St. Louis tech company wins big in national justice reform competition
A local tech startup that teaches people in prison to write computer code and then hires them after they are released has won a $250,000 grant in a national competition.
UnLocked Labs was one of three winners of the Justice Innovation Program, founded by the social justice nonprofit Dream.org. The prize is a quarter of the company’s current annual budget.
“It really has an exponential impact on our ability to modify the product to meet many more people's needs,” said Jessica Hicklin, the company’s chief technology officer. “Right now, we have a team of five engineers, and we've reached roughly 5,000 people. And if you can just scale that engineering team a little more then you can reach 50,000 people.”
When the newly trained coders are released from prison, they are hired by UnLocked to build its tool, which helps prison systems both run and track education programs for people in their facilities. Hicklin herself served 26 years in prison for a murder she committed when she was 16.
The company will use its winnings to hire more formerly incarcerated people, as well as senior engineers to mentor them.
The yearlong competition started with a written application, said Janos Marton, Dream.org’s chief advocacy officer. Seventy-five companies made it through an initial screening. The applicants then reviewed and ranked each other’s proposals before a team of experts scored the applications on several criteria.
The final stage was an in-person pitch at a global social impact conference in San Francisco in October. Hicklin was “extremely nervous” before the presentation.
“But at the same time, when you're in that space, with people just doing good things in this field, it takes a little pressure off, because you hope somebody wins and does a good thing,” she said.
Marton said he hopes the success UnLocked Labs had in the competition will inspire more people to give.
“We wanted other people to see that, hey, we believe in these ideas so much that we're willing to invest $250,000,” he said. “And then we have other people who have bigger wallets, who have bigger pockets, come along and do the same.”
Correction: A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misspelled the last name of Dream.org's Janos Marton.