Defy Ventures founder Catherine Hoke is flanked by inmate “Entrepreneurs-in-Training.”

Defy Ventures founder Catherine Hoke is flanked by inmate “Entrepreneurs-in-Training.”

Story and photos by Lt. Duane Bennett, AA/Public Information Officer
California State Prison, Los Angeles County

March 2016 marked the beginning of a Defy Ventures adventure that would affect the lives of 60 inmates at California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC).

Inmates in Facility B of the maximum security prison have undertaken the intensive Defy Ventures entrepreneurship program, including participating in classes via institutional television channel. The video instruction teaches the inmates about business skills, marketing, professionalism and resume building.

Defy Ventures graduates donned caps and gowns to receive their certificates.

Defy Ventures graduates donned caps and gowns to receive their certificates.

With no outside motivation or instructor influence, these 60 inmates voluntarily watched the videos, completed the work assignments, helped each other and decided they were going to complete the course no matter what. All 60 inmates did exactly that.

On Friday, Oct. 14, all inmates taking the course passed with a score above 80 percent. According to Catherine Hoke, program facilitator, this is the first time since the beginning of Defy Ventures that an entire class has graduated from the course, and on a maximum security yard, no less.

“The graduation of the Defy Ventures program on LAC’s level IV Facility was wonderful,” said Warden Debbie Asuncion. “Inmates – some for the first time in their lives – walked to accept their certificates in cap and gown.”

The three-day event was the culmination of months of hard work by the inmate “Entrepreneurs-in-Training.” In addition to the graduation ceremony, participants were also able to receive one-on-one resume and business plan coaching by dozens of volunteers from around the country. These business professionals shared their expertise during the coaching sessions and a “Shark Tank”-style business pitch competition in which inmates in the program made their case for investing in their business plan.

Defy Ventures kicked off in March on Facility B. The inmates participating in the program have worked hard on their studies, and the program has been well received by the inmate population and staff at LAC. The programs provides a safe space for inmates of all ethnicities and affiliations to come together and celebrate their accomplishments.

The next Defy Ventures program has already started and is expected to graduate after the first of the year in 2017.

Inmates and volunteers line up for the “Step to the Line” icebreaker exercise, in which shared experiences help bring the group together.

Inmates and volunteers line up for the “Step to the Line” icebreaker exercise, in which shared experiences help bring the group together.