Transforming the Formerly Incarcerated into CEOs

04/07/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
Defy Ventures

Second chances can work wonders.

Testament to this fact is Defy Ventures, a nonprofit focused on providing second chances to the formerly incarcerated by equipping them to start and run their own businesses. Participants in Defy's program have low recidivism rates and high employment rates, especially in comparison to national averages.

How does Defy capitalize on the "second chance" model so successfully? Perhaps because, despite society's use of expressions like "they've served their time," people with criminal records don't just move on from prison. Formerly incarcerated men and women often end up serving a life sentence. Many initially avoid illegal activities after being released from prison, but as their applications for legitimate jobs are repeatedly rejected due to felony records, enticing offers from old criminal connections often appear irresistible. Recidivism rates are high for people with criminal records, but of those who are rearrested, 89% are unemployed at the time.

Defy Ventures aims to break this cycle. A tuition-based, MBA-style national entrepreneurship, employment, and character-training program, Defy equips former drug dealers and gang leaders -- a population so stigmatized in the labor market when they get out of prison that they can barely land burger-flipping jobs -- to "defy the odds" and get second chances of their own. Defy's curriculum, which consists of a blended-learning model, features faculty including Harvard Business School professors and key influencers like Tim Draper (Founder, Draper Fisher Jurvetson), Duncan Niederauer (former CEO, NYSE), and Seth Godin (marketing guru).

Defy helps its entrepreneurs-in-training ("EITs") leverage their innate entrepreneurial talents (drive, charisma, and the ability to turn a "no" into a "yes") to become CEOs of their own legal, profitable businesses. Defy "transforms the hustle" of EITs through intensive leadership and character training; executive mentoring from seasoned entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors and business leaders; "Shark Tank"-style business-plan competitions, where they compete for $100,000 in startup financing; and startup incubation.

Since its launch in 2010, Defy has seen great success. It has incubated and financed 100+ of its graduates' companies. Defy grads have reported an 83% increase in income and achieved a 95% employment rate; Defy's 5% recidivism rate is impressive on its own, and extraordinary in comparison to the national rate of 76.6%.

Defy's goal is to transform formerly incarcerated men and women into entrepreneurs, role models, and community leaders. On a larger scale, it also aims to break generational and neighborhood legacies of poverty, incarceration, violence, and drug use by equipping EITs to become more engaged fathers, mothers, and positive role models in their communities.

"This program has given me hope, a deeper purpose in my life, and the chance to show my daughter that I can change my life for the better, now that I've been given a second chance," says Kim Morris, who started an eco-friendly cleaning service while enrolled in Defy's program.

EIT Eliud Oliver, founder of a clothing company specializing in urban streetwear, has seen similar improvements in his family relationships since joining Defy. "My mother is the proudest of my enrollment in Defy. She has witnessed the obstacles I faced transitioning back to society since my release from prison," he says. "She was concerned that my inability to find employment would result in my returning to prison. Now she is happy I am involved in an organization that is affording me the opportunity to pursue my dreams and aspirations."

A key part of Defy's curriculum is learning to take ownership of one's mistakes in order to move on. "I've learned two things in Defy," says EIT Chris O'Hare, who started a pet photography business through Defy. "To learn to trust others and myself, and to just be the best I can be and not to worry so much what others think. I need to try to let go of the guilt that I have felt inside me for so long. I am getting there."

Oliver is similarly learning to move on from his past missteps. "Defy is teaching me how to interact with people I once felt reluctant to associate with because of my criminal past. Since my release from prison, I felt ashamed of my criminal history and found myself hiding from people by not allowing them to really get to know me because of fear of being judged."

According to Catherine Hoke, Defy's founder and CEO, ultimately Defy works because of the second chances it provides to members of a marginalized and misunderstood community -- many of whom didn't get a fair shot to succeed in life the first time around.

"I feel that Defy is a lifesaver of sorts on many levels for so many of us with criminal histories," says Morris. "Defy provides us with opportunities that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. One of my interview questions [when I enrolled in the program] was, 'What makes me excited about Defy?' My answer: 'The possibilities,' because they are endless."

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.