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We recently sat down with Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures, one of the five Techstars Foundation Grantees, to learn more about the organization and how it’s helping diversity in entrepreneurship.

Defy “transforms the hustle” by providing entrepreneurship training and intense character and personal development for people with criminal histories.

(NOTE: Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor will be matching donations to the Techstars Foundation until mid-October. Brad and Amy will be matching $1 dollar for every $2 dollars contributed by members of the Techstars’ community, up to $100,000.)

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What sparked the vision and foundation behind Defy Ventures?

When I was 26 years old, a friend invited me to visit a prison in Texas. I was hesitant, but ultimately went. In prison, I met some very smart and hungry hustlers who defied the stereotypes I had of people in prison. They shared their stories with me and it broke my heart. Many of them were almost guaranteed to a life in prison since birth.

70% of the children of incarcerated parents go to prison.

So I left my venture capital job in NY and moved to Texas to start a Prison Entrepreneurship Program to train these men in prison how to be successful, legal “hustlers” when they get out. Then, I founded Defy Ventures as my 2.0 version to scale nationally to every prison and train people with criminal histories post-release.

The vision of Defy is to eliminate the problem of mass incarceration in America and put ourselves out of business.

What problem are you solving?

We are trying to solve some of the most challenging problems in America: Mass incarceration and legacies of incarceration, poverty, joblessness, violence and hopelessness.

What is the biggest misperception around the issue you are trying to solve?

Many people have distorted stereotypes of people in prison – they think of them as wild animals and a danger to society.

We break down those misperceptions so they can see incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people as people who have made mistakes.

We create opportunities for people on either side of the fenced wall to connect in their humanity, have greater empathy and see how similar they are in reality.

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What is one world-changing company that you admire?

I love ConBody, started by a Defy graduate named Coss Marte. Coss was incarcerated on drug charges and prosecuted as a kingpin because he was operating a multi-million drug business.

He was very overweight when he went to prison and was told he would die if he didn’t get healthy.

So, while in prison, he worked out and lost weight. He also helped other inmates lose weight and get fit, too. His business is a prison styled boot camp that helps people “do the time.”

He helps his clients get healthy and live better lives. He hires other people with criminal histories to create opportunities and empower them. Plus, he volunteers time with Defy and gives back by going into prison to train people. He is changing perceptions and defying the odds big time.

Tell us about how your organization has positively impacted your audience?

Following are Defy’s impact to date:

  •   3.2% recidivism rate 
of our Entrepreneurs in Training (EIT)
  •   95% employment rate for post-release EITs
  •   150 incubated startups that have created 350+ jobs 

  •   3,500+ executive mentors 
and volunteers 


Learn more about Defy’s impact on EITs and volunteers here in a SOCAP interview.

 



Ali Berman
Ali is the Executive Assistant at Techstars and the Interim Director for the Techstars Foundation.