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A Hustler for Social Innovation

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The origin of the word 'hustle' comes from the Dutch word 'husselen' meaning 'to shake.' A 'hustler,' by any other definition, is someone who tries to sell or obtain something by energetic activity -- shaking is a prime example of such activity. By her own admissions, Catherine Rohr is a hustler. Her admission is no different to those of her students. As Catherine says, everyone is hustling for something so why not hustle for the good of others? As CEO of DEFY Ventures, an entrepreneurship program that provides carefully selected, ambitious men who have criminal histories with life-changing entrepreneurship, leadership and career opportunities, Catherine Rohr is a hustler for social change. She will shake anyone down to ensure that the previously incarcerated men in DEFY have the same opportunity in business as any other budding entrepreneur.

DEFY Ventures is a New York City based non-profit organization that is privately funded by executives, foundations and philanthropic donations. Managed by Catherine on a day-to-day basis, DEFY is an intensive internship program that includes MBA-like training, executive mentoring, leadership development and career placement for some of the best and brightest entrepreneurs coming out of the prison system. It is a second chance for men that otherwise would be dismissed by society and the professional employment system.

The best and the brightest men of the prison system are often former drug dealers or gang leaders who DEFY recognizes as having a similar skill set to top business leaders in secular society. The fact that they were able to build strong businesses models in the past, irrespective of the fact that they were illegal, makes them prime contenders for the DEFY entrepreneurship program. These are men who could go back to their lives of illegal activity, and make ten times what they would make in an honest trade, but they choose not to. That was their past, and DEFY is their future.

The entrepreneurship program is supported by mentors who realize the need to help these men on their course. The program enables its students to not only vie for a monetary prize to start their enterprise, but gives them back the respect and love of their friends and family as they attempt to build lives that are honest and positive.

I had the privilege of being a volunteer panelist for DEFY this weekend. Over two days, I sat and read the meticulous business plans and listened to the carefully constructed presentations, made by 16 men who were all as candid about the businesses they wanted to start as well as their misguided pasts. It was quite humbling to listen to these entrepreneurs present strong business cases for their burgeoning enterprises only to be followed by an admission of every mistake they had made to date which lead to their incarceration.

As an entrepreneur, I cannot imagine presenting my business plans to potential investors whilst simultaneously admitting to every mistake I had made in my private life. The transparency, the absolute exposure of one's self and the sheer confidence it would take to do that is remarkable, and yet these men do it not once, not twice, but many times over. They are so proud of who they have become, through this program, and so trusting that their audience will see beyond their checkered past, to their future potential, its truly amazing.

This is real social innovation, this is real social change. Taking men who are inclined to return to prison at a rate of 70 percent in their first three years and ensuring through the provision of education, opportunity and a supportive environment, they are less inclined to go back to their former illegal activities. By providing them with a purpose and a new direction in business, the rate of recidivism for men who have been through the DEFY program is 5 percent. This is truly the mark of an organization that has great social impact and is creating change in our world. A remarkable social enterprise, providing education and employment to men that otherwise would be left by the wayside.