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He was born in prison, but found an escape through school. At 30, he's leading a Silicon Valley startup

Startup founder used school to escape rough childhood
Startup founder used education to escape rough childhood 01:56

San Jose, California — How Cody Coleman went from being born in prison to running a Silicon Valley startup is hard to imagine, even for him. 

"It still really hasn't hit me," Coleman told CBS News. "It's crazy." 

Coleman, who was adopted by his grandparents, was born in prison while his mother was incarcerated. He grew up in extreme poverty in South Jersey, and his mother, who suffered from mental illness, bounced in and out of his life, at one point hoarding dozens of animals. 

"I'm actually allergic to cats and dogs. I'm just sick the entire time," he said of his childhood. "No one really noticed. So going to school was just kind of an escape for me." 

At school he discovered a love of computers. His math teacher, Chantel Smith, encouraged him. She even paid for driving lessons and took him to an orthodontist. "His braces were clearly broken," Smith told CBS News. 

Smith also remembers how Coleman always wanted to eat. "I thought it was typical boy hungry," she said. "I didn't realize he was hungry because he wasn't being fed at home."

It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

"The fact that they would actually like, take an interest in me and help me out, this was so impactful and meaningful in my life. I felt like for the first time that I wasn't alone," he said. 

College seemed out of reach until his older brother told him not just to apply, but apply to the best schools. 

"A switch flipped in my head and I went from thinking … 'why bother' to 'why not?'" he said. 

When he was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a high school teacher set up a special fund to pay for his food. Coleman said the teacher told him, "I'll make sure that when you go to MIT, you'll never go hungry."

Coleman went on to graduate near the top of his class, then got his masters and a PhD from Stanford University. 

Now 30 years old, investors are pouring millions into his company, Coactive, where he's developing artificial intelligence that will allow anyone to sort through millions of images in seconds. 

"I couldn't be more proud," Smith said. "I enjoy every minute of his success." 

But she believes Coleman would have succeeded without her help. "To know that he did that all himself is just miraculous," she said.

"When you look back over everything and where I am today, it seems like a miracle happened. But at every step of the way, it was just kind of these small little things —  to give me just a little bit of encouragement or that little bit of support to make the next step," he said. "What we say can have an impact on people's lives. When I was growing up, even on my best days, my future seemed bleak. And now, even on my worst days, my future seems bright." 

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