Catherine Rohr founded the Prison Entrepreneur Program (PEP) in Texas, and, more recently, DEFY in New York -- which supports the business ambitions of individuals on parole. Catherine's expertise in the area of social entrepreneurship is such that people come from all over the world to learn from her. I am lucky that I don't have to travel very far to do so!
I first met Catherine 12 years ago, when she was in her early twenties, She seemed mature beyond her years as she talked passionately about wanting to create an entrepreneurship program for men in prison. After an hour, I had to leave to give a talk at the Yale School of Management. Neither of us wanted our conversation to end, so Catherine accompanied me on the train up to New Haven. Then, as now, I was struck by her kind heart, intelligence and vision.
Soon she moved to Houston to found PEP, raising money and enlisting the support of more than a hundred volunteers. PEP was soon reaching more than 1,000 inmates annually. Eventually she left PEP and moved to New York to found DEFY Venture, serving those men and women who have been released from prison but remain on parole. DEFY recruits the brightest and most promising young parolees for a two-month training, which culminates in a business-plan competition. The individuals that make it through the competition then enter the full DEFY program, which is brilliantly designed to develop and hone business skills, through ten hours of classroom work each week. As with PEP, Catherine has created an organization in which volunteers play an important part. Her overall efforts have significantly changed how the public views prisoners vis-à-vis the field of business.
I try to go to DEFY classes whenever possible and, on August 3rd, I got to see a special competition, with an audience of several hundred. There, in addition to business plan presentation, the participants displayed and sold their goods to the attendees. I was particularly taken by the art of a young artist named Lädy Millard. Her art spoke to me and I immediately bought four of her prints, which now hang on the walls of my apartment where I can see them every day. Edgy and heroic, they capture the beauty of faces that speak to my subconscious. My absolute favorite is Brazilian Amazon, a work of art that I will never let go.
I connected with Lady Millard immediately and, after the DEFY event, we went to the modest gallery on Elizabeth Street where I saw more of her work, as well as that of other gifted artists. Later, we went back outside and I conducted a brief interview.
Lädy Millard was born in 1980 on the island of Jamaica, in the West Indies, and her family later moved to New York, settling in Queens. She started painting at a young age -- she recalls that her first picture was a unicorn. Her mom recognized her talent, and enrolled her in the Art Students League. She attended the High School of Art and Design, and went on to graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), which helped her get a job in the highly competitive fashion industry. But after the tragedy of 9/11, she felt called upon to do something different -- she became a graffiti artist. Then she made the transition to being a studio artist, successfully selling her work. Going forward, Lädy's ambition is to sell most of her work online. I asked Lady about how she is building her business:
Steve Mariotti: Those beautiful pictures I bought, you can license them out to be made into prints.
Lady Millard: Yes. Prints, clothing, lunch boxes, books, book bags, umbrellas. I am looking for people to take my work to the next level. I am also looking for an intellectual-property lawyer to protect my work.
SM: Ultimately, why are you painting?
LM: I am painting because life is a battlefield. Sometimes you get what you need but sometimes you have to struggle for what you want. That struggle, all of it, is worth it in the end.
SM: And is part of it to help people without a voice to become empowered? Such as women...
LM: Yes, women -- young women, girls of color that live in ghettos, people that don't have the resources to create new ideas.
SM: Tell me about the legal and accounting teams you've formed.
LM: I have a lawyer, and I am searching for an accountant. I am due to send in my Schedule C at the end of the year. I am using an "export" legal structure.
SM: What type of company do you want to establish?
LM: I want to create a brand around technology and fashion design. I want the brand to start bringing in more revenue over the next three years.
SM : Tell me about your experience in prison.
LM: I was arrested for protesting on Wall Street. In jail, I learned the importance of freedom and that freedom is a luxury. I felt that I should be able to exercise my freedoms to the fullest potential as an artist, by being an influencer, and by developing my career instead of protesting.
SM: And what has been your experience with DEFY?
LM: I learned that your brand is you. I also learned that you have to sell yourself as much as you sell your product.
I encourage everyone to find their own voice, explore their creativity, and feel empowered to start their own business, no matter their background. And come to Lädy's next show, at Con Artist Gallery on the Lower East Side, on Ludlow Street. It goes up on September 18, and you can see what Lädy means by Luxury.
This post has been updated from a previously published version.