Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins: Promise and The Power of Humanization

Phaedra in order to...

in order to build
something really magical,
it requires that you be your best self.
And for me, my best self
is committed to social change.
It's committed to changing institutions.
And I knew I couldn't
be just selling products
it would never be my jam

Welcome, everybody.
Rob Richardson here,
Disruption Now, it's great
to have the listeners who everybody
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With me today is is a kindred spirit
that I didn't know is a kindred spirit.
But I've looked at her background
and I mean, she's
she's a twin of mine in a lot of ways.
So a Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins
has been really about impact
and power for a long time.
She has background in the labor movement.
She has background in fighting
for criminal justice reform,
as he's taken a lot of her knowledge
and is applying that
to doing good in the world
and using the power of entrepreneurship,
the power of tech for good.
A lot of times when
people think about it,
they think about it
only in terms of
how can and how can
people make the most money
in the most in the fastest
and most efficient way
without worrying about the consequences.
And what I appreciate
about Phaedra's approach,
specifically with her company promise,
is that its whole goal
is tied to having an impact
and understanding
that you can both have impact
and have profits,
the two don't have to
be mutually exclusive,
nor should they be.
And in figuring out
how we can use the power of technology
to help those who often are overlooked
with the technology
in terms of the technology revolution
and where we're going in this world.
So it's my honor,
privilege to have her on. Phaedra
How are you doing?

Good. I'm so happy to be here.
And I'm so excited
to hear more about your background.
And it does feel
like we're kindred spirits.

It really does.
So you started the labor movement.
As I told you, I'm
a member of the Laborers
International Union. My father,
a lot of the reason why I'm standing here
is because of what he was able to do.
So he started off as a as a laborer
and worked his way up
as business manager and everything else.

Oh, wow.
And eventually he's a he's
a regional manager and vice president.
But I tell people this story often that,
you know, a building
he literally helped build,
he had to drop out of engineering
to help provide for .
It was my it was my sister
wasn't my fault for this one,
but it was my sister.
He had to find a way to provide.
So he had to get a job.
And he became a laborer.
And then he
he became a laborer.
And actually the building,
he worked on it,
even though he couldn't become a
he didn't become an electrical engineer.
He could have he just
couldn't at that time.
I end up graduating electrical engineering
and my picture
literally hangs in a building.
He literally helped build
with his hands, so.

Oh, wow. What a great story.

So it's been a part of my mission
and I've done a lot
with community organizing.
And I want to talk there
because I know you have
a lot of background specifically
with working with labor. Mm hmm.
And if I remember correctly,
figuring out how to work
with labor and and
and getting jobs

that are environmentally sustainable ,
because that's been
that is it continues to be
it is a really big issue.
Talk about your background there
and how that's informed
what you're doing to this work now.

Mm hmm.
Yeah, I one,
I always love hearing people's stories,
so I really appreciate your sharing.
I started in the labor
movement pretty young.
The labor movement
was transformative for me.
My mom was a waitress at a place
called Bill's it's a place in San Francisco,
and she went back to school
and got a union job.
And there was like,
you know,
you have life moments that shift.
And for me, the day
my mom got the call
and she was like,
I think it was like 10 or 12 dollars.
And I was like, you're going to make.
And she was like,
what will I do with all that money?
And so it was like
I went from free lunch to reduced lunch,
which was a big deal in my life
in terms of where you stand
up to sign up for lunch.
And so for me, my mom
getting a union job was transformative.
We didn't use medical stickers anymore.
I had a paper lunch.
It just like it created
a sense of dignity
that I didn't know
I was not being given until I got it.

And so I just thought
when you have that shift
in your own life,
you want that for other people.
And for me, I was really moved,
especially by children.
And I just thought,
how can we as a society
be in a place where kids
live without dignity
or are treated differently?
And and so that's why
I was really drawn to the labor movement.
So I went in as an intern.
Originally, I was like, I'm
going to be a civil rights lawyer.
And and then just discovered
how powerful it was that working
people could control their own destiny
and the power of collective
bargaining and so I was in the labor
movement for 13 years.
And it shaped who I am
and shaped how I think about the world.
And just with some of the most incredible
member leaders that I feel
very lucky to have worked with.

Yeah, I really believe that
if more corporate leaders,
people on boards had the background
of understanding
working people, being in organized labor,
being on the ground,
we'd have different policies.
We have people make up
that, you know, you could say
something is nefarious intent.
I don't necessarily think that's
it all the time.
There's people that just don't
even have any understanding
of other perspectives.

So they make decisions
and they're not proximate to the
to the people that are
being affected by those decisions.
So I completely agree.
And it's a very inspiring story.
I really want to talk.
I want to stay a little
bit on this point.
I do know there are also
little challenges
within the labor movement
in terms of interacting
and working with the community.
We can be really.
I'm very frank about this because I work
in the building trades
in terms of and we're with the laborers.
So we tend to be a lot
more progressive and inclusive.
But there are some issues there
in terms of how people view,
you know, how labor,
how the labor movement
needs to be more connected
sometimes to the community
and the people that it serves.
Can you talk about any challenges
that you may have had
or where do you see
as opportunities now that we can
that we should be bridging the gap
and doing a better job of?

Yeah, well, one thing
being a black young woman
in the labor movement
leading a labor federation
was its own experience.
Oh, please tell I was twenty
seven years old and was running
a local labor federation. And

it was to say that
we were really progressive. Right.
And so the first thing

we don't normally see
a black progressive
running a labor organization.
It's that you walked vin the room,
people like that,

what what's going on here?
And at the time, there was a separation
in the labor movement and SEIU
and some of the very progressive unions
were potentially
leaving the labor federation.
And so I was this
new labor leader who was like,
we should be more progressive.
We shouldn't work with just the AFL-CIO.
And I ran the AFL-CIO
local federation and we should,
So it was it was somewhat
I think it's the only time
I've been called girl.
So I was shucking and jiving.
And so it was a really
fascinating experience.
But the thing that was always
compelling to me is, is
that the power of the labor
movement is like in the moms
who are janitors,
who work two jobs,
who are living in garages,
making a better life for their families.
And so for me, that was always
the center of the labor movement.
I was always shocked
when I dealt with the national leadership
because it was just like a culture shock,
because it's like leaving home,
because in the local movement,
I felt so supported and nurtured
and they've had a real clarity of vision.
You know, speaking of building trades,
I was once at a rally
and I was speaking in Spanish
and just like cameraperson screamed
Speak in English, Speak in English
And I see like the carpenters
just zoom like it. It was just
like such solidarity.
And so
so one thing I think
that's really important
about the labor movement is
you have to measure success
because people are paying
for your salary.
And so what I appreciated
about the labor movement is that
but it also made it hard, to your point,
to think about community interactions,
because sometimes
I would be working with community groups
who I had the highest level of respect for.
But they didn't have members
who were like deliver this by this date.
So I remember someone saying like,
we should lose this
because it doesn't feel right.
And I was like,
my members aren't going to be like,
I should lose this
because it doesn't feel right.
They're going to like go get
we need health care and benefits.
And this is not a moral victory,
that there are moral victories to be had,
but you don't have the moral victory
at the expense of someone else's family.
And so

that's the challenge.
I think it's you you stated it very well.
I think it's a two sided challenge
is the challenge of, OK,
so you have people that are like, OK,
we have to just do this
because it's something we have to do right now,
no matter the consequences, do it.
And then you have the other side,
though, that I think is the challenge
for when you have some power
and when you're in the
leadership structure
of of a labor movement,
you may not have as much power
as corporations, but you have some power.
You can't you can't also just be
internally focused because we have to,
I think, continually be outwardly
focused to show value to working people,
because the people don't support
the labor movement.
It's got to hurt them,
but it'll hurt everybody.
But we have to be
we have to go out there
continually, I think,
be more externally focused,
even if we don't get
a direct transactional benefit,
because eventually that pays off
is the right thing to do.
But also,
if you don't have
people behind you, that's how
no rights at work is not right to work.
Those how those terrible
labor laws passed
because people are fooled
or they just don't hear
from unions enough.
So I do think the work that you did
and continue to do in another way
is very, very important.
Prince, I want to talk about
you have a background with Prince
which is just so fascinating to me.

So you helped actually
Prince get ownership of his catalog,
which I have a lot of
interest in hearing
and a lot of really
it's personal to me
because as we talked offline
and we're launching a platform
that's about empowering artists.
I would love to hear
love to hear the story about
working with Prince specifically.
What's the most important thing
or lesson or conversation
you took away from Prince?

So there's no one like him ever has been?
I think and ever will be.
The level of genius is just remarkable.
My job was really difficult with him.
I had he used to call me
Meriweather with Mayweather, Floyd
Mayweather because
it's some stuff,
and my job was to kind of
go be the mean one and be like,
no, you can't do this
and you can't do this.
And and so the lesson that he told me
that it's been one that I hold forever
was, you know, I came to him,
I was like, oh, God,
this person doesn't like me.
And I and I'm doing all this, you know.
You know, he would be like
he would always be the kind one
And he'd be like, OK, I'll go do this.
And I'd be like, OK, OK, go.
And I go do it. I go, oh, my heart hurts.
I want people to like me.
And and he was like,
you don't need to be like.
And I was like, do I really, really do?
And he said to me something
that was really
he actually told me one thing he said.
He said,
as long as they like me, it's fine.
They don't need to like you.
And I was like, OK.
I was like, oh, he's like, it's
not your job to be liked
the thing he said
that that has always
stood with me is that he said,
you have to decide, Phaedra,
if you are going to play
in the big leagues or the small leagues.
And he said, because
if you play in your backyard,
no one boos you.
When you play in Madison Square
Garden, you're going to get booed.
So if you want to play,
you need to get ready
and you need to get used to boos.
Otherwise you just have
to stay in your backyard.


I just was like it was like a gut check.
It was like, get yourself together.
This is not the place.
And I just was like,
yeah, if I want to make big change,
I got to be in the big leagues,
which means I can't be worried
about whether as long as
what I'm doing is clear
and my purpose is clear
and he and I were aligned, then
I couldn't be worried
if people thought I was mean
or didn't like me.
And that was a really important
learning lesson for me.

That is a that is a powerful lesson.


I've seen some clips of Prince recently
and had no idea of his level of
philosophical intellect like that.
Like you wouldn't people wouldn't know.
And I really think
maybe we should make this part disrupt art
people need to understand
the other side of him outside of music.
They need to understand, because I don't
I didn't understand like this.
This brother was deep, deep,

He would send me
YouTube clips, clips,
and he would just be like
the funniest.
But also the worst is
when he would call me like two a.m.
and I'd be like, oh,
he just got something
he read something he wants to talk about.
And I would just be like,
oh, this is going to be
a really important lesson.
But yeah, he was
literally the most brilliant
human I've ever met and
just committed both
to faith and learning.
And it's interesting
because I hadn't been a fan of his music
until, of course,
you work with him and hear it
and you just can't
like he's destroyed all music for me.
But it's just a he as a human
was incredibly remarkable.
And I hope the world
remembers him for his commitment
to the liberation
of black people, to social justice, to
everything he did
was really about liberation.

Yeah. And I don't think people know that.
Like I didn't know that.
And the fact is,
you know what this show is about?
What I'm what I'm about in
general is about,
you know, changing
common narratives and constructs.
And I didn't tell you
this story about me.
All my listeners know the story.
But I'll be very brief when I say it.
And why it's important to me
is because, you know, I have ADHD,
not that that matters
when I was growing up.
They viewed it as
a they viewed as learning difference now,
but they call it a learning
disability then.
So something was wrong with you, right,
if you weren't learning the way
everyone else learned.
And, you know, but luckily,
I didn't accept that as a label
for life in
in eighth grade, I told my teacher
all of my dreams and aspirations.
And Phaedrus, she essentially said, like,
you're not going to be able to do that.

Look at how you're not going to college.
Look at look at your academic record.
Like you need to be
more realistic in your assessment.
And my mother gave me words
that stick with me to this day.
She said, look,
you never have to be defined
by anyone's low or
narrow expectations of you,
for yourself, by yourself.

Hmm. That such could never be defined.
That's right.

That's right.
So I haven't been.
But my goal is to make sure
others aren't either
and that we destroy these narratives
and these constructs
that are put forward,
that if you're a black man,
you are only this.
If you've done this, your only this,
or you can only be this
because you're from a certain area.
So my mission in life is to do that.
So that's the reason why
I think it's so important
for people to know
the full scope of who Prince was,
because more than a
lot more of the entertainer,
that's what he did.
That wasn't his mission in life.
It's about empowerment, like you said.
Let's talk about a little bit
with your work with with Van Jones.
We talked a little bit about it,
but you've done some work

You were the CEO of
Green for all what was.
What do you see still as the biggest
opportunity and challenge
when it comes to climate
change at this moment?

Well, one, you could just
appreciate the culture shock of
going from running a labor federation
to going to green for all that's
culture shock
I was like I went there, too.
How do we measure success?
What do you do?
And I was like, oh, lordy.
And coming after Van, who then?
Who is like the most I remember
The first meeting,
like we start every meeting with a song.
And I was like, OK, cool.
And then

let's rewind that.
So at a Van meeting,
he starts every meeting with a song

we'll yeah because
it was like very soulful, artist driven.
It was just it was introspective.
And this was like,
you know, a hundred years ago.
And so I had come
the only place I'd ever worked
was the labor movement

wasn't a hundred years ago wasn't it in the vicinity of Green For All?

I mean, it was like,
what, 10 years ago, it was 12 years ago.

We're saying we're saying
that one hundred years ago.
Does it make us that old?

I know, before Obama.
So we've had three different.
We've had three presidents
since I was there.

All right.

Feels like feels like
pre Obama is like another generation.


And so so the difference was
they were more community or not.
It wasn't even community oriented,
but it was much more like
I never no one ever cared
about how we felt as individuals.
When I was in the labor movement.
It was like it wasn't a
it was about the outcome, the MacDermott.
It was about,
you know, like success
was not measured about how we felt.
Success was did people's wages
improved did power get, you know, like
did you increase power?
Like it was very clear.
So to be in a place
with a different level of like
is about our personal experience.
It's about that for me
was just like I was like,
what are you guys talking about?
So it was it was amazing.
The biggest threat, I think,
to climate change,
my biggest fear is that
people do not believe it's
real in the midst of a global crisis.


And that, as you know, I'm in California
and we're having fires.
And even hearing
people say like global warming,
they think it's about heat.
They don't see the loss of
of the oceans or flooding or
looking at what happened
in the East Coast
and in Texas, and that
it is most likely to be poor,
black and brown people that are impacted.
And so and the part
I think that's hard is
it's like the reason that people don't
talk about the narrative,
is because the people
who are most likely to be impacted
are the poorest among us. Yeah.
And it it's our folks.
And so we have to say,
you know, this is real.
But if this were happening to people
in Manhattan on Park Place,
this would be a national crisis.
It's all people would talk about.
And so that's what scares me
about global warming, is that
the impact in the
Gulf Coast, the impact is
is so clear for all of our folks
and that we aren't
talking about it in that way
is is very problematic.
And that's why, you know,
infrastructure investments
are going to be really
incredibly important.
But, you know, I think we should
we have to make sure to not talk about
as some crazy environmental thing.
But it's something, you know,

I hink that's the.
So if I get to it, like
I think that it was also
I agree with you.
I think there's several levels of
issues and reasons
we we faced a challenge.
There is that and it's a hard
first of all, it's a wicked
structural, hard problem
that's been ingrained. So.
And so like it's been
so we got to go up against a system
that's been in place. So that's not easy.
But beyond that, the messaging has been
very poor,
I think has been extremely poor people.
When they tend to think of
climate change activists,
they tend to think of one or two areas
that don't see one or two.
I think pictures
that aren't aligned
with reality of who's being affected.
I think they think of tree huggers.
People are like up against a tree hippie,
so on and so forth.
And I'm being I'm making generalizations.
This is not accurate.
But I think if you the average person,
if they're being honest, what they think
or they think of people,
this is an elitist problem
that they get to deal with,
so on and so forth.
And it's been
and it's been the challenge is
it hasn't been described
in terms of how it affects
black and brown people
The people leading these organizations
tend to not be people of color,
tend to be not people that understand
or connected to these problems.
So if you're trying to
if you're trying to articulate a vision
for a problem, that you're
not all the way connected to it
because there there's a true disconnect.
and then three, I think is a challenge,
that it's something that even though
people see these things
happening all the time,
until it actually happens
to them, it's harder.
So it's just kind of
is a problem that gets
worse in the future
and it continues to get worse.
But people are focused
on their problems right now
and don't see the connection sometimes.
So that's my back
of the napkin assessment.
I can be completely off,
but that's what that's what
that's what I assess of the situation.

No, I think that's right.
I think that's right.

OK, so so let's talk about your.
Work with what you're doing
now because you've.
It's been very impressive
as a CEO of Promise.
You just recently closed
the series, a round of,
I think, over 20 million dollars.
Before that, you raised
millions of dollars.
It's been very, very, very impressive.
Let's let's talk about
how you stay principled, though,
because I've read
some of your interviews and you've
you made a point of building a building,
a sustainable, profitable business
that is still focused on a mission
that that aligns
with everything that you've been working
towards your entire life.
Mm hmm.
That sounds good in theory.
How do you do that, though?
Like this seems like it's hard.

It's so hard. I wish it.
I wish I could be like.
And now we're done.
The biggest challenge
is there's not a lot
of models for companies
that are building capital, businesses
that are not extractive.
And so like when I was like,
we want to build a business
that doesn't harm people.
The model I would hear is
Ben and Jerry's and yogurt.
It would be like, oh,
these are the two companies
that have managed to not harm people.
And I just was like,
there has to be a better model
than the ice cream and yogurt.
And so so the work
we do, we started really focus
on the criminal justice system.
And what we discovered
is that the system is
any efficiency you create
for the system is problematic.
Even if you're doing good
because the system is so
broken or working way back that
any effieciancy you create is still problematic
because the system is is corrupt.


But you just can't because
like originally when I was like,
oh, we're going to make the
system better because.
And what I realized
is that the consequence of that is
let's say we made
it better on the beginning.
They figure out how to do harm somewhere,
like we created 20 percent
more capacity to do more harm.
So even though our system was efficient,
it created more harm, you know,
like it allowed the system
to do more harm.
So we just made a decision
that wasn't for us. Right.
We couldn't do that.
So back up.
Let's talk more about what
and because we break this down
to several layers
about the criminal justice
reform, what moved you
Yeah, I want to talk about that.
Let's let's take high
level picture first.
What does Thomas do?
And let so people

get an understanding
of what your business does.
And then we'll talk about what
motivated you to come up with the idea
specifically in the
criminal justice system
and what problems you see there
and how you want to solve them.
So let's go big picture there. Promise.
You started off being this
well, what was it? So promise.
We work with government
because we believe that
government is an institution
that's important
for the people that we grew up with
and the people that we care about.
And so when we first started
Promise, we're very focused
on the criminal justice system.
We were trying to figure out how to scale
bail reform.
Two thirds of the people
that are incarcerated in jails are there
before they've been
convicted of the crimes.
They've been charged but not convicted.
And it's a lot of people
with nonviolent offenses
who are there because
they can't afford to get out.
So if you think the system is broken,
we wanted to think through
how could you use technology
to be able to get people out more quickly
or not have people incarcerated
at all because they have
not been charged with
they have not been convicted of a crime.
And so the idea that
we incarcerate people
because they're poor is unacceptable.
And the idea that
we incarcerate people
before they've been convicted. Right.
Because this isn't a risk thing. Right.
This isn't like you've
this isn't someone who's murdered
someone or done anything.
This is really just it.
And because we know
the systems are broken
for poor black and brown people. Right.
You're more likely to be stopped.
You're more likely to be arrested.
And so if you're looking
at a broken system.
And so originally what we thought
is we're going to work to understand risk
and to be able to make the case
and provide software
so that people can go home
instead of being incarcerated.
OK, we had some success.
yeah it was good we had success
But then I was sitting in Alabama
in a meeting with some folks.
And I literally two
things happened to me
when I was at a conference.
And these folks started
telling homophobic jokes.
And this was like
the head of a state wide system
with the head of a company.
And I just was like,
this is like how they talk when I'm here.
Lord knows how they talk
when I'm not here
how they talk about you
I guess they think
they could be homophobic
xfbecause I'm black, you know, like
this is our good level of discrimination.
So I just was like
and you know, I can't control myself
in those kind of situations.
I was just like,
this is unacceptable.

You're like me. Right.

I was like, what the
what's wrong with you?
And my poor co-founder was like,
oh, lordy, here she go.
I was just like,
what's wrong with you guys?
So I was like, oh,
not going to sell to those people.
So then I was in the south
in a meeting, and literally
the people were talking about
keeping someone in jail
for a pretrial arrest
for seven years on a marijuana arrest
And I just was like
I felt like I was in a movie.
It was just like,
do you remember the Dukes of Hazzard
where the sheriff is just
right you remeber Boss Hog?
I just.
I just literally I was with a colleague,
I just got up and I just left
and I didn't go back.
I was like,
I don't have anything productive.
And so I just.
And at the time Trump was president,
we were talking to the federal system.
And I just was like,
anything we do for these folks,
even if our intent is good,
even if our software is good.
The consequences of our work
will be harmful.

Yeah. Wow.

The system will get better.
So literally,
I called one of our investors
our biggest investor,
and I was like, so I'm not
going to do this anymore.
It's like it's like
because I just felt like
in order to build
something really magical,
it requires that you be your best self.


And for me, my best self
is committed to social change.
It's committed to changing institutions.
And I knew I couldn't
be just selling products
would never be my jam like it just
would never be my jam like it just
it wouldn't be I didn't do it.

You and I have that in common.
I think you quoted
as saying good software
in the hands of the wrong people can do
bad, can do damage,

which despite its success. Right.
It does that.
And even if I had good intentions
and so I just was like,
we're not going to do this.
And so I was like,
I'm going to return all this money.
And and then what I was
struck by is the
our investors like, no,
we believe in you keep the money.
And I was like, OK.
And I bit in that same
trip, we'd been to New Orleans
and I'd seen it.
The people were in jail
for parking tickets. Yep.
And I just was like,
you know, this must be New Orleans,
but it's much better in California.
And I went to California.
So what happens in Oakland at the time?
It's since changed.
So what happens if you
get a parking ticket?
And they said, well, if you can't afford
a parking ticket, one,
you have to wait until it's
at least five hundred dollars.
Sowhat that means is you have to wait
until you have fees and fines.
You don't owe the
original ticket, probably.
So it's like if you're too poor
to pay originally,
you have to wait
until it's more expensive
because you couldn't pay it
to put it on a payment plan.
And then you have to pay 50 percent down
and you have to prove your poor
to pay them to put it on a payment plan,
and you have to come to their office
with your taxes.
And so just like
if I want to buy a peloton
interest free for six months,
I have to answer like three
or four questions.
But if I'm poor and I
can't afford a ticket,
that the consequence is jail.
They make it as difficult as possible.
So I just was like, this is unacceptable.
And so that's how
we ended up in the payment
space is at the time
the government wouldn't work with us.
And so we just scraped their system
and we just started
paying people's tickets
and like only through the grace of God
and people's spirit.
Ninety three percent
of people paid us back.
We didn't even have their address.

It's just wait back up,
let me just understand
what you just said.
So you essentially
just paid people's bills
and hope they would pay you back.
You didn't even have the
information at first.
No all we had
Ninety three percent paid back.
I mean, that is first of all,
what a leap of faith.
So and it's it's awesome that they did it
and it shows you that you can have.
That's very scary, by the way.
So you really took a leap of faith.

We took a total leap of faith.
And and and I would just like
I remember one time
this guy didn't pay us back
and we were like,
we don't even know where he lives.
So like, what could we had no recourse.
We could send a text message.
Excuse me.
You didn't pay us back.
Was there anything in particular that you guys did?
Like, what do you think made
you successful when people saying,
I want to pay you back?
I think what we did is we sent reminders
to people about their bills.
We, I think is silly as it sounds.
All of our systems are built
as though people want to pay.
So when people don't pay,
we don't presume that the thing to do
is to be punitive.
And so right now, payment
systems are really built
for people who have money.
So it's like you pay
on this day once a month.
And if you don't pay,
you fail in government.
But the reality is,
of a lot of people I know is, you don't
just because I have money on the 12th
doesn't mean I have money
on the 12th again next month,
I might have money, you know,
on the on a different date. And so.
So our systems are just designed.
So like, for example,
if someone misses a payment
and they make it within two weeks,
we don't have late fees.
We don't you know,
like it's just like
because the thing we know
is when we run someone's credit card
and it fails a majority of the time,
it's insufficient funds.
So what do we look like
trying to threaten people
like you don't have money, think?
So the payment system,
if we want people to pay,
we should just recognize it's
not that they don't want to pay
if they literally don't have money.
And so you just act with grace.

So the business model

sounds like because
I'm trying to figure out
how one makes money.
You work with governments
who are very poor,
who have a poor return
of getting the money in the first place
and using your process to get the money.
But they pay you for it
because they get less.
They're not going to
get the money anyway.
But you're doing it
in a more effective way, essentially.

And to be really specific,
you and I were talking about
Tony Perry, who was one of our
is a client in Louisville
who runs a Louisville
water sewage is
in a place like that because of Covid.
There were thousands of people
who were not paying their bills
because they were unable to
because they've lost work.
So one thing you could do
is just shut off everyone's water.
And in a lot of places,
there's so many people
that would have had to been shut off.
It would have taken years
to actually shut off everyone's water.
And so instead, what they do is
what normally you would do
is shut off people's water
and then you would turn them
into collections.
And for government,
you get much less money
when they go to collections.
And so what we say instead is
we will work with someone
to get the money paid back,
but we want to keep their water on.
We don't want someone's
water be shut off.
And we're going to give them
basically the term.
So instead of saying, like,
you have a six month,
like we think of it as, you know,
a six month term
instead of just like this day,
this day, this day.
And then in in Louisville,
there is a case study.
And again, ninety three
percent of people paid it back.
And so it's such
a better value proposition
for the government of Louisville
to be able to say
we can get 93 percent of this money back,
we're going to keep people's water on.
And it's so much more inexpensive
than collections.
And so it's tends to be a win win
because the person gets
to keep the resource.
We think we're going to root for them.
We're going to take Cash App, Venmo any way.
You can pay. We're going to make it work.
And so so that's the
that is because you either would get,
you know, for collection,
they'd sometimes take up
to 60 percent of the money they collect
and they collect at very low rates.

Wow. Wow.
So their greed actually
keeps them from making more money.
That's that's interesting.
An interesting model.
You're just really
taking the whole concept
and just really turn it on its head.
You've had success, fundraising
I want to go back to that as a
as a black woman.
I really hate kind of talking
about these things
as far as you're
the first black woman to this and that
because it's like that.
But but the the the statement is, though,
you still had a lot of success
and we still have barriers.
And I know you understand that a lot of
it has to do with opportunity and timing,
and you're also brilliant,
but all those things come together.

Thank you.

I know you understand that.
And that's the reason why I'm hesitant
to say the first
black woman this and that.
But you've had success
traditionally where others have not.
What lessons do you think?
What lessons would you
would you like to share
with the audience in terms of how
they should be thinking about it?
I like to learn for myself
as I have a start up I'm
working on now, like what is
what's the best approach here ?
When you're.
first starting off,
even if you have some initial capital,
what's the best approach
to think about fundraising
to have success?

I just realized we've
raised like over 50 million,
just as you're saying, I'm like adding it up.
I was like man we raised like 50 million

So you have you're
very much an expert in this area.
So I'm all ears.

Yeah, we definitely
One is I think
one is we should just acknowledge
that venture capital is racist.
So like we should
we should not pretend, because I think
I have been lucky in some places
that we should like.
So if it doesn't happen for people, it's
not it's not because it's a skill
the system is structurally broken.
So we should just acknowledge that.
I was really lucky
when I left working for Prince
when I was struck by is that
the technology was
not working for artists
and especially legalese
the artists of color,
because that technology
was devaluing content,
meaning that people were making less.
And so I was like, wait.
Technology isn't good
for the environment.
It isn't good for the labor movement.
It isn't good for artists.
So I was like we should understand this.
So I went to work
at a company called Honor,
which I'm on the board of now,
and Honor did home care,
which was perfect.
I'd been an SEIU organizer
and IHSS and in-home support services.
So I was like really excited to do that.
And I went there to run operations,
but I actually ended up running revenue.
And and so I was lucky
when I went to raise
I had been in a company
and been responsible
for making money at a company
that was doing well. Right.
They had raised hundreds of millions.
You know, I don't know, it's
maybe raised 100 or 200
more than a hundred couple hundred million dollars.
And so to be able to have
that type of experience
and Mark Andriessen
was the largest investor
from a firm called Andreessen Horowitz.
And so it was just like
I didn't know anything about tech.
It just happened to be the company
I went to work at,
had a good investor,
and then I ran revenue

And so I think that's a really
important point.
And I want you to continue.
Yeah, because people
get into entrepreneurship
and there's this myth
that's like, oh,
the best way to be successful
as an entrepreneur is
you have to go out there
first, risk it all.
And what you're showing
is that actually a better path
that I've heard this more
and more is to actually
have some experience,
maybe even as a regular job
in the corporate sector
and other, and leverage
that experience versus
trying to have to learn everything
on the fly as an entrepreneur. Yeah.
I'm pulling
that lesson is one that I think we
that people need to listen to,
because there has been
this illusion online
that the best way to make
it is just to go out there,
risk everything.
And you have to be
willing to take the risk.
And if you have a job
and you don't know what it means
to be an entrepreneur,
I mean, it's I think

it's like
rich young people say stuff like that,
I'm like,
I don't know where people live,
but like someone else wasn't
going to pay for my kids to go to school.
So if I didn't have a job,
there was no I didn't.
I know people like,
why don't you go to business school?
And was like, business school.
Like, who's going to pay my mortgage?
What are you?
And I hear people
I have student loans
I was like I didn't have parents that,
you know, paid for anything,
you know, like I just send money home,
you know, like. So it just doesn't.

As opposed to the model being broken
because the model is
you're supposed to be able
to come out here and take all risk.
And that's what Mark Zuckerberg did.

Mark Zuckerbergs
parents were going to cushion him
and send him to Harvard,
which is amazing.
And everyone should be so lucky.
My I went to Cal State Northridge
and my little sister
went with me to school
while she was in High School
We shared a dorm room.
So it's like that was not my reality.

It is not the reality of
most of most people,
especially not most people of color.
So we shouldn't we shouldn't
apply a model that only works
to the very elite and the few
because it's well, it's a bad model.
And two, we're missing out
on opportunities.
There's probably more promise
Companies that could be out there
had people look beyond that,
limited scope and model.
But I still think it's important
lesson to look
is not just going out there
and just saying you need to go out there
and be an entrepreneur.
Actually, it is having some experience.
There's nothing wrong with learning
in the corporate world or learning in
from community organizing.
All those things can be
and are beneficial
and have been beneficial
to helping you build your company,
because I just hear the lies so much that
that these things don't matter.
They really do. I just want to say no.

And I also think it's
not responsible of us
to tell young people or people of color
or people who didn't grow up with money
to take jobs that pay them in equity.
The reality is, is
you can only deal with the risk
you can afford to lose.
And if you're the first person
in your family who had a job
and you have to pay back student loans,
that it's like Russian roulette,
like we should be
clear, equity is
you're much more likely
to fail than succeed.
And there are some amazing stories
what works out for people.
you know, I feel lucky
that I think my kids
will be able to afford to take risk.
I couldn't afford to take risk.
you know, and so and I'm conscious
that every day I work at Promise,
I'm making less money
than if I were working somewhere else.
So I'm taking risk for my family.
And so but I
you know, I just think
Even when I right out of college,
I had student loans to pay back,
I had to send money home
because my mom, my
you know, like I did help financially.

And the idea that
I would have gone somewhere, made
twenty thousand dollars
and work for free
like I just wasn't in my reality.

But Phaedra it's also a myth,
like it's a toal myth
Google didn't do that.
They were still they were
they were in a college.
And the people that started
Google were still
had their jobs in college.
Warby Parker, they didn't do it.
They had a Nike. Right.
didn't do it like most people
actually have some source of income
or some or some type of stability
before they go on and make these large
these large leaps to a
Company Jeff Bezos had
rich parents that invested three hundred
thousand dollars in him like he did.
None of this happened
that they just almi said
they took all the risk in the world and
and they just made

I love to it's just
like it's just a little money.
I was like three hundred thousand dollars
more than my mom's house is worth.
Like, what are you talking about?

Twenty five years ago, I'm going to tell,
is at millions of dollars,

Today and I'm talking twenty twenty one.
Oh, my God. So
let's see.
So you we talked about fundraising
and you talked about the system
being so corrupt.
I'm and I agree with
obviously, I'm curious,
what role do you see and promise playing
five to ten years from now
and really taking a dent
in the criminal justice system
to make it less injust and more and more
just what these role in?
What would that look like?

So part of what I think we're doing
is one is trying to turn systems
that are punitive in nature
and make them, instead of being punitive,
to actually be rooting
for people's success.
So I think that's one big thing
I think that we're doing
is we're showing people
you don't have to tell someone
you will go to jail if you don't do this.
That's actually not the best way
to run a system.
And and so I think that's important.
And and I think it's very basic,
which is if people have money,
we assume we should treat them
with kindness and flexibility.
Yeah, people are poor.
We should treat them
with consequences and rigidness.
And so the biggest shift,
I think, for promise
is that there should be no shame
in it's honorable work
that people are doing
and that the idea that there is shame
and poverty is unacceptable.
And so my hope is
that the same privileges
we give to people in payments
who have money,
that that promise will force
those same principles
of respect and dignity
into the system of government
and into the you know, like
I want people who to say,
why would I pay you interest?
Like that's what I'll promise
doesn't charge interest.
Well, you know, if
I need to take six months
to pay something off,
why would I pay you interest right?
It's why
Why would we pay the government interest?
You know, like that's insane.
None of our payment
plans have interest in the idea
that people pay interest
to the guy, you know.
So shifting
people's thinking and you know,
we did something
called self self attestation,
which is you to say I qualify. Right.
Instead of having to provide your taxes,
because we think people's words
matter and people are like,
this is so easy.
I can't believe this is real.
And because people
aren't being used to treat it
well or not. Right.
It's like human dignity.
It's like so you can't afford a bill.
And so for us, you know,
our number went viral
because someone was like you call
this number it was on Facebook
and you get free money
because we are doing Cares
and then you get to pay off your bill
as long as you walk,
which is a misinterpretation.
Yeah. Appreciate it.

But the ads worked for you!
But we got all these calls
And you can pay my bills. What up?
Oh my gosh!
Oh, man that is. Wow.

But that's what I think is a testament.
I was like, I'll
I told the team, I was like,
that's as good as it gets. That's it.

That's the best word by word of mouth.

But then we were like,
actually, we're not in that jurisdiction.
We got calls that we'd be like,
OK, well, do you have a water?
This was in where was this at?
Out in Virginia.
And we'd be like,
OK, this is
do you have a water bill at this place?
They're like, no.
And I was like, well,
we can't do everywhere. Oh, yeah.

But you moved away just as very quickly.
You moved away from bail reform

We did. We did.

That's a that's an area because it's
I think you said this
earlier is just is no way
that you could have,
at least with your current application.
It wouldn't have helped.
It would have probably made it worse.
They would have found a way,
let's figure out a way
to keep people in jail longer and let's
And I just think that's
just so challenging.
And so as we listen,
people don't understand
the severity of how bad
our criminal justice system is,
how much damage it does
to, of course, people,
but also to society, how much it cost,
how much it cost in lost opportunity.
So, you know.
Thank you for all you're doing to
highlight the work of people
and humanizing people,
I just think is so important.
Couple of a closing out things
that we'd like to do.
Kind of a buy a round really quick.
What's an important conviction
In truth, you have that
many people disagree with you on
this is a good question for you.

What's an important thing?
Oh, that that people who don't pay
their bills are not paying them
because they're not able to versus
they dont want to.

Yeah, I figured that.

I figured it will be something like that
because you already said it.
But I wanted to you

know, people always like ahhh
and I always like like I always like.
What's your read?
One funny conversation
I had with someone is
I was saying, you said, you know, people
you should be able pay
in the morning because
and the day you get paid
and the person was like,
why does it matter?
Any time of day
if you get paid on that day
and I was like, because people's
money is gone by the afternoon.
And he was like,
how could someone's money be gone
the day they get paid?
And I was like
what are you talking about it's gone
before they get paid.
When I was growing up,
payday was just like the day
to pay back what we owed.

And that's also the problem.
Like people that are solving
these problems aren't connected.
and don't have an understanding
of what the real experience is.
But to your point,
being poor or being rich
has nothing to do with your values
or the type of person you are.
A really, really
bad people that are rich.
There's a lot of great
people that are poor.
Vice versa.
The two are not connected to your values
and who you are.
But we as a society,
if we're honest,
we see the two as tied together,
that if you're poor,
then that means there's
something wrong with you,
is because you are a bad person, it's
because you have bad behavior,
so on and so forth.
And those things are not true.
But we've been told
those lies as a society. All right. So
you have a billboard Google ad that
that is you're saying or theme for life.
What does that say
and why.

All people deserve to be free.

And you pretty explained
you explained that pretty well already.
All right. You have a committee of three.
living or dead to advise you on business,
on life, philosophy, whatever you want.
Tell me who these three people are
and why.

My nana, who passed away, who is like the
you know, like
there is one person in life who like
I feel like you're really lucky
when someone I heard this ones
that when someone's eyes
light up, when they see you.
And so for me, the measurement of that
of my grandmother,
like I can just measure myself.
Is she disappointed?
OK, I got to do differently.
Is she happy?
So she would definitely
just as a human and I just trust her. And
she worked at Macy's and
was a member of UFCW.
And so just definitely my nana.
I think the Rock Dwayne Johnson

He's on my list. I want to meet him.
He's on my list to meet too

I you know, like it's the thing
that's so interesting to me about him
is he and Kevin Hart.
I watch their discipline.
And this is the one thing I learned
being in music is people
who are disciplined win.
And so and it is talent plus,
but the level of like
just ethos around
dedication and discipline.
And so I'm really and I'm fascinated
that he does it in
such a way that is kind.
It's not.
And I feel like when you and I
probably were both in the labor movement
where everyone we saw who had power
was mean and rough like
power was screaming at people.
And so like just learning
a different way of being
is so aspirational to me.
Like, oh, like,
you know, I grew up like
which you probably did in the labor
movement is like people
screamed at me and threw,
you know, like it was like
that was power.

You were like made people small.
And so how do we figure out
different models?
And so I'm really interested
in the rock
is very, very interesting to me.
So I would love to
just have his advisements

He's on my list, too. That's funny.

Is he?

So just like, again,
like to be living or dead, too.
So you get right.

Trying to think about
who else what I want.
um, I don't know.
Gosh it's like one more I have
I don't know.
I have to get into

We can end at two
we can end at two, because.

Oh, you know, what do I really?
Anyway, so there
there's like all these women
like in a group that I'm
just trying to get through
because I'm really interested
in liberation stuff.
but yeah, I would probably
stay with those two.
Oh, anyone who's physically fit,
I am increasingly believing
that mental health is physical health.
And so we can have
a whole different conversation.
So that's why I'm like, is it physical?
Is it mental?
Is it you know, I think

the two are tied together too. Right.
I make a a really concerted effort
every single morning
to get up early workout.
Not not really any reason.
Like I want to stay in shape, too,
but it's also helps
me not go crazy, literally. Right.
Yeah, I'm just sitting
in front of a screen all day.
Can also drive your brain crazy,
as you know, I'm sure.
One final question.
Advice you would give yourself.
You were what advice
would you give your younger
self at any point?
Maybe it could be when you started off
in entrepreneurship.
Labor movement doesn't matter.
And what advice would you ignore?

I would
I wish I would have known
that everything was going to be OK,
because I think when you grow up
a certain way like one,
you think you're going to die early.
And two.
I just wish that I had
I like I just wish I had understood
through everything.
You know,
someone said to me that the light
someone said to me
who was coaching me, they said,
the good news is for every dark thing,
you've come out with more light.
And I think I didn't understand that.
And so I just would be like
scared of the dark
and each dark moment
would overtake instead
of seeing it as an opportunity
to realize.
Now, I know I'm going to come out
with light at the end.
So even if this is dark,
there will be light at the end.
So I wish I would have known that
because I spent a lot of time
just like, oh, shame, worry, you know,
like where I should've just been like,
it is what it is.
And there's something really amazing
about as you get older,
where now I'm just like
all I can do is show up
and be the best I can be.
And if people don't like it,
at a certain point, you
just got to go with it.
I wish the the part that
I would have never listened to
is anything that made me
try to be something I wasn't and tried
to make me like contort
like I was a heavy poor,
you know, black woman
who went to Cal State Northridge
and community college, like
I felt, you know, like everyone
be like, oh, you like
I was talking and someone said
use the words machine learning
and you'll people will really think
you're really good so you

show, you know, tech use like use the
Use A.I. Use the word A.I.
I don't know what A.I. is.
I don't use ML like this.
Like why was like
at this point in my life,
why am I going to be like A.I. ML?
Like I wrote a software company,
we raised 50 million dollars.
I don't know how to use A.I.
I like it. Someone on my engineering team might.
But it's like so
I just think that's a wrong life.
advice at this point is you just you just
you only win by being the best
you can be.

Amen to that.
And to conclude with that, it's
a one thing I just learned this week.
So a quote from the Bible
that talks about humble yourself
so God will exalt you
and I.
But there's a different
definition of humble
in the Hebrew language.
And t comes from the word
and I might be saying this wrong, Abana,
I might be saying the word wrong,
but this is what the word word means
to humble oneself
from the biblical purpose.
It means to take your
your your God given space,
to occupy your God
given space in the world.
That's what it means.
Very different from what people have
had have said.
That's what that means. Right.
So at the end of day,
when you talk about like, yes,
you need to do this,
and like when people
talk about being humble
or they talk about
lower themselves or moderate,
about making sure
that you take your place in the world
no more, no less,
but you take your place in the world.
And as you said, you don't
you don't shift or you don't
change who you are
based upon being in that situation.
You do.
You go in your God
given space and move forward.

I love that
It's like at the end of the day,
all you can do is God talk.
God gave us certain skills
and we have to use those. Right.
We could either like and then be.
Let me be clear. I'm clear.
I got to come up
like could God make this clear?
I know. I grew up on food stamps.
I could assure you,
like I'm like I'm real clear that I mean,
that's why I was like,
I can't be stressed.
I got to be like
just too blessed to be stressed.

So, yeah, Phaedra Ellis_Lamkins you've a
This has been a wonderful conversation.
I definitely want to stay in touch.

Yeah, absolutely.
Now that you exist now.

Yeah, this is awesome.
So thank you so much.



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“In order to build something really magical, it requires that you be your best self.”

Phaedra Eliis Lamkins is the CEO of Promise, a payment technology platform that simplifies how people manage government payments like utilities, child support, parking tickets and more by offering customizable plans and providing digital payment options. The organization has secured funding from a wide array of investors including Roc Nation, Starbucks, Bumble, Kapor Capital, XYZ, First Round, and many more. Promise secured 20 million dollars in its Series A collectively raising 50 million dollars overall which is one of the largest funding rounds for a Black, women-led startup with investors like Kapor Capital, Bronze, First Round, and Y Combinator.

Phaedra herself is a rockstar in the world of social justice and music: prior to starting Promise, she served as the Executive Officer of the South Bay AFL–CIO Labor Council, she served as the personal manager for legendary musician Prince, and helped procure Prince’s ownership of his catalog, negotiating his deal with Warner Bros and co-founding NPG Music Publishing LLC. She also succeeded Van Jones as the CEO of Green For All, and worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to advocate for standards in environmental protection and spearheaded state, local and federal victories in creating solutions to both poverty and pollution.

Her work and leadership has been recognized over the course of her career, including highlights like:

  • The World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader
  • Essence for their 25 Most Influential African Americans
  • Ebony for their Power 150
  • The Grio for their 100 History Makers in the Making
  • Black Enterprise for their 40 Next: Emerging Leaders for our Future
  • 2018 SPUR Award from the San Francisco Urban

What You Will Learn

  • The most important lesson she learned from Prince
  • Why it’s important for founders to choose the right investors
  • Why founders should choose their customers carefully
  • Why tech needs to empower poor and marginalized communities
  • How her experience in the labor movement guides her vision
What is Promise?

Promise is a modern payment technology platform that provides alternative payment solutions for cities, countries, states and utility companies across the country and simplifies how people manage government payments, such as utilities, child support and parking tickets by offering customizable plans and providing digital payment options.

By streamlining how payments are executed, Promise is enabling more people to pay their bills in a time frame that works best for them and their budgets, reducing the number of delinquent households and subsequently increasing revenue for government agencies and utility companies. The platform goes beyond payment processing to provide the most comprehensive payments platform for utilities and government agencies with unmatched flexibility, customer engagement and automated affordability programs.

Why did you decide to launch Promise?

I wanted to leverage the power of technology and innovation in a scalable way that would support low-income and Black and Brown communities, rather than punish them for their lack of financial resources. Although technology can generate wealth for many, it also has destructive capabilities for low-income households, and I wanted to shift the narrative with our software.

What caused the pivot in Promise’s business model?

When I started Promise, the focus was predicated on building software aimed at facilitating bail payments for low-income households and ultimately reducing the number of people in our prison system. While we achieved that goal, we quickly realized our software had become so efficient that it made the systems themselves more efficient at incarcerating people. In essence, our software ended up perpetuating mass incarceration instead of dismantling it.That realization spawned difficult conversations with our investors, especially since we were generating revenue, but we couldn’t go against our values and ethics. Fortunately, we regrouped and brainstormed a more meaningful strategy to address government debt in an efficient yet accessible manner to help communities in need.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in creating Promise?

There is no blueprint for our business model, specifically where you measure the organization’s success by the overall improvement of people’s well-people. We’re in the business of building and leveraging technology to solve problems for low-income and Black and Brown communities and it’s not the easiest concept to explain to prospective investors or government agencies because there aren’t many organizations following our business model.

When we first started, we tried selling software to a criminal justice system that didn’t want to be reformed. The reality is most companies are predatory toward low-income communities and are primarily invested in getting people to spend.

What led to you to bridge the intersection of technology and social justice with Promise?

My mother worked as a waitress on food stamps, so I can personally relate firsthand to the challenge – and loss of dignity – of living in a low-income household.

When I was in grade school, they had separate lunch lines for kids from low-income households that qualified for free meals and students who could afford to pay. I was the only person that qualified for a free lunch, and I felt humiliated every single day. Unfortunately, my mother and I were caught in a system that wasn’t designed to create opportunities for us.

That experience fueled me professionally. I want to create opportunities for people to be treated with dignity and I’m committed to ensuring that low-income people — especially in our Black and Brown communities — are equipped with the tools and resources to succeed.

How were you able to secure investments for Promise?

Prior to starting Promise, I oversaw revenue at my previous company – Honor – where I formed my own relationships with different investors. Fortunately, I was able to raise funds from them when I launched Promise because I had cultivated trust.When presenting to prospective investors, the key is to identify the white space in a specific industry, develop a clear vision of how you want to impact the world, explain how you can scale the idea and articulate how the concept can consistently generate revenue.

How did you manage to get JAY-Z and Roc Nation to invest in Promise?

I developed a relationship with JAY-Z and Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez back when I managed Prince and we negotiated an exclusive streaming agreement with TIDAL that enabled them to house Prince’s music catalog.

I was immediately impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking and, as I kept in touch with Desiree over the years, I came to the realization that I wanted to build an organization with similar core values. When I pitched Desiree on the concept, she believed in the vision and was incredibly supportive with her commitment. I’m grateful to both her, JAY-Z as well as all of our investors for helping lay the foundation for Promise to flourish.



Entrepreneur & Keynote Speaker

Rob Richardson is the host of disruption Now Podcast and the owner of DN Media Agency, a full-service digital marketing and research company. He has appeared on MSNBC, America this Week, and is a weekly contributor to Roland Martin Unfiltered.



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