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Tech Founder Goes Back To Prison … To Deliver Powerful Message

Quite simply, Clarence Bethea is a remarkable guy! After the mostly inmate run re-entry committee sent Bethea an invitation to come down to speak to all of the inmates at FCI Sandstone, he didn’t only respond with enthusiasm and passion, but brought that energy with him.

As he walked into the prison chapel, which is quite immaculate I might add, with an open forty foot ceiling, stained glass windows, extravagant wood paneling, and a warm, inviting feel, Bethea was sporting a green “Beta.MN” t-shirt, a black jacket with “Tech Stars” emblazoned on the back, and blue jeans. After several short discussions with staff, and re-entry committee inmates, he took a seat.

Shortly after, Aaron Smith approached the podium and gave Bethea a warm and informative introduction. Which the crowd was quick to applaud to. Fast forward a few days later, where I found myself sitting with Smith, taking notes as he quickly rattled off his impression of the presentation. “Intentional, unapologetic, raw, passionate, authentic, and bold,” proclaimed Smith.

Smith continued, “These words describe the presentation that was passionately delivered on May 3rd, by entrepreneur Clarence Bethea.” Founder and CEO of Minneapolis’ Upsie – an insuretech venture started in 2015 with eight full time employees and a few million of venture capital funding behind it. “I mean, here is a man who has crushed poverty, overcame hopelessness, and survived jail to create a thriving tech company,” said Smith.

Smith, who has been located at FCI Sandstone for nearly nine years, said he has attended several presentations by individuals from free society, but never left feeling so invigorated and refueled as he did from Bethea’s presentation. Especially after this long stint of incarceration. Smith initially read about Bethea in a Pittsburgh newspaper, and considering he was a member of the re-entry committee at Sandstone, he thought it would be a great idea to send him an invitation.

Surprisingly, Bethea quickly accepted the offer from the re-entry coordinator. And “since his interaction with us, the compound has been buzzing with hope, and has allowed us to conceive that we too can beat the odds,” said Smith. Who went on to mention that the two topics that resonated with him the most were being bold, and having the confidence to reposition himself with new people, placed and things.

Smith recalled during our interview that he once heard T.D. Jakes say, “He who gets out of prison only to return to his old environment is setting himself up for incarceration, you must escape the environment and begin anew.” Which reminded Smith of how Bethea spoke extensively about those kind of choices. “After the presentation, I went back to the housing unit, and watched how men from all backgrounds huddled to discuss his talking points,” said Smith.

Smith made it clear that these men had just been exposed to the possibilities of positive change. That although there have been similar speakers in the past, Smith felt that Bethea was not only relatable, but made it feel as if he was starring into the mirror. “I can easily see myself walking the yard, and trading aspirations upon our release with him. That’s the connection we were seeking,” said Smith. “His story was our story, and now we had a frame of reference of a man who escaped the circumstances that stifles so many men and women of our community.”

I couldn’t agree any more with what Smith touched upon, but lets take you back to the day of Bethea’s presentation for some further analysis. You see, Bethea started off by giving us his background. His story of redemption, of conquering adversity, and the power of four central tenants he frequently reiterated: Work Hard, Dream Big, Stay Humble and Help Others.

Look, Bethea conquered the difficult hand he was dealt in life. But he didn’t want to focus too heavy on his own accomplishments, going as far to say, “I am only here to inspire, and hope that others do better than me.” He told us to dream big, to stop aiming for mediocrity, and that being humble is the greatest trait you can have.

However, it is his background that most of the crowd found solace in. Despite being raised in poverty, surrounded by violence, and experiencing a trip to prison, he became very successful. So after his speech, he devoted two hours to answering questions. Any and all questions. There was a common theme among them all. Everyone was wanting to know EXACTLY how he did it. Under the assumption that there was some magical formula.

“Look, its all about choices. Everything is a choice. If you want to be noticed, you first have to serve,” said Bethea. There is no magical formula he proclaimed. Everyone’s path is different. But by working hard, being honest, and earning people’s good will, doors will open. “Going out and doing good will for other people will get those striped off the table,” proclaimed Bethea.

Throughout his presentation and Q&A session, you could see all of these values explode through his aurora. He was genuine, and you could easily tell that he had a general concern for everyone in the audience. So much so, that he finished by giving everyone a hug, and committing to come back. To start an entrepreneur program with his investor buddies, and mentor some of the guys. That was special! When I walked back to my unit, Betheas words reverberated in my head, “You can do anything you want to, so long as you are honest and a good person.”

Co-Written with Aaron Smith

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