Freda Harris

To Those Who Had a Rocky Start: Don’t Let Your Beginning Determine the Middle and End of Your Story

  • BY Ben Soriano
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Garvin Tso | Graphic Design by Gus Yoo
  • May 7, 2024

For over 35 years, drugs tore her family apart. Armed with a Cal State East Bay degree and an entrepreneur’s vision, Freda Harris is ready to fight back

Since the age of 10, Freda Harris’ grandmother served as a surrogate mother to her, her four siblings and her cousins, all of whose parents, including Harris’ own mother, had been sucked into the downward spiral of addiction.

“My grandmother’s kids — she had five of them — every last one of them got addicted to drugs,” said Harris.

Growing up, Harris learned quickly that sharing wide affection in a tight space with 13 other cousins, all under her grandmother’s rented roof, was the best way to get along.

If Granny Faye Lee Wells was going to raise them herself, she’d make sure to brood the youngsters with a strong work ethic by pitching in at her soul food restaurant in East Oakland, 24 Hrs Diner, famous for Louisiana-style salmon croquettes, homemade biscuits, gumbo and chitlins.

“In spite of growing up in a ghetto, we were raised in church. That's one thing about my grandmother — dragged us all to church,” said Harris. “We were active in church, and I'm still active in church to this day.”

But, make no mistake. Life’s been a hard road of heartbreak for Harris, salved only through prayer, hope and a dream. “I’ve been carrying the burden since I was 12 years old.”

While other kids were leaning into their teen years of crushes and identity, Harris was already working hard at a job to add cash to the family’s modest coffers. “I've always had people who depended on me and counted on me to be there for them and to be a provider for them.”

Then, 23 years ago, like her grandmother, Harris accepted the child-rearing responsibility of her younger sister’s three children.

Combining those kids with Harris’ little brother, two little sisters, and a baby of her own, Harris took on raising seven young souls as a young soul herself. Then tragedy struck: her sister, the mother of the kids she was caring for, was found dead — shot to death — the motive still unknown.

Now, at the age of 47 — two years after her Granny Faye’s sad passing and after 34 years of foregoing her own dreams to pitch in for her family’s needs — Harris is finally centering herself up front with her family by working on a different kind of pitch.

On May 12th, Harris will be the first in her family to graduate from college with a Business Administration degree from Cal State East Bay. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s also leveling up her grandmother’s legacy of business ownership and saving lives by founding a back-of-the-napkin start-up that’s heating up with Bay Area investor interest.

As a frontrow witness to Nancy Reagan’s failed “Just Say No” campaign, Harris has a better answer with an anti-punitive, wellness-based tech solution to drug addiction that’s couched in the Bay Area’s culture of innovation. 

“I’ve always been passionate about trying to come up with a solution to address this issue,” she said.

Her brain-child is Renest AI, a personal rehab assistant that can help tackle the multi-generational, multi-cultural plague of addiction that has kept her family and many communities in alcohol and drug-dependency bondage for far too long.

The idea came to her after listening to an AI panel at Cal State East Bay and being challenged by the Director of the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies, Professor Izzet Darendeli, to think about how she might apply AI to her desire to help people rehabilitate.

Harris realized that by gathering, analyzing and translating common biometrics data like heart rate, sleep patterns, blood pressure and information signifying acute anxiety and depression, and coupling it with existing AI capabilities, Renest could predict when an addict is likely to slip into an emotionally unstable state, which is when relapse is likely to occur.

Renest is like having the capacity to predict an earthquake before it rises to the surface. And like the San Andreas seismic monitoring stations, the earlier the detection, the better the chance a person has to get to a safe place.

Except that with Renest, the solution isn’t a one-size-fits-all “stop, drop and seek cover” protocol. Rather, it’s a series of customized interventions that could include traditional methods associated with walking the addict away from the cliff’s edge, like auto-calling or texting one’s sponsor and getting to the nearest AA meeting at the top of the hour.

With time and use, the app would recommend tailored responses that are based on learned solutions from past interventions. It might suggest listening to favorite songs and dancing because it worked before based on similar physiological, time-of-day and location readings. Or Renest might suggest going out for a plate of one’s favorite food — anything so long as one’s vitals begin to return to predicted levels of emotional stability and calm.

In other words, with Renest AI, the more often a user faces the lure of alcohol and drug use, the more effective the app will be to help the user stay clean.

Like any smartwatch app, it’s ultimately up to the user to act on recommendations. However, Harris believes Renest offers the personal, early and immediate care that addicts need in order to choose sobriety as they go about their daily lives, something that traditional rehab centers simply cannot offer.

“I’m a firm believer that if we’re able to intersect at those vital moments, we would be able to prevent relapse.”

Why did she call it Renest? Harris says the app can help addicts “renest themselves on their recovery journey.”

But recycling bins in Silicon Valley are filled with napkins of failed ideas. It’s the tenacity, execution and networking that matters. That’s where the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies has helped Harris the most.

As a Smith Center Fellow, Harris has had the opportunity to pitch her passion project at premiere Bay Area entrepreneurial events like the Falling Walls Lab competition, Startup Grind and Cal State East Bay’s own Innovation Festival.

“I would never imagine being able to network with people that I would never be in the same room with, and talk to them and get information about how to start things,” she said.

Renest was born out of the hardship in Harris’ life. It is her way of giving back to a home life of blood kin who chose to knit a cocoon of protection, love and deep Christ worship upon Granny Faye’s rock-solid faith-based values.

Harris hopes to save the next generation of young ones from slipping out of her community’s grasp just as her grandmother worked hard to save her generation of cousins all those years ago.

At home, it’s already starting to happen. Her 17-year-old daughter, who is the youth commissioner for the City of Hayward, will be graduating from Tennyson High School with acceptance letters from 16 colleges, all eager for a response. Like mom, she’ll be walking the commencement line this spring and moving on to a bright future — exactly as Granny Faye had prayed for all those years ago.

“If my grandmother was alive today, she would be proud of me,” said Harris. ”She would say, ‘I knew you could do it. I knew you were capable of doing what you put your mind to.’”