code, and eventually after significant effort and extra education, became a software engineer in the highly competitive San Francisco Bay area, completing a successful and inspiring reentry to society and working for companies such as Adobe before being recruited by CZI.
👤 Brief intro: 12+ years incarcerated, developer, criminal justice
🥇 Win: daughter succeeding personally and professionally
🚫 Fail and lesson: lack of EQ and being incarcerated, fly out the ashes
🚀 Ideal founder: social cause, change the world for good
💸 Ideal investor: help fix hardest problems of our society
📈 Markets: Africa, Southeast Asia, healthcare access, better education
Could you give us a brief intro about you and your origins?
My name is Aly Tamboura, I am 1st generation born in the US, my family is from Mali, West Africa and in the 90s I founded and operated a small geotechnical company.
In 2001 I was sent to prison for assault charges and sentenced to 14 years. I did 12 years and 4 months, first at Corcoran State Prison and then at San Quentin State Prison, two of the most negatively notorious prisons with high levels of violence.
In San Quentin I had the chance to revitalize the prison’s newspaper and found myself in the center of a great community of people working together on how to make changes to criminal justice system.
Then I found out about The Last Mile, a great program focused on teaching incarcerated people to write computer code, applied and got in. I learned to code thanks to The Last Mile and worked on different projects. It changed my life.
Fun fact, one day Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder), came to San Quentin to learn more about impact initiatives within the system such as The Last Mile. I had the chance to meet him and show him a project I was working on. It was a data visualization project for the University of Pittsburgh where people could check the impact of childhood diseases across the United States. Then I asked him “Would you hire someone who was formerly incarcerated at Facebook?”. His response? “Apply.”
Once I got out I continued investing heavily almost all my effort, time and resources into learning more coding as well as learning how to better apply to jobs. I signed up to another coding bootcamp and multiple extra courses and even took an hiatus just to study and apply to developer roles. 9/10 hours a day of just studying, 121 tries, from research to homework to application, nonstop. During months.
Not sure if you know about dev application process but good roles, specially in the Bay Area, can be super competitive. When I first graduated from the last bootcamp I was just completing like 20% of the application. Also, I was burning through money while focusing on creating a new life, not on a short term work. Pretty intense.
And honestly, there was something more that was missing at the beginning. At first, I never wanted to tell anybody that I was in prison. When this changed and I complemented constant hard work and commitment with taking control of the narrative something clicked. “Hi, my name is Aly Tamboura, I was in a correctional facility and this is my story. I made a mistake in my life, I wanna be upfront and this is how I evolved and how I can add value”. I made a 250 words statement and that helped me.
Eventually I became a software engineer and worked for companies such as Adobe. Then I met a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) recruiter. CZI is an organization established by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, where they are giving away 99% of their wealth to help in impact initiatives within education, science and justice & opportunity. We talked about my background and passion for improving criminal justice, I got invited into the application process, succeeded and decided to take the offer. Reading the letter Mark and Priscilla wrote to their daughter Max I believe explains why I joined CZI. A dream job that amplified my capacity to help others in the criminal justice system and do good in the world.
At CZI, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are involved and committed so every now and then we had some all hands meetings. I don’t believe that Mark even knew I made it to CZI so when I saw him at my first meeting I told him, “do you remember me? Aly from San Quentin, The Last Mile!”. He was surprised. We had a walk and a good chat talking about criminal justice and life. Such a surreal experience considering that not so long ago I was in prison.
And now I recently joined Justice Accelerator Fund as the first Strategic Advisor. A grant-making organization that launched in early 2021 with a historic $350M commitment from CZI to accelerate positive change in criminal justice.
What would you say has been the biggest win in your life?
As a father, specially after being incarcerated and knowing the negative impact caused by not being there for your children as they were growing, you are aware of the significance of that gap. You want them to succeed on a personal and professional sense.
I’d say that the biggest win that comes to my mind right now is my youngest daughter graduating from UC Santacruz and then being accepted into Yale Law School. I am so proud of her and her achievements.
She had to face significant struggle, dropped out then went back … I finished my studies in prison and one day she told me that me being able to do that was inspiring for her to also do it. Celebrating her success means the world to me.
Related to the above, and your biggest failure?
There are so many failures in my life. One of the things I pride myself on is that no matter how hard you fall, you get up.
I’d say the biggest was not having enough emotional intelligence to get myself off a bad situation, ending up in incarceration.
Adversity is a challenge, it changed the course of my life. Big failure and big impact on my family, my community and the people I love. Being out of your life for 12 years is hard.
But like a Phoenix, you fly out of the ashes.
What is your ideal founder profile?
The ideal founder for me, specially in the startup space, is who has a social cause and wants to change the world for good.
Like Stewart Butterfield, CEO & co-founder of Slack, who has initiatives like Slack for Good where among other things they help formerly incarcerated individuals find work and succeed. Not just a great company with a brilliant founder making good tech product but also ensuring that what they do is something good for society.
What is your ideal investor profile?
Once again, when people invest of course they wanna build top performance and financial stability, making money is important. But I believe investors that have a mission to help fix some of society’s hardest problems are the best ones.
Not investing just in companies or products but also in the impact those are having or could have on communities, closing gaps where other alternative players such as governments are not enough.
What present and future markets are you most interested in?
I am most interested in emerging markets. I live in America and for decades and decades it has dominated. A lot of times though that means that people in developing nations doesn’t have access to resources and opportunities.
Those who live in the western world are really fortunate. Access to healthcare, access to retirement options …
Africa and Southeast Asia are hungry for tech, healthcare access, better education, etc. Significantly interesting.
Could you share with us 3 startups you like and why?
There are some interesting projects that come to my mind, specially if talking about criminal justice, some could be:
The Last Mile. It changed my life and I believe is one of the greatest programs helping in criminal justice out there. They prepare incarcerated individuals for successful reentry though business and technology training. They are in 23 classrooms across 6 states, served 622 incarcerated students since 210, helped 240 successfully rejoin society and have a 0% recidivism rate.
Andela. Software developer education and outsourcing company in Nigeria having a tremendous positive impact on the African nation and providing pathways for people to break into tech and do great work while helping companies access a new high quality pool of diverse talent.
Impact Justice. An innovation and research center providing solutions for justice reform that has created great initiatives like for instance The Homecoming Project, where they do like an Airbnb model for people coming out from prison, placing them in stable and safe homes and communities. They provide subsidies to homeowners in exchange for renting a room at an affordable rate and take care of a high quality matching process and resources to provide a better re-entry experience. For people leaving prisons, returning home is so important. However many do not have no home to return to and you don’t want to get back to the neighbourhood, back to the environment that made you go to prison. Impact Justice provides warm homes, but not just in the sense of living condition, but also network, working together, eating together, going to church together. Incredible work.
I’d also like to highlight a 4th one. The work that Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) does is so powerful. FRRC is a membership organization run by formerly incarcerated people and started by Desmond Meade, a formerly homeless returning citizen with an amazing story. Maybe it is not common in Europe but in the USA, if you are convicted from a felony you can’t vote in many stages. USA is built on the idea of taxation without representation because British influence (before the USA itself existed as it is today, the British Empire controlled some territories and collected taxes but you couldn’t vote). In Florida we were talking about 1.4M people with felony conviction that couldn’t vote never in their life which is crazy. FRRC made a successful passage of Amendment 4 and restored voting rights to 1.4M+ Floridians with past felony convictions. The single largest expansion of voting rights in the United States in half a century.
Note from Pol & Gerard: Given the profound social impact angle of Aly, in this case although we are keeping the “startups” word in the question, we talked about sharing the names of organizations that are having a strong good impact to society with special emphasis on the area where Aly is currently focused (criminal justice).
Could you share with us 3 investors you like and why?
Focusing on the value to society, I’d say:
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. Being under 40 years old, with such wealth and willing to give out 99% of it, multiple billions of dollars to positive worthy challenges and trying to repare some of society’s more harmful practices? Such a monumental thing. Specially being so young. It seems like usually billionaires are more like “I’d help when I’m older” and this early commitment is pretty incredible.
The Gates Foundation. They are doing so much work in Africa and America, such as eradicating Malaria. Really inspiring.
Ford Foundation. Specially Tanya Coke is who comes to my mind. Tanya’s sister was murdered by a man who got out of prison and still Tanya is doing a lot of great work in criminal justice. For her to still believe in this and understand how important it is instead of being angry and bitter is impressive to say the least.
There are also smaller ones like Heising-Simons Foundation doing great work like The Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people unable to access fair and just treatment in the justice system. But still the bigger players are the ones that have more impact.
What are the 3 books you feel everyone should read and why?
When incarcerated, the good part of books is the entertainment angle, getting lost in the story so much that you are not in prison for a moment. Most times you go to college then your career and you don’t have time but incarcerated you actually have it and you can read and read and read, using it to take your mind away from the oppression and learning while doing it. Some books I read that captivated me, took me out of the situation and educated me where not necessarily related to business or philanthropy.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. One of my favourites. I can remember laughing so much reading it while underneath being pulled by the profound human experience that this book carries of how we use books to shape who we are and how we see the world. A book made Don Quixote a great man that wants to change the world, a man that reads the books of the world and wants to save it from harm. Learning, solving and going out for a journey. While also a being a bit delusional with people laughing at him at first, but then as he progress they are like “yes, we need to save the world”. Just that concept of Don Quixote reading and reading in a giant library, finding a problem, putting his armor, joining a friend and going out to solve it, bold and a bit delusional but ultimately making a better world - It amazes me.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The book really depicts the fight of African Americans from slavery to mass incarceration. Really good job showing how United Stated got here, for a lot of people that don’t understand why black African Americans are like this and why there are so much of them in prison.
Shogun by James Clavell. As I mentioned earlier, the entertainment part is super important in some contexts and I loved this one because the story is so engrossing and captivating that it takes you in it and out of your world.
What are the key lessons you learned in prison that helped you survive and thrive and can be implemented now to have a better professional and personal life? Based on your experience could you give us a brief deep dive on criminal justice challenges and solutions?
About lessons, before troubles I had this view on what prison and prisoners were, a view from mainstream media (tv, news) of everybody being bad, all bad people and super dangerous, but then I got there and I also met doctors and layers and all kinds of people who made mistakes. Not everybody there is bad people.
In the US they don’t have a difference between really criminal and dangerous people and then those that only made a mistake. Yes, people should be accountable for it but not always with concrete and steel. Be accountable and repair but keep in mind that people are people, not convicts, not criminals, but people. The words we use have power and if we keep calling people with bad words and pejorative language is harder to fix the system. You have to give help so they will never hurt society again and commit another crime, then society will be better. Do not keep in you an angry resentful mindset. Do not throw away people, visit them in their worlds, visit them in their prisons.
They say there is so much value in recycling, even how we treat a water bottle has an impact, we make sure we manage it properly, we make sure we reuse it … But for a long time we have been throwing human lives away ! No recycling no nothing. No way to be productive again and contribute. Why do not we look with more care after this?
On challenges and solutions, the big problem in the States (where I’ve been focused geographically) is the war on drugs and poverty. Having people in prison just because being addicts is bad. It would be better to give them medical treatment. Additionally a lot of problems are due to poverty, poverty and incarcerations are symbiotic. More education, less likely to be incarcerated. More resources, less incarceration. Lack of opportunities and lack of resources bring incarceration. There is a chance to get training type of projects like The Last Mile and Defy Ventures tackling this challenges. Until you solve poverty through resources and education is very hard to solve mass incarcerations, until you start looking into drug addiction as a health issue instead of putting addicts in prison, we are not in the best situation.
That being said, I don’t think there is just one vaccination here. There are many triggers that need to be pull simultaneously. The Last Mile? OK, but not everybody is gonna be able to do that. We also have to go deeper, more at the grassroots level. Making sure we invest in communities, increased education access for children from kinder garden to high school. If we don’t tackle the societal problems even before prison, we are not doing enough for justice.
If they go out of prison we don’t want them back, but 64% go back. I’ve never met a guy in prison that wanted to go back home to come back to prison. But they go home, no opportunities. Now you are a former experienced drug dealer that can’t get a job nor a house nor anything and you only know about drugs. What are you doing? You do dealing.
But as mentioned, no silver bullet. We will need a long time to get out of this situation. We will need changes of policy, changes of laws, progressive political leaders, etc. If you take a mother and/or father from their home, what happens to the children? Children are victim of a war they don’t want to fight. Then you have generational negative impact to correct. We are talking about thousands of things.
So we need to reach out to society to help, to people like me and you Pol (Note from Pol: I’ve been volunteering in the Spanish Prison System for a few years). We need to change hearts and minds, to change the narrative, to change what it means to be poor, what it means to be incarcerated, to look everybody as people.
Now with the Justice Accelerator Fund our north star is decarceration and although we are still in early days of strategic planning, our focus is to provide a wide range of help and fund great people that is actually on the front line doing the work. This work has been largely underfunded, just in the States with only 5% of the world population we have 24% of global incarcerated people (over 2M people). It is time to move large amounts of financial support to organizations that do the work.
Note from Pol: If you would like to collaborate and/or learn about criminal justice projects, I am deeply interested in it and open to chat. You can reach me via twitter DM at @polfananas or via linkedin at /polfananas.
Big thanks Aly for sharing your views with us !
Big thanks to you, reader, for your time and interest !
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