Five lessons he learned on his journey from jail to founder.
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As he sat in a prison cell between the ages of 16 and 22, sentenced for participating in a fight, few people viewed Prophet Walker as a future innovator, leader and community-builder. In fact, the only person in prison who viewed any potential within this young man was Walker himself.
“Throughout my sentence, everything around me told me that I was less than human, that I was irredeemable,” the 33-year-old founder of the Los Angeles co-living space Treehouse says. “When I was being tried, I remember people standing opposite me in the courtroom telling me I was ‘fully incapable of being anything.’”
The only thing that propelled Walker from utter humiliation and disregard of his humanity, towards becoming a celebrated innovator in the cutting-edge real estate market of co-living, was remembering the sense of community he experienced amidst hardship.
Growing up in Watts, a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, Walker was no stranger to gang violence, drugs and incarceration. But he was also never alone. When he witnessed the murder of one of his closest friends at age 12, every person on Walker’s block came out and took turns holding him. “Everyone supported one another — poverty simply necessitated that.”
Nearly two decades later, community remains at the heart of everything Walker does, entrepreneurial or otherwise. “At Treehouse the root is community, the trunk is the communal space, the branches are the network of spacious apartments, the blossoms are the connections between friends and family, and it all grows wild when pollinated by kindred spirits,” its website reads.
Co-living is not a new concept — it is quite common outside the United States in major African and Asian cities. What Walker sought to do when developing Treehouse, however, was to foster togetherness in an era where luxury living spaces so often connote privacy and isolation. Residents rent individual bedrooms and bathrooms of approximately 250 square feet — described by Walker as “effectively a micro-studio” — that share kitchens with three to five people.
Nestled in the larger complex are a constellation of smaller, specialized “vulnerable” and “inspirational” spaces. Residents can curl up with a book in the library or pursue their musical projects in the recording studio. The Café, described by Walker as the equivalent of Central Perk in Friends, is a place that’s always buzzing with human activity and friendly interaction.
Walker’s journey has been one full of lessons in entrepreneurship, which he now works to pass along to those around him — from giving talks at the prison where he was once incarcerated to fostering meaningful relationships with other members of the Treehouse community.
In a candid conversation, Walker opened up about some of these key realizations, and how he came to recognize the power of community in shared humanity. His perspective is valuable to anyone thinking about starting a business, in the midst of an entrepreneurial journey themselves, or simply dealing with the challenges of staying grounded and productive through the ups and downs of life.
“Look at yourself in the mirror and push forward”
During his incarceration, Walker decided to turn his life around, founding a college program that enabled inmates to earn two or four-year degrees. Then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved his program proposal, and the pilot began with 30 people. As of 2021, it has served tens of thousands of incarcerated juveniles, affording them access to education that they would never have received otherwise.
“That was a massive moment for me, to realize that even while I was physically shackled, I still had an incredible amount of potential and power to do good in the world,” Walker says. “That really, really triggered something for me in my brain.”
“It’s easy to give up on yourself then and say, ‘no one loves me, no one cares.’ It’s very easy, but the ability to still look at yourself in the mirror, after being strip-searched or something, and still say, ‘no, I deserve to be here and I’m going to keep moving forward,’” Walker says, is what’s gotten him here, and what continues pushing his entrepreneurial endeavor to new heights.
“It’s not genius. It’s conviction and perseverance.”
Leaving prison after serving his nearly six-year sentence, Walker — then in his early 20s — studied engineering at Loyola Marymount University and then began working at RAD Urban, a prominent real estate group based in the Bay Area that manufactures apartment buildings. Beginning as an intern, Walker was later promoted to and served as one of RAD Urban’s top superintendents.
Throughout the years, Walker remained involved in the development and construction industry until he ran for California State Assembly in 2014. Winning the primary but ultimately losing the general election, Walker returned to the real estate business and met his business partner,