Prophet Walker, Co-Founder and CEO of Treehouse, grew up in South LA, where amidst poverty, violence, and homelessness in his neighborhood, community was always at its core. At age 16, Prophet was sentenced to six years in prison, stemming from a fight with other teenagers. While in prison, Walker proposed the idea of an educational program that would create a college within prison for juveniles to educate themselves. Walker was the first graduate, and this program now helps thousands of individuals in prisons across the state. Prophet later attended Loyola Marymount University in the school of Engineering.
Prophet’s passion for working with the community continued, as he co-founded Watts United Weekend, a program that provides weekend camp retreats for Watts community members. He helped establish the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles based non-profit that services as a support network for formerly incarcerated individuals and advocates for criminal justice reform. In 2015, Walker was invited to President Obama’s State of the Union address by Michelle Obama, in recognition and celebration of his community activism.
Prophet’s experiences surrounding community strength and human connectedness inspired him to create Treehouse, recognizing the power of community in proximity and shared humanity. Prophet leads the company day to day, with a focus on acquisitions research, property selection & investor relations. Prophet is deeply involved with both criminal justice, education reform and serves on multiple non-profit and civic boards. Prophet enjoys spending his free time with his daughter and friends.
Where did the idea for Treehouse come from?
Throughout my life I’ve had various experiences with an incredible amount of community, and then there was a point in my life where I thought if I could just get wealthy I would leave the hood and that would be the apex of happiness. What I found was that while I certainly enjoyed the comforts that came with making money there was a disconnect with other people. Growing up in South LA in Watts everyone supported one another, poverty simply necessitated that, and similarly when I was incarcerated it was for sanity’s sake. When you’re isolated from family and friends and everything that you thought mattered is stripped from you immediately you quickly realize that the things that matter the most are how many incredible moments you can create with other human beings.
In 2015, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama invited me to the State of the Union. During this time I remember sharing with both of them that I developed this core skill of building real estate and understanding real estate finance but I cared most about building community. The President gave me sage-like advice, and said “figure out how to do both.” That set the path of looking at my life, looking at the way our world was going, it felt like we were yearning to be together more. And so we leaned into that and I started the company with a relatively simple premise: if you brought people together in a place where they could feel comfortable and safe, community would happen.
The ideas we have hinged ourselves to of likemindedness and finding our specific tribe are half-baked. I realized that if we could build multiple spaces throughout the US we could begin to reshape the American Dream, which for so long I think has been getting a single family home, segregating yourself merely to your nuclear family. I think this is only beautified more when more people can contribute to that and to that experience and so that is where it started. I was coming from a place of realizing that our society was lending itself to us being disconnected when the truth is that we all just want to be connected, and I think that the pandemic has shown that.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Treehouse is unique in that unlike any other company that I’ve worked in we cross what I think is the future of entrepreneurship: we are fiercely thinking about returns while also fiercely thinking about the human and human connection. Capitalism has built ways to be incredibly efficient and there are many things that we use on our team to figure out efficiencies, but human interaction has remained inefficient–and it should–because that is where the depth of who we are lies. So I try to balance my day-to-day life in that way. I allot a lot of time for human connection. I wake up earlier than most, typically at 5 am. I can get a lot of quiet time and thinking done in the early parts of the morning, and then around 9 or so I lend myself to whatever our team needs. Sometimes my brain is working with our team on very tactile financial planning and execution of strategy around buying more property, raising money within the company, etc, and then sometimes, it is more about meaningful human interaction. Today for instance, I have a community meeting in a couple hours, and that meeting will be a lot about understanding how we can continue to scale what is so beautifully done here among people, looking at where those inefficiencies are that need to be there and looking at the things technology can solve. That is how I break up my day.
Then I have a daughter who is 15.5 and it is funny to listen to her world and learn from her.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I gave this Ted Talk in the maximum security prison that I used to be in and it was all about the importance of dreaming. My engineering background encourages the mind to think in a methodical way. I benefited from that structured thinking and training while holding onto this deep seated belief that a childlike ability to dream of new ideas and to have the audacity and courage to say let’s try them is necessary.
More importantly, the fearlessness to fail is just so important. If you look at a child, they just come up with things and they try them. We continue to put bumpers around our thinking at various points in life. I think that because under the societal understanding of things I have lost so much, I in turn gained the ability to be a bit more free about how I think about what is possible. I dream of things, I listen to other people’s dreams and big ideas and then I question unapologetically whether or not it makes sense and I’m ok with that. If it doesn’t make sense I move on and if it does I try to put together tactics to execute it. So dream it, question it, if it has a leg to stand on, set a strategy to chase it and if it doesn’t be malleable enough to say “ah it was a good dream it was fun, unicorns don’t exist right now maybe later.”
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m a Sequoia scout and during training they asked “what are the next marketplaces that exist?” I think one that is developing that hasn’t been given a name is just community. Covid has accelerated this–people are looking at themselves and no matter what this theory of America’s exceptionalism and individualistic behavior tells us we just need each other, and that is a fact. I think the trend towards people coming together and seeing more and more creative ways to connect and be together is really exciting.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think the habit is waking up early–it makes me so much more productive. Being focused on outcomes versus only dreams is also really important, and then also having my assistant Tedi by my side. It is impossible for me to be productive without her!
What advice would you give your younger self?
I have a whole list, I think the primary advice would be to take my time more and to focus on being present. Some of the best learning in my life has happened when I was fully present for all of my emotions–whether sad, happy, angry. Whenever that happens it is pretty powerful for me, I’m able to assess what is happening and make better decisions, so slowing down and being present would be my greatest advice. I came home eleven years ago after being incarcerated for five and a half years so I had a chip on my shoulder and felt the need to catch up with my peers. In hindsight I would tell myself it will be ok. I’m learning that a bit more now.
Also to dream bigger and bolder.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I think that purchasing single family homes is more of a wealth builder for a select group of people and is more of a status symbol than its purported to be as a way out of poverty. Owning a home has hurt poor people time and time again, and their neighborhoods lose value. Only when neighborhoods are gentrified do the values go up. In the absence of gentrification, owning a home is not a wealth builder.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Again, waking up early–everyone should wake up early! There is so much in the world to see–be very curious, I think that is super important. In interviews I seem to talk a lot but if you are in a meeting or social setting with me, by and large I try to sit and listen all the time. I have no real interest in being right, I have a lot of interest in building things that are sustainable and enduring past myself and so finding ways to shut up and listen is a big one–which is hard because human ego is real.
Also I write a lot. This is partly because when I was in prison I didn’t have a computer–in fact I filled out my college essay on a typewriter, and this was in 2009, if you can imagine. As a result of that I wrote letters obsessively and it slowed down my thinking a lot. I draw diagrams a lot when explaining things. In general I think writing out your thoughts is powerful and you can watch the process happen and scratch things out and it teaches you implicitly that anything you try or do doesn’t have to be permanent. You can reshape your masterpiece and appreciate the process.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Early on it was taking the time to very clearly define the thing that we were going to do and the more we were able to hone in on what we were going to do the more we were able to shape it to its unique self.
The other strategy is hustle–I’m not sure it is a teachable strategy, but having the conviction to hustle has helped me to grow my businesses. It isn’t about killing yourself, it is about when you get to a door that is closed are you going to actively take the initiative to look for another door. That to me is hustle. I’m fully disinterested in people who are like “look I’m running really fast on this rabbit wheel!” It seems to me that you should get off the rabbit wheel and get on the track so you can go further. It’s that bit of thinking that is important.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve had quite a few. Many of my failures have come from when I think my idea is the only one that can win. You miss a lot of really good ideas with that attitude, and I think that I’ve walked through those moments.
When building Treehouse we encountered construction issues and there were real consequences connected to that. It felt like such a failure. The way I bounced back was with the support of our team. I think at the moment that this happened I finally understood why the president is called the ‘Commander-in-Chief’. Is the Commander-in-Chief willing if necessary to literally take up arms and fight on the battlefield with his team, to follow if necessary and lead if need be? That was the only way to bounce back.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I have quite a few ideas–one is silly. Because self-driving cars are becoming a thing, I have a way to keep walkable neighborhoods and get rid of traffic. The bike lane connected to the sidewalk should become the “slow lane” for self-driving cars and should be timed with a conveyor belt sidewalk so the car and conveyor belt move at the same time. You can get out, put your groceries in, get back in and traffic never stops. It would be a great infrastructure project and create tons of jobs. That is one that is silly.
This other one I actually had a dream about. A lot of people to this day have car issues, they have to turn their car over for a number of days and it is very inconvenient. A lot of that is because your car is just in the queue for half the day before they actually get to it. I started thinking about what if there was a way to have a centralized automotive shop that was pretty substantial and large in an industrial area that operated like a factory. You could drop your car off at night and they would find a way to guarantee that certain car fixes would be done by the morning and have your car back at your door. That is more a matter of convenience and recognizing that this is a friction point for a lot of parents.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
That is how I should think about spending in general! I can tell you the best $100 I’ve gotten and I guess I’ve spent it. My father since I was a child gave me $100 in a card every single year. He has not stopped doing that to this year, and for the last 11 years that I’ve gotten them I give the $100 to my daughter and I get to share that tradition with her.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Gmail is probably my biggest…I’m this fascinating split between the older gentleman who is like “what is this computer thing!” and competent enough to understand productivity tools. For a long time the Apple Ipad pen was something I relied on because I write so much. It is incredibly good and responsive to touch and converts notes. We also use Monday right now which I am getting the hang of for productivity, so I would say that or Asana.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
My designer gave me this one–Range by David Epstein. Primarily because there was a concept that hit home for me, the idea of a kind or unkind learning environment. A kind environment is one where you get immediate feedback no matter if it is harsh or otherwise it is constructive feedback you get immediately. An unkind learning environment is one where there is just a lot of fluff no one gives you actual feedback and it is really hard to build anything significant that way.
Also Socrates’s Apology is something that I think entrepreneurs should read in that at the end of it he says “know thyself for the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates drinks hemlock and kills himself because he is standing up for what he thinks is true for himself. My lessons as an entrepreneur have constantly been that you have to have a backbone, you have to be able to stand up under a lot of pressure, a lot of disappointment, a lot of letdowns, and you have to have grace. Entrepreneurs that I am most attracted to and excited by are not just pure brilliance, it is people who have backbone, humility, and grace. I think that it’s a great way to lead people and lead a company. As an entrepreneur you are thinking of really good ideas and working through them but you are leading a lot of the time as well and leading through service matters.
What is your favorite quote?
“Fortune favors the bold.” Latin proverb.
- When one door is closed, look for another.
- Lead with humility and grace.
- At the end of the day, community is the most important thing we have.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.