Haas Students Help San Quentin Inmates Expand Their Entrepreneurial Newspaper

Twice a month this fall semester, five Berkeley MBA students have gone to prison. With security clearances and careful shepherding, the students, who enrolled in the experiential learning course Social Sector Solutions for Social Enterprises, have helped inmates develop a plan that will allow California’s only prison-based newspaper, the San Quentin News, to reach distribution to all of the state’s inmates.

The team just presented their proposal to the prisoner-led editorial group on Dec. 4 at the San Quentin state correctional facility in Marin County. They outlined how the goal of increasing the monthly paper’s reach to all 120,000 California inmates plus external audiences will require scaling to more than 10 times its current circulation.

Their project was one of the most unusual ones to be tackled in Social Sector Solutions for Social Enterprises, a course offered by Haas’ Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership that gives students hands-on management consulting training with social enterprises. The course, a partnership with Dalberg Global Advisors and FSG, paired students with a diverse group of social enterprises this fall semester, including Living Goods, REDF, Travel2Change, and UC Berkeley’s Office of Operational Effectiveness.

The San Quentin team made recommendations for increasing revenue through a mixture of grants and donor-subscribers from the outside, as well as for strengthening the paper’s brand identity within the system. They also provided guidance on how the group could better organize their business and printing operations and expand their capacity by eventually hiring staff.

“They’re looking at a 12-year timeframe,” says Jon Spurlock, MBA 15, a student in the Evening & Weekend Berkeley MBA Program. Spurlock led a team that included Laura Tilghman, Glen Ottinger, Virginia Zimpel, Todd Brantley, all MBA 14, and public policy graduate student Shilpa Grover.

Most of the inmates have nothing but time, convicted to long prison sentences—for for some, including the editors of San Quentin News, that means a life term—for serious crimes such as murder and armed robbery. Elsewhere in the facility, some of San Quentin’s all-male prisoners sit on the state’s only death row.

“Like many inmates, those on the newspaper team have had a lot of time to reflect on their actions, their lives, and their need for healing,” says Spurlock. “They’re a talented, intelligent group of guys who want to improve themselves and make a difference in the lives of others in the system.”

Learning about the realities of the California prison system was one of the tasks of the student team, which read extensively and viewed related films before stepping foot in San Quentin back in September. Students were initially assisted in their project by Berkeley journalism Professor Bill Drummond, an adviser to the paper, who had connected the prison’s editorial team with Nora Silver, director of the Haas School’s Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership, for help with their expansion plans. The student team was then guided through the facility by San Quentin Public Information Officer Sam Robinson, the prison administrative sponsor of San Quentin News.

“The San Quentin News project challenged students to apply their business skills in an extremely resource-constrained environment,” Silver says. “Students learned to operate in a world with very real restrictions and attain results. This newspaper gives voice to the prisoners, and the students helped ensure that voice be heard throughout the state. We at Haas are proud to offer such an education.”

Students agree that their experience has gone beyond the usual consulting training opportunity typically offered in the Social Sector Solutions for Social Enterprises course.

“Hearing the stories of these men and understanding what San Quentin News means to them helped me develop a more sophisticated idea of how to best facilitate the rehabilitation of people in prison,” said Laura Tilghman. “There was such a clear link between opportunities for education and the process of growing and self-improvement. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to deepen my understanding in this respect.”

Read more about the project in the Daily Cal

San Quentin