SOCAP Voices: Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures on Transformation, Mass Incarceration, and Entrepreneurship

Posted by on June 21st, 2016

If you ask Catherine Hoke where her favorite place in the world to be is, she will tell you, quite honestly, “prison.” She chooses to go to prison as often as she possibly can while running her successful social enterprise Defy Ventures. Hoke, along with over 3,000 Defy Ventures volunteers, are working to “transform the hustle” of talent locked inside prison walls. She has seen remarkable acts of transformation and self-empowerment happen behind those walls, and she keeps coming back for more. Hoke’s disgust for unfair sentencing practices and the racial and economic injustice ingrained in the system ignited her passion for solving the problem of mass incarceration in America. As the Founder of Defy Ventures, she has created an innovative business model that is reducing recidivism rates across the country, while changing the lives of men, women, and youth with criminal histories.


The insight at the core of Defy’s solution is that our prisons are filled with brilliant entrepreneurs, many of whom have experience running multi-million dollar illegal enterprises. All too often, talented men and women serve time in jail or prison for having run these illegal enterprises—instead of running their own successful legal ventures—because of life circumstances and negative role models. Defy’s mission is to “transform the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey.” The program draws out inmates’ potential for legitimate entrepreneurship, and then offers them business education and life skill training while they are incarcerated. Upon release, they join Defy’s employment program, receive mentoring, and can enter Defy’s entrepreneurship incubator, through which they receive funding and startup services. Once they join Defy’s program, participants are known as Entrepreneurs-In-Training  (EITs). Catherine recently sat down with us for an interview about the past, present, and future impact of Defy Ventures.

The insight at the core of Defy’s solution is that our prisons are filled with brilliant entrepreneurs, many of whom have experience running multi-million dollar illegal enterprises.

Can you give us an update on some of Defy Ventures’ biggest recent developments since we saw you introduce the Equity and Opportunity Panel at SOCAP15?

Up until one year ago, Defy was only a post-release solution. We saw the need to begin the transformation process inside prison, prior to release. We launched our in-prison program in July of 2015. In almost one year, this program has grown to serve incarcerated EITs nationally, in 13 jails and state and federal prisons in New York, California, and New Jersey. We are also expanding to serve more incarcerated youth. We now serve released people in about 18 different states. We’re looking to expand our work (both our in-prison and post-release services) to up to five new states/cities, and Chicago and L.A are high on our list. In deciding where to go next, we’re looking for a combination of committed local donors, and a prison system that is pro-rehabilitation. The pro-rehabilitation part might sound obvious, but it’s not. Many prison officials still have an “old school” mentality and are much more into punishment than rehabilitation.

Can you give an example of the differences you’ve seen when systems are focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment?

California is a great example of a state prison system that is supportive of transformative opportunities. The California prison system’s leadership and authorities are blowing me away, from the Secretary of Corrections to many of the Wardens. Many of these officials in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) badly want the men and women they house to have a real opportunity at a second chance and have pursued us, wanting Defy at their facilities. In the 12 years I’ve been doing prison work, I’ve never before encountered caring prison officials like this. It’s revolutionary, and their support of Defy allows us to do a fantastic job of delivering our program, and scaling to other facilities.

When I spoke at SOCAP15, we were piloting our program in just one California prison, Solano State Prison. In one year, we are now serving in 11 California jails and prisons. This year we’ve received our first-ever state funding from CDCR: three contracts to launch at new facilities. My hope for our model is that our pilots are philanthropically funded, and then as states see value, they assume more of the financial responsibility. States spend so much money locking people up. In California, for example, the cost for incarcerating one person for just one year is $47,000. Defy’s program costs $500. We have a 3.2% recidivism rate.* We create a clear social ROI for taxpayers. So to receive our first government funding from such a progressive system is really exciting to us. We hope to achieve this with other systems as well to make Defy sustainable.

Can you tell a story that exemplifies how your new in-prison volunteer program is impacting both volunteers and EITs?

DefyVentures4We received a letter from Wes, one of our men at Solano State Prison. He’s a lifer, actually, LWOP (Life Without Possibility of Parole). Level three is high security, and those yards typically don’t attract programs. Wes said that Defy gave him the best day and opportunity of his life, because for the first time people saw worth in him and believed in him. Graduates like Wes become peer facilitators for the next cohort, so he now feels purpose as a peer facilitator. That is part of how Defy’s program is scalable. We leverage the amazing talent inside prisons.

The Defy experience is equally transformative for volunteers. In prison, I conduct this exercise where all the volunteers are on one side of a line and the EITs (Entrepreneurs in Training) are on the other. I read a series of statements; people step to the line if the statement is true. Statements like:

I have not forgiven myself.

I have not forgiven someone else who has hurt me.

Not forgiving myself or others is still hurting me to this day.

Almost everyone steps to the line for these, EITs and volunteers alike. Then I ask, ‘if it’s hurting you, what is holding you back from forgiving yourself or somebody else? Is it that you don’t know how to forgive?’ Defy has powerful courses on forgiveness that we make available to our volunteers and EITs. Even though your physical body might be incarcerated, why choose to keep your emotional self incarcerated when we have a choice to set ourselves free?

One volunteer wrote to say when she went through our exercise she was able to find forgiveness for someone that caused her pain over 35 years ago. After that day in prison, she’s finally at peace and free of resentment.

Those are just two of many beautiful, remarkable stories that have come out of Defy’s work.

Defy Ventures raises money through donations and grants, and you’ve also developed several innovative revenue streams. Can you talk about the evolution of Defy Ventures’ business model and any new programs you have in the pipeline currently?

DefyVentures1We started out being 100% funded by philanthropic grant dollars from individuals, companies, and foundations. Now our model has progressed so that we have received $700K in PRI funding, $200K of which came from the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Now we’ve received our first-ever prison system funding from CDCR and we hope to receive even more public funding.

We also get membership fees from post-release EITs. First, we help our released EITs to gain employment. Then they have the option of participating in our entrepreneurship incubator, which has a membership fee of $100 a month. These membership fees are used to subsidize scholarships for our incarcerated men and women. So it’s a “give-back” program, and I’ve found that EITs gain purpose and take the incubator very seriously when they have financial skin in the game.

Another new program we are rolling out, hopefully this year, will be a productized version of our curriculum. Currently,  an incarcerated person can only participate if Defy is serving at his or her jail or prison. We’re in the process of creating what I’m calling, our “Amazon version.” So if you have a loved one who is locked up anywhere in America, you will be able to purchase Defy’s curriculum online from Amazon or another publisher, and send it to your loved one. We will engage them through our correspondence program. And just like our existing prison program, when EITs finish our six month curriculum and complete the key deliverables by correspondence, they earn a certificate from Baylor University’s MBA program. And that is a really big honor for our EITs because so many of them have not even graduated from high school. Getting to serve people who are incarcerated anywhere really excites me.

How does that affect the experience for the EITs, having them buy into the program either through paying membership fees or purchasing curriculum materials?

We work hard to empower our EITs, and to break them of the welfare/entitlement mentality that many were raised in. We teach ownership and responsibility. Once they have the ability to pay, they contribute to their own success. Their skin in the game increases commitment. Our EITs also have a serious desire to give back, which is fulfilled through their membership fees. Their fees are used to provide scholarships for incarcerated people to participate. That’s a beautiful thing.

Entrepreneurship is at the core of your solution. As an entrepreneur yourself, and as someone who has guided many developing entrepreneurs, could you share your thoughts on the power of entrepreneurship to change the world for the better?

DefyVentures6Entrepreneurship can be a great equalizer. Anyone can choose to become an entrepreneur despite his or her history, skin color, or economic status. I love getting to use entrepreneurship and competition as tools to bring out the best in people and to bring people together. Our volunteers and EITs would be unlikely to meet and bond if it weren’t for entrepreneurship. The love of entrepreneurship is what has allowed us to engage our 3,000 volunteers and it is also what interests our EITs in Defy. We use entrepreneurship not just for building a business and making money, but also to create holistic transformational opportunities.

Entrepreneurship can be a great equalizer. Anyone can choose to become an entrepreneur despite his or her history, skin color, or economic status. I love getting to use entrepreneurship and competition as tools to bring out the best in people and to bring people together.

For example, we have a course called How to Give a Meaningful Apology. It teaches EITs how to repair broken bonds and relationships with their children and loved ones. A few of them gripe about the character development (usually the ones who need it most!), so we remind them that the apology course will help them when they start their businesses, because they are bound to screw up some early orders with customers. So we use entrepreneurship to give people a vision worth fighting for, and then build in the healing, character development, and life skills that will allow them to succeed in life.

System reform and advocacy are at the heart of your enterprise. What do you feel is the top priority need in 2016 to begin tackling the problem of injustice in the system?

I’m investing significantly into turning our program and systems into a well-oiled machine; we hired a President a few months ago to achieve this. I want to use our national impact and results for system reform and advocacy. Currently, we invest in advocating to the private sector. I believe that engaging the private sector is key to solving this problem, which has forever been seen as the government’s problem. It is often seen as a those people on the other side of the tracks’ problem. But mass incarceration affects all of us. Forty percent of American men have a criminal history by the age of 23. Isn’t that a little early in life to write someone off for good? And so we see every day that when the private sector chooses to make a difference by hiring and mentoring, it is makes a huge difference.

…mass incarceration affects all of us. Forty percent of American men have a criminal history by the age of 23. Isn’t that a little early in life to write someone off for good?

DefyVentures5The other day I was reading a testimonial written by someone who just got out of prison. He wrote, “the prison system spent $900K locking me up, and I was released with $200 and nothing else.” What’s wrong with this picture? CDCR, and a few others, are leading the way when they realize that rehabilitation is actually the key; it’s not just about locking them up. If you don’t rehabilitate people, of course they’re going to recidivate; they have no training and almost no employment opportunities upon release. So focusing on rehabilitation is huge part of my advocacy, and it happens when we humanize people and create empathy. The other piece that I am very passionate about is the unfair sentencing. The racial and economic bias disgusts me.

What are your thoughts on how the correctional system can begin finding sustainable ways to fund reform?

The use of social impact investing and social impact bonds is very interesting in our sector, because results and recidivism are so measurable, and the social ROI can be off the charts. “Pay for success” contracts can lead to sustainable reform. If a system gives Defy a chance, and we’re able to demonstrate savings to taxpayers, it’s a clear win-win.

The catch is that some old-school prison systems don’t want reform; recidivism ensures their job security.

What is inspiring you? What is giving you hope in 2016?

DefyVentures7Getting to be in prisons and see how many people want nothing more than a shot at transformation. It is my favorite place because people are so hungry for more; so coachable and open. And seeing the totally scalable nature of Defy’s programs really inspires me. I haven’t even been to some of the prisons we are serving, but the program is working. That is what I was hoping for when I designed it. Now it’s actually happening.

I’m inspired by progressive correctional officials who believe that people in prison can transform. Also, I feel like our sector is the least likely for people to care about; we’re less “cuddly” than other causes. But now that mass incarceration and social injustice is drawing more attention, I’m inspired by the momentum and desire for change. Millennials are very interested in making a difference. Forward thinking philanthropists who are willing to make big bets really inspire me. There aren’t nearly enough funders who care about this sector, but conversations about prison rehabilitation and inclusive entrepreneurship are becoming more popular. So what inspires me? The fact that people are caring on all sides: donors, volunteers, correctional officials, and our EITs themselves. When everyone comes together, it makes for a perfect recipe for success.

What call to action would you issue to the SOCAP community?

Come to prison with me, and it will transform you. You won’t be coming on a prison “tour” to observe. You’re going to roll up your sleeves and use your business skills to make a difference; to truly teach a man to fish. I triple dog dare you to join me!

The SOCAP community can also be involved in our post-release work. Come to a Business Coaching Night or Defy’s next Shark Tank-style pitch competition! We have events in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We’re building out our local boards as well.

If you want Defy in your city, and you’re interested in funding local work, let me know. We’re currently evaluating our next five Defy cities/states. A startup investment of $150K can bring us to a new city.

If you’re remote, you can edit resumes of released people online from anywhere in the country; you can even participate as a remote mentor via Skype.

One scholarship is only $500, or $42 a month. And it is $500 that will transform a life. So give somebody a chance by providing them with scholarship. Funding is our greatest need and I would be so grateful for scholarships.

Connect us with your company. We’ve started to engage a whole lot of companies. Google continues to be our greatest champion. We have 320 volunteers from Google. They are bringing busloads of Googlers to prison to volunteer. We are starting to do a lot of company field trips, and I’d like to bring your employees to prison too. We’re a great solution for company engagement and skills-based volunteering.

Here’s my email: Please email me if you want to make a difference with Defy – I’d be delighted to engage more folks from the SOCAP community!

I’ve heard that you are currently writing a book. Can you give any details on what that will look like?

DefyVentures2I’m using my story–my personal transformation, failures, and startup successes – and EITs’ stories, to encourage readers to transform their own hustle and to live more generous and fulfilling lives. At speaking engagements, I often ask, “How many of you are living your dream?” or “How many of you are fulfilled in your lives?” Maybe 5 or 10% of hands go up. I wonder why so many people who aren’t incarcerated live like they are incarcerated. Why do we make so many excuses to not pursue a deeply fulfilling and generous life that matters?

When I share my story from a stage, it sounds like I just went from venture capital and private equity, poof, right into prison work. But I actually underwent a very intentional, two-year journey of discovery and preparation before getting into prison work. I asked myself the question, “If I died today, why would my life matter?” Then after my resignation scandal from PEP (my first prison nonprofit), I had another chance to reinvent myself, so I talk about that process too—not only of reinvention, but of recovering from failure. At Defy, we specialize in coaching people to reinvent themselves and to transform their hustle. This book is not just about Defy, but it’s also about the reader’s journey. It’s meant to challenge and coach the reader to figure out what will get him/her excited to get up in the morning … and how to live a life that matters more.

*The Bureau of Justice released figures from a study that examined the 5-year post-release offending patterns of persons released from state prisons from 30 states in 2005 by offender characteristics, prior criminal history, and commitment offense. Of those, about two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years. Source


Huffington Post: Transforming the Formerly Incarcerated into CEOs

TechCrunch: Defy Ventures redefines ‘the hustle’ from prison yard to startup office

Christine Tsai’s essay about her volunteer experience: 4 Realizations From My Day In Prison

Jessica Wright’s blog post on her experience as a volunteer: The Day I Spent in Solano Prison


Catherine Hoke’s Panel, featuring graduates of the Defy Ventures program at SOCAP14: Breaking Good: Creating Second Chances for America’s Most Overlooked Talent Pool

Defy Ventures CEO of Your Life program in action at Solano State Prison

NBC Bay Area news report: Offenders to Entrepreneurs: Inmates Attempt to Defy Odds