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According to a report released by the Prison Policy Initiative, there are nearly 2.3 million individuals who are behind bars in the U.S. As mass incarceration continues to ravage the Black community, there are over 400,000 African American inmates in federal and state prisons. Experiences stemming from the flawed criminal justice system are not monolithic. Behind these statistics lie an array of narratives about pain and perseverance, including social entrepreneur Marcus Bullock’s story. After spending nearly a decade in prison, he has turned one of the darkest times in his life into purpose through the creation of his platform Flikshop, which is designed to keep families connected with their incarcerated loved ones.

Entrepreneurship was always in the cards for the Washington, D.C. native. As a youngster, he would hustle Now and Laters and lollipops on the bus on the way to class so that he could afford the latest pair of sneakers. Growing up in a single-parent household intrinsically gave him the motivation to want to provide for himself and his family and ultimately shaped his perception of entrepreneurship. As a teenager, Bullock began to veer down the wrong path and dabbled in selling drugs. At the age of 15, following his involvement in a carjacking incident, Bullock was sentenced to eight years in an adult maximum-security prison. The high schooler’s concerns quickly shifted from worrying about homecoming and where the upperclassmen at his school would travel to for their senior trip to having to mentally deal with the day-to-day of navigating life behind bars. “When I went to prison, I was forced to grow up fast,” Bullock told NewsOne. “When I came home, I was thrust back into this environment where I was expected to grow and move like an adult would with no tutelage behind me.”

The experience almost broke Bullock, but he says his mother’s letters and photos were his saving grace. With each postcard and photo, he began to realize the power of connectivity and how it can shape an inmate’s experience. “One of the things that got me through and allowed me to even be able to see the world and what the possibilities were before I came home was my mom and the letters that she would write me while I was in jail,” he said. “In prison, getting mail is like hitting the lottery.” While incarcerated Bullock made the decision to take actionable steps towards changing the trajectory of his life. He earned his GED and took computer software courses.

Upon his release in 2004, he was met with a harsh reality experienced by many returning citizens; his record was a barrier that stood in the way of him landing a job. After a stint with a paint retailer, he launched his own contracting business and made it a point to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. In 2011, to take his recidivism efforts further, he launched Flikshop.

The platform gives individuals the ability to stay in touch with their friends and family who are incarcerated. Users can upload photos and messages to the Flikshop app, and it is then turned into a postcard and delivered to a loved one in prison. Aware of the fact that mental health disorders among prisoners have consistently exceeded rates of the general population, Bullock wanted to use Flikshop as a vessel to close that gap. “We knew if we were very intentional about delivering this level of connectivity to all of these families, the millions of them around the globe, we would see recidivism rates drop significantly,” he said. Since its inception, Flikshop’s user base has grown to over 180,000 and upwards of 400,000 postcards have been sent to incarcerated friends and family members nationwide. The app has also been backed by investors that include singer John Legend—who has been a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform—and retired NBA player Baron Davis.

To further his impact in the recidivism space, Bullock has launched the Flikshop School of Business where he cultivates environments in which returning citizens can see themselves reflected in entrepreneurship. The program provides courses on tech-related subjects, business ownership and offers mentorship. “We knew there was a need for post-release support. The Flikshop School of Business allowed us to go into spaces and share prison-to-entrepreneurship stories with men and women who were still behind bars, led by leaders that were formerly incarcerated themselves,” Bullock shared. The program has had 141 graduates. He also created the Flikshop Angels Program where individuals can donate to help children send Flikshop postcards to their parents who are incarcerated, free of charge. A study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that over 5 million children in the U.S. have had a parent in prison.

Bullock credits his family as his source for motivation. He says his four-year-old daughter is already developing an entrepreneurial mindset after witnessing the powerful work that he has done through Flikshop, often asking him if he can teach her how to be a CEO. In honor of Father’s Day, Bullock has decided to pay it forward and aide fathers who are behind bars in maintaining a connection with their kids. He teamed up with the philanthropic community Stand Together and the Prison Fellowship to fund over 20,000 individual postcards.

All in all, Bullock hopes to use his entrepreneurial journey to change negative perceptions surrounding returning citizens and provide them with the tools and resources needed to thrive upon their release. “We have to shift the narrative surrounding what people in prison look like and can do when they come home,” he said. “There are so many men and women who are bringing home solutions that are world-changing.”

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