Global spotlight shines on prison entrepreneurship program

Defy Ventures’ virtual reality documentary selected for Tribeca Film Festival

Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Photos by Tom Kubik

A groundbreaking prison entrepreneurship program is gaining international recognition as an innovative, inspiring way to help incarcerated people “transform their hustle” into positive change.

Defy Ventures teaches inmates not just the basics of business, but also how to create a startup, from developing a solid business plan to pitching the idea to investors and implementing the business model.

Throughout the intensive months-long curriculum, the inmate Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) study business planning and investing, along with job search skills, resume building and learning how to take the skills often used for criminal endeavors – creativity, perseverance and salesmanship – and transform them into a successful career. The work continues after prison, as people who have paroled have the opportunity to join Defy’s incubator program, which supports former EITs in creating home-run businesses that employ other Defy graduates.

Defy’s work in California prisons began in 2015 at California State Prison-Solano (SOL). The successful and wildly popular program has greatly expanded, and Defy now serves 11 prisons statewide. Defy is a recipient of CDCR’s Innovative Programming Grants, which support and advance inmate rehabilitation efforts and increase volunteerism in prisons across the state.

Through a partnership with Facebook and virtual reality (VR) experts Oculus, Defy Ventures was selected as one of 10 organizations to film a 360-degree virtual reality video as part of the “VR for Good” Facebook film project. Each film utilizes VR as an “empathy tool,” using the latest technology to raise awareness of underserved populations. Subjects range from human trafficking to environmental stewardship. The Defy Ventures film, “Step to the Line,” is an 11-minute lesson in putting oneself in another’s shoes.

“It shows that we have all made mistakes,” said Defy founder Catherine Hoke, whose pep talks before and during Defy’s in-prison events have inspired both EITs and outside guests to step outside their comfort zones in the name of rehabilitation. “What would it be like if you were only known for the worst thing you have done? It shows how proud the men are when they finish the program, and shows how the volunteers respond to the opportunity.”

Through VR technology, viewers feel as if they’ve stepped inside a prison, from a cell to a recreation yard to smack-dab in the middle of a Defy Ventures event. The 360-degree filming equipment enables viewers to move the screen in any direction, taking in the experience while hearing from Hoke and EITs about how the program is changing lives.

Filming took place over several days at SOL and California State Prison-Los Angeles County. Filmmaker Ricardo Laganaro’s completed film was selected to have its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, enabling Defy’s message to be spread to millions of people.

The Defy Ventures coursework culminates in a “Shark Tank”-style business pitch competition, in which dozens of business professionals volunteer their time and expertise for a day to coach inmates in interviewing, business plan development and resume critiques. A panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists listens to the EITs pitch their business ideas, awarding the winner an IOU that can be cashed in once they parole to use for their business.

An integral part of the day is the “Step to the Line” exercise, in which inmates and volunteers face each other on opposite sides of a line on the floor. As Hoke reads from a list of experiences, both sides are asked to step forward if they identify with the statement. While the exercise starts off easy, with statements like “I like hip-hop music,” it develops into an intense exercise that has opened many eyes on both sides of the line. As business professionals step forward to share that they have experienced violence and racism, committed crimes and served time; they also see inmates step to the line to share that they have raised families, pursued educations and worked to make their world a better place.

Hoke said Defy incorporates “Step to the Line” in each business pitch competition “to create empathy, so volunteers and EITs alike can recognize their similarities and differences. We never want pity, but empathy can build a community that rallies around values of rehabilitation and second chances.”

Hoke added many volunteers come away realizing that had they been raised in environments like the EITs had been, they may have made similar choices, while EITs realize that even though they come from different backgrounds, they are still human and share many of the same experiences as successful business men and women.

“We realize we are all human and struggle with self-doubt, self-image, forgiveness, shame, etc.,” Hoke said. “We also show the value of forgiveness, vulnerability and compassion.”

Big names in business have volunteered for the business pitch competitions, including Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. Sandberg was so moved by “Step to the Line” that she posted about it on her Facebook page.

“Being there and hearing their stories left a lasting impression on me – and Catherine is one of the most inspiring leaders I have ever met,” she wrote.

“Virtual reality has the power to build empathy by putting us closer to walking in another’s shoes,” Sandberg added. “‘Step to the Line’ helps us see life from behind bars – and how hard it can be to rebuild after past mistakes.”

For more information:  Watch the “Step to the Line” 360-degree Virtual Reality film at https://www.facebook.com/zuck/videos/vb.4/10103671105741461/?type=2&theater. Learn more about Defy Ventures at https://defyventures.org/

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

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1 Response

  1. Lisa Strebel Friday, May 26, 2017 / 9:34 am

    I am a Career Technical Education Teacher at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, CA teaching Office Services and Related Technology (OSRT). My Inmate Clerk (and former graduate of my program) participated in the Defy program recently. He reported to me his positive experience and gratitude for the opportunity.

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