From Prison to Leading with Purpose
Marcus Bullock has a storied background.
Like Joseph in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, his story involves an improbable journey from prison to a palace (of sorts).
But unlike Joseph, Marcus wasn’t unjustly imprisoned.
One fateful day, he made a poor decision that would change his life forever in more ways than one.
Marcus and a friend stole a car from a man in a shopping mall parking lot.
Upon being convicted of carjacking in 1996, he faced life imprisonment, but was sentenced to eight years in an adult, maximum-security prison. Marcus was just 15 years-old at the time.
Fast-forward to 2019 and then-President Trump invited Marcus – now the CEO of Flikshop – to speak at the White House about the importance of the First Step Act, which promotes the hiring of former prisoners and aims to reduce repeat offending.
Connecting the disconnected
Marcus recounts the profound impact that receiving daily letters and photos from his mother had on him while he was in prison.
“I was 15 years-old when I went to prison for eight years. My mother saved my life with her letters and photos of life on the outside,” he says.
After serving his sentence and being released in 2004, he started a construction business and used it as a vehicle to employ ex-offenders.
But after several years of running his company, Marcus still had a burning desire to help the inmates he left behind access “a window to the world” – through letters and photos – just as he did.
In 2011, he used revenue from his construction business to create Flikshop – an app that helps incarcerated people stay connected to their families.
For less than a dollar, anyone can use the app to instantly send a photo, which is delivered as a postcard, to any inmate, in any cell, in any prison in the U.S..
Marcus estimates that his venture-backed technology company has connected north of 170,000 families.
With Flikshop being nine years old, the Maryland-based founder was comfortably the most seasoned entrepreneur on the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Mentorship Circle program. Plus, he had recently completed Nasdaq’s Mentor Makers program, so he assumed a hybrid mentor-mentee role in the group.
“One of the highs of the program was being given the opportunity to mentor my peers. This meant that I could take some of my experiences at Flikshop and advise other founders who may not have reached the point we have.
“There’s something special about having a conversation with a fellow cohort member who has gone through the fundraising journey. You feel the camaraderie,” he says.
Facilitating bespoke mentoring
For Marcus, peer-led mentoring was one of the program’s defining features.
“When you have a mentee-led cohort, it enriches the experience because mentors get the opportunity to do more listening. They can then absorb more information about the barriers that Black founders face and try to figure out how to build solutions.
“This approach is even more important when you have founders of color because their issues are different and their problems are different. It allows for more effective outcomes for the founders,” he says.
But by far the most unique feature of the program, according to Marcus, was the flexibility that was embedded into it.
“When it comes to mentorship programs, one size doesn’t fit all,” he says.
“The host’s willingness to give founders space to run the program to meet their individual needs was something I’ve never experienced before.
The host’s willingness to give founders space to run the program to meet their individual needs was something I’ve never experienced before.
“The fact that mentees were empowered to guide the programming from week-to-week was amazing. I contrasted this with programs that have a very static curriculum that each founder has to go through, whether it’s helpful to their business or not.”
Canvassing cohort conversations
Heading into the program, Marcus was about to roll-out a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution to his enterprise customers – the latest addition to Flikshop’s customer base.
Given that he had never sold a SaaS product before, Marcus was unclear about how to connect his enterprise customers back to his company’s overall mission, which is to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders.
But a conversation with a fellow cohort member gave him the clarity he needed.
“One thing that stood out for me was a conversation I had in the group about data distribution and how to leverage data to create a predictive model, which allows companies to serve their customers better.
“As I think about what we need to do to build the technology to help reduce recidivism, a big part of it is ensuring that we’re being thoughtful and forward-thinking about how we’re connecting these organizations back to our overall mission. I’m excited about leveraging data to do that,” he says.
Marcus says the program allowed him to take some time out of his hectic work schedule to reflect on Flikshop and become more intentional about fulfilling its mission on a weekly basis.
“As a CEO of a growing startup, you’re always on the go. Every day, another spinning plate is added to your table.
“This experience allowed me to take time out each week to be reflective about what it is we’re working on and be more thoughtful about how to attack the week.
“Having that time to reflect was critical, especially since we’re building and rolling out a new product,” he says.
Marcus’ reflection and intentionality on the program paid dividends for Flikshop, which has signed its first major SaaS customer.
He provides three-part advice to founders and entrepreneurs who are interested in taking part in mentorship programs.
“Firstly, be very bold in your ask, not just on the program but across your entire entrepreneurial journey.
“Secondly, learn from your wins, but you’ll learn more from your losses.
“And thirdly, this is your opportunity to be vulnerable, so allow that to happen.”
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.