Correction: An earlier version of the article mischaracterized Defy's president's actions on his departure and incorrectly described an investigation of the organization. It also included a statement about the investigation's conclusions that was unsubstantiated.
Defy Ventures, founded in 2010, has a simple but unique mission: "To end mass incarceration and to drastically reduce the rate convicted convicts re-offend after being let out" by instilling an understanding of entrepreneurship as a tool to "transform legacies and human potential." Defy accomplishes this by providing a business education to prison inmates--referred to as Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs)--and then pairing them with business professionals, who spend a day at prison and provide insights and feedback on the EITs' business proposals. Defy's mission is at the intersection of social entrepreneurship, community transformation and investment, with a significant amount of self-awareness facilitation, and its success and impact go well beyond the P&L sheet on which traditional venture firms focus.
Earlier this month, my wife and I joined 50+ volunteers who had signed up to join Defy Ventures at a men's maximum security prison in Los Angeles County. The men in this facility were not there for misdemeanors; these men had committed serious crimes and it's likely some of them would never see the outside world again. Andrew Glazier of Defy Ventures led us to the prison gym, where, amid some serious and loud dance tunes, we were enthusiastically greeted by more than 100 EITs, who high-fived us and expressed their sincere gratitude that we had chosen to spend our day with them. Leaving our apprehension (and electronic devices) behind, our 10-hour day inside a maximum security state prison began.
This session marked the EITs' graduation from eight months of study with Defy Ventures. They each had a business to pitch, ("Shark Tank style) and the goal was to both hone their pitching skills and further develop their ideas. Each EIT proposal was scored on 1) the feasibility of establishing the business with a maximum $20,000 investment, and 2) the potential to create jobs and opportunities for community members and fellow former inmates. Volunteers heard close to 100 pitches and narrowed them down to the top three. Ideas ranged from horse-training, to car cleaning, to food trucks, to creating an archive of artwork of incarcerated men and women. The winner was Gerald Jones, a poet, who creates greeting cards and sells them to his fellow inmates. His cards, unlike those available in the mass market, are popular because they reflect the sentiment of inmates' unique circumstances. This EIT had a clear vision for how his company would run and the ROI for his investors. He won a $500 IOU from Defy, which he will receive upon his release, along with the opportunity to meet angel and seed investors who could fully fund the idea.
For many inmates, this was their first graduation and the first time they'd worn a cap and gown. They'd been given not just an opportunity for a second chance; they now had roadmaps for success and for becoming the CEOs of their own lives. More than one EIT told me that this program led them to view themselves as new people, with new possibilities.
Defy's own second chance
Recently, it has not been smooth sailing for Defy Ventures itself. Earlier this year, Defy came under scrutiny when the then-newly hired president was terminated by the board after just 10 weeks on the job. According to the Daily Beast, he had raised concerns about allegations of alleged misconduct at the organization. The allegations resulted in an investigation of Defy Ventures by law firm Wilmer Hale. Catherine Hoke, the Founder/CEO who built her career helping incarcerated men and women across the country have a second chance in life, resigned. According to a presentation given to the volunteers when I visited the program, a Defy employee said the organization came close to bankruptcy and shutting its doors. When EIT participants and graduates heard this, the employee said, they sent word back that they would find a way to conduct the program themselves. Defy is back on its feet with a new organizational structure, and yesterday the Board named Interim CEO, Andrew Glazier, who along with a dedicated staff and board helped guide the organization back to life, to formally become the organization's new Chief Executive. In a brief call I had with Glazier yesterday afternoon, he expressed optimism about the future of the organization, stating, "...my goal is to expand our organization to meet its greatest potential. We are not the first organization to go through this type of growing pain and we will not be the last. As with the work we do, we must be judged by the actions we take, the people we affect and the core values we have to transform the world around us."
The proof of Defy's success can be found on its website--where former EITs are profiled in stories that describe their business success post-prison. Recidivism rates among Defy graduates are under 5 percent--a stunning achievement when you consider the average re-offend rate is about 70 percent.
There were moments during the day where I reminded myself there were reasons these men were in prison. But Defy gave us the opportunity to explore our differences and commonalities and to reflect honestly about the privilege or poverty of our circumstances; giving us the filter to look at the EITs for who they are today and the possibilities of their futures, rather than who they were when they were sent to prison. As we walked away from the prison, we all commented on how transformative the experience was. My wife and I are clear about one thing: we got as much from the EITs as we gave to them.