Defy Ventures looks to turn former criminals into successful entrepreneurs

Defy Ventures calls former criminals the most overlooked talent pool. At the 2014 DEMO conference, founder Catherine Hoke shared the mission of the organization and its success stories.

Image: Defy Ventures

Imagine what your life would be like if you were defined solely by the worst thing you've ever done.

That is the reality for many former criminals in America, especially when it comes to their professional lives. Many states have limitations on what potential employers may ask during the hiring process, but criminal history is a topic that is difficult to avoid.

This is what inspired the creation of Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship program that offers leadership development, business mentoring, incubation, and capital investments to former criminals such as drug dealers and gang leaders. Students are called entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs), and are connected with executive volunteers who mentor them during the program.

On Tuesday, November 19, Defy Ventures founder and CEO Catherine Hoke took the stage at the 2014 DEMO conference to talk about what she calls America's "most overlooked talent pool" of formerly incarcerated individuals.

"A little known fact is that 100,000,000 Americans have criminal histories," Hoke said.

Serving a prison sentence or completing community service are supposed to show that former criminals have paid their debt to society, but they often are not able to fluidly step back into life as it was before sentencing.

Some argue that, after committing a crime, a former criminal doesn't deserve the same treatment that is afforded to law-abiding citizens. By helping these former criminal "hustlers" find success as entrepreneurs, Defy believes that it can help break the cycles and legacies of violence, poverty, and incarceration -- ultimately leading to fewer criminals in the future.

The main value for businesses, Hoke argues, is that your competitors probably aren't courting people that have been through the criminal justice system. The program has many well-known mentors, including Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Seth Godin, as well as some Harvard Business School professors.

Many criminals go to jail and end up learning how to be better criminals. Hoke mentioned that Defy Ventures has seen less than 5% recidivism, which is the term used to refer to formerly incarcerated criminals who return to a life of crime and eventually return to jail or prison. To date, Defy Ventures has financed and incubated 71 companies.

Hoke was joined on stage by two Defy Ventures EITs who will be launching their companies soon. One of the EITs was a former drug dealer who is launching a clothing company geared toward baseball fans. The other had committed tax fraud and is launching a company that sells granola bars.

Graduates of the program are also assisted in finding employment as they work on their startups. Defy Ventures is a non-profit organization that operates on donations.

Defy Ventures also provides parenting education and characters development to its EITs. The program works with entrepreneurs all over the US. Interested applicants can find enrollment information here.

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