Defy Ventures pairs business experts with inmates

Article and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

At some point, former offenders will be in the position where they will have to explain their past. In an interview, the answer to that question may be the deciding factor in whether someone is hired.

At a recent employment-readiness event inside a state prison, one expert shared her advice for answering that question.

“Put it out there, turn the corner and zoom right through it.”

Catherine Hoke is the CEO of Defy Ventures, a national nonprofit that assists offenders by offering intensive leadership development, business plan advice and mentoring. During the first-ever Defy Executive Coaching event recently at California State Prison-Solano (SOL), Hoke and a team of nearly 60 volunteers shared tips for acing job interviews.

“Take ownership” of your past, Hoke advised. “Make sure you take ownership: ‘I did time. But here’s how it changed me. Here are the things I can bring to your company that many others cannot.’”

In the months leading up to the coaching event, more than 100 SOL inmates – known as Entrepreneurs-in-Training, or EITs — have been going through Defy’s intensive book and DVD coursework, learning not just about how to find jobs and start businesses after prison, but how to transform themselves from the inside out.

“It’s based on a lot of wellness,” said Cotton, the inmate facilitator of the program. “Defy is not really one program. Defy is three programs – it’s an entrepreneurship program, then it’s an employment-readiness program, then it’s a personal wellness program.”

To get started, inmates had to answer a long questionnaire about themselves, their pasts and their future plans.

The questions go so deep, Cotton said, that many inmates decided they weren’t ready for the program yet. But those who are have been learning key steps to employment, including how to talk to potential investors – what many business experts call the “elevator speech.”

“You have 200 words to sell yourself,” Cotton said. “And if you lose that opportunity, you’ll realize how big of a chance you just lost, but you should learn from that experience. Even though you might lose a chance, it just lets you know that you need to practice a little bit more.”

Defy volunteers are realistic and hard-hitting when it comes to dispensing advice. During the coaching event, experts worked one-on-one with inmates, discussing their resumes and personal statements.

The first part of the in-prison program focuses on job readiness, and then will switch gears to entrepreneurship and developing business ideas.

On the outside, men and women who stay with Defy can take part in their “incubator,” in which entrepreneurs are paired with trainers and investors to create profitable businesses.

“We won’t let them start just anything,” Hoke said. “There are a lot of things that we will not support, for all types of reasons. If it’s not viable, we’ll say no. If their idea isn’t feasible, we tell them that.”

In its five years of existence, Defy has certainly seen success. Graduates include the owners of several successful businesses, including a commercial cleaning company, event planning service, a mobile barbershop and even a wildly successful “prison boot camp” fitness company.

Hoke said she was inspired to start Defy after touring a prison and meeting inmates who sincerely wanted to change their lives, but didn’t know where to start.

“I realized that so many of them were accomplished hustlers in their drug dealing and gang activity that they actually have business skills,” she said.

“That’s why our slogan is Transform Your Hustle. People think these people are no good for anything, but they actually have a lot of potential. What if they were equipped to go legit with their skills?” she said.

Defy volunteers came to SOL from across the country, including many who work for Google, which recently awarded $500,000 to Defy.

Warden Eric Arnold thanked them all for coming, and said he was happy the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was able to bring the program to SOL.

“I’ve talked to some men in the program and they’re very excited about it,” he said. “I hope it makes a difference in your lives, and I hope we can expand it.”

The idea originated in the Office of Correctional Education, which was approached by Defy with the idea to expand the post-release program into an in-prison one.

Dr. Kenya Williams, principal at SOL, said Defy representatives met with staff and a group of inmates for a focus group, after which the only question was “when do we start?”

“What Defy has done is stimulate hope,” Williams said, adding that even inmates serving life sentences are eligible to participate, because if they are one day found suitable for parole, they’ll have a head-start on a better life.

“You can’t say, ‘Oh, you’re a lifer, you’re never going to get out so we can’t do this program for you,’” she said. “A man without hope is a dangerous thing. … We know that lives change every day, and we know that once they get out they have to be ready.”

A perfect example of that is Huynh, who will parole soon after serving 15 years in prison. He hopes to one day start a personal development business, building on the things he learned while enrolled in many self-help programs in prison. Defy, he said, is helping him become more marketable and confident.

“It gives me already a huge network that I can tap into once I go home,” he said. “People who know my past, or know that I have a past, and are willing to at least hear me out.”