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“Bigger, you’re part of something way bigger.” Michelle Mbekeani listened to the Beyonce song on repeat as she waited to make her pitch at the finals of the 2023 John Edwardson ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC), the social impact track of the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked New Venture Challenge, jointly hosted by the Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

SNVC has helped jump-start more than 150 startups, which collectively raised more than $165 million. Mbekeani, a Neubauer Civic Scholar at Chicago Booth and a senior advisor to the Cook County State’s Attorney, was gearing up to present her venture Period, a startup that uses technology to advance social justice.

Period starts with a simple premise: An innocent person spends an average of 14 years in prison before being exonerated. What if you could reduce that time by making the appeals process more efficient?

Period’s first of its kind digital platform won the $75,000 top prize at the 2023 Edwardson SNVC. The platform holds the potential to significantly speed communications between incarcerated people and the attorneys and advocates who are interested in representing them. Its solution is elegant: Use technology to replace the current archaic system that restricts people in prison to using only physical mail and expensive phone calls to find and communicate with attorneys and advocates.

Mbekeani and her teammates, Jamie Brown, an experienced attorney, and Ashwin Raj, an expert in technology, spoke about their venture, their SNVC experience, and their plans for the future:

What problem are you trying to solve?
Michelle: It’s hard for individuals in prison to find a lawyer post-conviction. I’ve seen it take a decade for an individual to find an attorney who can take their case because everything has to be done through physical mail and expensive phone calls. It takes time for attorneys who want to take up a case to get information. We are providing a digital platform where people in prison and lawyers can find each other. 
Jamie: When I was at a law firm, we had 100 pro bono hours to use. I spent 40 hours just trying to figure out a person’s case. With Period, I could do that in two hours and use the remaining 38 to actually conduct legal research, draft motions and do more substantive legal work [generally].

How does the platform work?
Ashwin: The person in prison creates a profile with their case information and documentation and submits it to the platform. On the other end, lawyers, prosecutors, and advocates, can see and filter the applicants. Once they choose to take on the case, both parties can open the messaging portal to exchange documents and messages. Communications that would take six to nine months are done in minutes. It’s accessible and secure.
Michelle: The platform is free for incarcerated individuals. Attorneys will pay subscription fees based on the size of the firm.

Who will benefit from your platform?
Michelle: The biggest impact is getting people back to their lives. There are people who are innocent. There are people who have been given harsh sentences, and are yet to benefit from criminal justice reforms. Our primary customers, nonprofits centered in this space and legal firms, benefit from increasing their impact. 
Taxpayers also benefit. In Illinois you are statutorily entitled to compensation for each year of wrongful incarceration. There is the cost of incarceration itself. And the level of support that is needed to re-enter society is always increased by how long they have been in prison. These are burdens to taxpayers for conduct that should have been addressed much earlier. 
Ashwin: Prisons are legally obligated to give people in prison their mail. So much time is spent on shuttling mail, even in understaffed prisons, making sure handwritten addresses are delivered correctly. This is time that could be spent elsewhere.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?
Michelle: The short-term goal is to launch our pilot, which will be ready this summer. We’re hoping to test how it works in practice in Illinois, which has always been a progressive state. Long-term, we will roll it out to different states. We also plan to use data analytics to see if a pattern emerges of wrongful incarceration from a certain person or area.
Jamie: I would like Period to become a household name for people who work in this industry.

What was it like to go through the Edwardson SNVC?

Michelle: The best part of SNVC is learning new skills. The only numbers that I would see at work were when I was assigning a case number. I learned what it takes to run a company, do financial projections, and to reflect on where I could improve. SNVC created a safe space for me to grow.
Ashwin: Coming from a computer science background where I dealt with technical problems, it was eye opening to see how nebulous business problems could be broken down into smaller pieces and solved. It was also very collaborative. We got so much good feedback not just from the coaches but also from the other teams. It felt like we were all in it together.
Jamie: You can’t replace being in a classroom, working on pitches, getting feedback from coaches, mentors and professors. It pushed us to be better.

How does it feel to be the SNVC winner?
Michelle: It is exciting. It is reaffirming to be in front of extraordinary judges. It also means a lot because we are a diverse team, and the numbers are far from ideal when it comes to funding minorities and women. We are two Black women, both working moms, and a man of color. 
Ashwin: The most exciting part is the opportunities that it will bring. 
Jamie: Having affirmation from outside judges gives us the money and the credibility to keep moving. It feels incredible.

Anything else that you would like to add?
Michelle: I want to leverage new technology to protect human and civil rights and increase access to advocacy. Period is the first startup from my overarching company called Due Tech Process. It’s about giving people in the system an opportunity to speak for themselves. 

To connect with Period, email Michelle Mbekeani.

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