Business Pitch Competition held for first time at Level III facility

Photos and story Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

After watching dozens of inmates present their business ideas, CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan stepped up to the stage to pitch a plan of his own.

“I’ve got this great idea for you guys,” he said. “You go get this dynamic, crazy lady and her company, and they go get all these very important volunteers to come into a prison and awesomely change the energy.”

Kernan was speaking to a gym filled with inmates, staff and more than 100 volunteers gathered at California State Prison-Solano (SOL) for the first-ever Defy Ventures Business Pitch Competition held on a Level III California prison yard.

The program brings business professionals and venture capitalists from throughout the country into correctional facilities, where they spend the day sharing their expertise with incarcerated men and women.

The “crazy lady” he referred to is Catherine Hoke, founder of Defy Ventures, whose out-of-the-box thinking has inspired hundreds of inmates to step out of their comfort zones and begin an intense program in which they learn business skills such as financial management, resume writing and business plan development.

She’s also inspired hundreds of volunteers to give of their time and money to travel to prisons throughout the country to work with incarcerated “Entrepreneurs-in-Training” (EITs).

“What is happening in California is nothing short of great,” Hoke told the crowd. “It’s where I think our country should be moving, and I’m not just saying that. The officials of this system who are running it all seem to have the mentality to move forward, and they have such a strong interest in rehabilitation.”

In addition to providing one-on-one career coaching and resume critiques, a panel of volunteers also serves as judges for a competition in which inmates pitch their business ideas, competing for real startup funding – awarded as an IOU payable upon parole.

“I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for a long time,” said volunteer Mike Hennessy. “You guys are great speakers. Not only that, you’re great humans and great business leaders. I was impressed.”

Defy Ventures began in California on the Level II yard at SOL in June 2015, and is expanding into additional prisons (including California City Correctional Facility, California State Prison-Los Angeles County and Valley State Prison) through CDCR’s Innovative Grants Program. The program awards approximately $3 million in grant funding annually to programs successfully operating inside California prisons in order to expand them into even more prisons.

“We love how progressive and open to working with us California’s facilities are,” said Melissa Gelber-O’Dell, director of prison engagement and admissions for Defy. “It takes forward thinking to go from ‘trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em’ to embrace re-entry and to do it in a way that’s not just about buzzwords, but that is really meaningful. This department puts its money where its mouth is.”

“All I did was say yes,” said SOL Warden Eric Arnold, thanking his staff, the volunteers and inmate population for working together to make such a complex program a success. “And I’ll keep saying yes if I can make it happen. Whatever works, right? Whatever gets you men interested and whatever helps you is best for all – for society, for inside here, and outside.”

Kernan echoed Arnold’s sentiment, pointing out that programs like Defy inspire not only the people participating, but also the facility as a whole by encouraging an atmosphere of rehabilitation.

“It seems to me that if we’re doing stuff like this, we make it safer for you, our staff, and our volunteers,” he told the EITs.

The Business Pitch Competition was a milestone in Defy’s months-long process, which includes intense book study and time commitments. Defy has filmed business professionals throughout the United States, including finance and marketing professors from Harvard and Stanford, for the “CEO of Your New Life” series. The program is so intense, in fact, that those who complete the videos and workbooks, pitch in a competition and pass Defy’s final exam earn a career readiness certificate from Baylor University. While the certificate is not for university credit, it is an acknowledgement of the program’s high-level curriculum, and a great addition to an EIT’s resume.

The program focuses on providing EITS with the knowledge and skills necessary to increase success upon re-entry into society. That entails not only business and entrepreneurship skills, but also developing a healthy mindset.

“Just having good information that you can read in a book is not enough,” Gelber-O’Dell said. “You have to have the opportunity to dialogue with people and to know that if you’re making those efforts toward change, they will be acknowledged.”

To that end, Defy brings in successful and inspirational volunteers to speak with the EITs, including formerly offenders who are now successful business owners and executives who encourage hiring formerly incarcerated people. At the SOL event, Kapor Capital founders Mitch and Freida Kapor discussed their “founders’ commitment,” which urges the companies they invest in to prioritize diversity and inclusion in their businesses. They also spoke to the audience about the importance of perseverance and experience in finding success.

“It is hard,” Freida Kapor said. “Being an entrepreneur is really hard, but you know from adversity. You wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t. So don’t give up. Take feedback, take advice, and think about how you’re going to run the marathon, not just run the sprint.”

Defy Ventures is not just an in-prison program. Upon release, EITs are encouraged to stay involved with the organization through the incubator program, in which they work with Defy to incorporate their companies, open business bank accounts, create promotional materials, and solicit customers.

Bob Barton, the California Inspector General, praised Defy for not only teaching EITs business and job skills, but also for helping them realize their full potential.

“Programs like this one, that really have you identify who you are and who you want to be – and who you were and no longer are – are the kinds of programs that are going to last,” he said. “Programs like this cause you to believe you can transform. And I too believe in redemption, and I think anybody can change.”

EIT Andrew Maloy said the most important thing he’s learning in Defy is confidence. “Nobody will believe in you until you believe in yourself,” he shared.

Taking the top prize at the competition was Steven Jones, whose idea for a mobile salon impressed not only the panel of judges, who awarded him first place and a $500 IOU, but also the audience and guests, who presented him with awards for Peer Favorite and Coaches’ Choice.

“I hope to be an inspiration to other entrepreneurs, that if I can do it, they can,” Jones said. “If I can get in Defy and defy the odds, they can, too.”