Defy Ventures

For turning ex-convicts into successful entrepreneurs.

Business Products & Services
New York CityNY 
Company size:
 Photo Credit: Courtesy Company

Why It's Disruptive

Guided by the belief that entrepreneurial potential can be found anywhere, Defy Ventures teaches former drug-ring organizers, gang leaders, and others with prison records that they too have the skills needed to launch a successful business. Catherine Hoke, who formerly worked in venture capital, launched the nonprofit in 2010. Defy Ventures currently operates entrepreneur-in-training programs in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Omaha, Nebraska.

The program lasts six months for those who are still in prison, while those who have recently been released from prison participate in a 14-month-long training program and business incubator. During their time with Defy, the entrepreneurs-in-training are expected to show up on time, dress professionally, and start each class with a group hug, to build a sense of camaraderie. In exchange, Defy Ventures teaches them how to write a business plan, come up with a revenue model, and pitch investors. Venture capitalists and local executives serve as mentors, and throughout the program, trainees can participate in four different pitch competitions--where they can win up to $30,000 in seed capital, if they clean house at all the competitions. 

To-date, Defy Ventures has incubated 166 businesses--which have created more than 350 jobs--and has brought in more than 3,500 executives and VCs to serve as mentors. Both Richard Branson and venture capitalist Mark Suster have sung the program's praises. Notable alumni include Coss Marte, who created a prison-style workout class called ConBody.

Biggest Challenges

Despite its successes, the nonprofit still faces skepticism from some corners. In March, Defy was set to expand to Mississippi, before the state's Department of Corrections suddenly pulled the plug. Of her critics, Hoke says: "Most of them haven't actually seen us in action, and they think it can't be done. Some philanthropists wonder why this population is worth investing in. Once I get through the objections and convince people to get involved, their doubts quickly fall away." --Anna Hensel