Redefining the Hustle: From Prison to Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs are first and foremost about creativity – they see a better future, and strive with minimal resources to achieve it. Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures embodies this creativity as she reimagines our correctional system and works to create a better future for folks with criminal histories. In 2004, while serving as a venture capitalist herself, Hoke had the opportunity to tour several Texas state prisons. She quickly observed that many of the incarcerated men she met shared key qualities with the visionary entrepreneurs she worked with every day—a relentless drive to turn a profit, the willingness to take calculated risks, charisma that turns a no into a yes. She saw an opportunity to turn their hustle into legitimate businesses, giving these ex-convicts a second chance.

More than 100 million Americans have a criminal history, according to a Department of Justice survey. According to a study in the Journal of Crime and Delinquency, 50 percent of black males and 40 percent of white males have been arrested by the time they are 23 years old. Hoke believes that through training, these individuals can become successful entrepreneurs, high performing employees, engaged parents, and committed role models and leaders in their communities. She also believes that Defy Ventures, her entrepreneurship program for people with criminal histories, can have a broader impact on society by helping to reduce national recidivism rates.

In this episode of Ventured, I spoke to Hoke about how former inmates turn their experience running illegitimate business operations into the startup American dream. We deviate from the traditional view of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur by shining a light on the efforts of these former inmates.

Defy Ventures is Khan Academy plus Y Combinator

Hoke describes Defy Ventures as a combination of online learning and an accelerator program. When the students are still in prison, they are offered an average of 10 hours of online and in-person training each week. Through the “CEO of Your New Life” program, students undergo the ideation process and then gain practical entrepreneurship lessons in market research, operations and generating customer demand.

Early success of Defy Graduates

Graduates of Defy Ventures eventually start their own businesses and become their own bosses. At last count, Hoke says Defy has opened up 200 employment opportunities for grads and others. Students who go through the program often hire each other. Businesses that have come out of Defy include pet walking, cleaning services, and catering companies. One of the biggest success stories from Defy Ventures is that of Coss Marte, founder of Conbody. Marte lost 70 lbs in his 9’x6’ prison cell and wanted to share his fitness regimen with others. While he received initial funding through Defy, other angel investors filled out a $100,000 funding round so he could build out the physical space for his gym. Marte recently opened up his studio and now has 4,000 customers.

Entrepreneurial Lessons from a Drug Dealer

The blog post 7 Reasons Why a Drug Dealer is a Better Entrepreneur Than You by Sebastian Dillon, describes how successful rappers and businessmen like Jay Z, P. Diddy, and 50 Cent began their entrepreneurial careers as drug dealers. Dealing drugs can teach an entrepreneur about taking risks and running a successful business. They know their competitors can confront them by pointing a gun to their head. Their day-to-day operations are optimized for making money. They also know they are selling a commodity product and must come up with innovative ways to market the product, ensure good customer service, and manage people to get things done.

Compare that to the tech startup world. What’s the worst that can happen? Bankruptcy? Having a bad reputation? Suddenly starting a legitimate business doesn’t seem as scary.

Impacting Society, Not Just the Bottom Line

In many ways, Defy Ventures can have as much impact to our society as the next billion dollar tech innovation. The program doesn’t just teach men how to become great entrepreneurs, it also teaches them how to be leaders and role models. It’s important that families are growing together and these values are passed along, which is why at Defy, anyone in the family can also take the online courses and attend certain open events.

The long term impact of Defy is also measured by their impact to improve the recidivism rate. In America, five years from their release date, nearly 80% of those convicts are re-arrested. In contrast, Defy graduates have a 3% recidivism rate. While it’s still early, there’s optimism that Defy can help some of these national problems we are facing.


Defy Ventures Upcoming Events

Defy Ventures is hosting a business pitch competition and coaching event at Solano State Prison, where Defy serves 200+ incarcerated men and youth. You’ll hear powerful personal stories of transformation from Defy’s Entrepreneur in Training (EITs) and connect with them authentically. You will empower them to defy the odds!

Curious? Check out a 2min clip from NBC, a 4 min video of Solano EITs and Warden speaking about Defy’s program, and a blog by a Defy volunteer.

When: Wednesday, April 27th – 9:00am – 6:00pm
Where: Solano State Prison, Vacaville, CA (50 miles outside of San Francisco)
Do you have a passion for giving advice to some of America’s scrappiest underdogs?

Just email volunteers@defyventure.org with “I’m in for Solano!” by Friday, April 8th. Then, the Defy team will work with you for prison clearance and provide more info.

Finally – here is the Defy Ventures donation link that was mentioned in the podcast.