Defy Ventures describes its program as “MBA-like training, real business plan competitions, and real money.” While such a program would likely grab the attention of many would-be-entrepreneurs, the unique thing about Defy is that their students are all former prisoners.
Defy Ventures is a New York based non-profit organization whose managers recognize that “many former drug dealers and gang leaders share similar skill sets and talents with top business leaders.” For example, one student, Jose Vasquez, a former drug dealer, knew that the way to differentiate himself from other drug dealers was to make his customers happy—taking them to dinner, buying them birthday presents. Today, he runs Happy Vida, a concierge service running errands for New York Professionals.
Defy Ventures helps ambitious former prisoners by providing a one-year entrepreneurial training and mentorship program. According to Defy’s website, the program offers participants a 45-day introductory training during evenings and weekends, after which they may be one of the 60 committed applicants who will qualify for a prestigious internship with Defy. The internship provides them with the chance to pitch a business concept to investors for a 1 in 4 shot at winning $3,000 in seed funding. Ultimately, participants present their results to investors in a final business plan competition where $100,000 in additional funding is on the table.
Catherine Rohr, Defy’s founder and CEO, teaches participants not only the textbook knowledge needed to run a company, but also interpersonal skills—such as smiling and handshakes. With the help of supportive funders, volunteers, mentors, and a devoted private sector network, Defy has helped start twenty-one businesses since its founding in 2010.
In 2004, Catherine Rohr founded a similar program in Texas called Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). While Rohr is no longer involved with PEP, its mission continues. PEP starts with applicants who are currently in prison, and after a competitive process, transfers eligible prisoners to the Cleveland Correctional Facility, out of which PEP operates. After training and being reintegrated into society, PEP boasts a return-to-prison rate of less than 5%, an employment rate of 100% within 90 days, and over 100 businesses launched.