Defy Ventures

Do you think you could ever hug a man who has killed someone? Could you look him in the eye and feel a connection? Would you care about him and want the best for him? You’re probably shaking your head no, and I thought so too…until I volunteered with Defy Ventures.

Catherine Rohr, founder of Defy Ventures, with some of her ex-con students. (Photo credit:

What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur?  Leadership, vision, guts, and drive (just to name a few traits). What would it take to become a powerful drug dealer? Leadership, vision, guts, and drive.  The clever folks at Defy Ventures realized that a lot of the people in jail have what it takes to become successful business leaders they just never had positive role models. They never had a chance. Defy offers an MBA-like course for ambitious former criminals in the hopes that they can turn their lives around and use their skills for the greater good.

Last month I signed up to be a judge for their business pitch competition. The students in the program, who have all gone through intensive business training as well as deep self-reflection about their pasts, have all come up with ideas for their future businesses and it was our job to listen, give feedback, and then decide which businesses we would back if we were venture capitalists. All of the judges were extremely successful business people: the guy sitting next to me had just flown in on his private jet! I must admit I was intimidated to be in the same room as them, so I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be one of the students pitching a business idea to them.

The competition was so much fun because I felt like I was on Shark Tank, but I was also in tears for most of the day because their stories were so hard to hear. One man talked about how angry he used to be that his father wasn’t around to look after him, and then he realized he was doing exactly the same thing to his sons by living a life of crime and ending up in jail. He swore to do whatever it takes to be a positive role model for them and completely turned his life around. Another man told us how the only people who treated him with respect and took care of him were the gang leaders in his neighborhood. When they realized how driven and smart he was they kept promoting him and eventually he became the leader of the gang. How different would his life have been if those gang leaders who saw potential in him were successful business leaders instead?

After that experience I signed up to be a mentor. It’s a 6 month commitment and I get to work with one of these amazingly motivated individuals and try to help them win the final competition. At the end of the year, they all present their business plan to win actual money for start-up capital. The winner can take in as much as $100 grand!

The winners of last year’s competition are running highly successful businesses and employing other hard-working individuals from the program. They went from making minimum wage and not being able to support their families to supporting several families. More importantly, they are representing an alternative lifestyle in their communities. In an interview with Oprah, Jay-Z said,

“The drug dealers were my role models. Rappers weren’t successful yet. I remember the first time I saw the Sugarhill Gang on Soul Train. I was 11 or 12. I was like, “What’s going on? How did those guys get on national TV?” And then, when I was a little older, a rapper from the neighborhood got a record deal. I was shocked. “They’re giving you money to do that?” Because by this time, the music had taken hold of the entire neighborhood. Just like crack had before, now this music had taken hold. Everyone was either DJ-ing or rapping.”

Sometimes you just need to see something before you can imagine becoming it. I grew up knowing that I could do anything. Both of my parents own their own businesses, and I knew people in all sorts of professions. Until I volunteered with Defy I didn’t know how lucky I was just to have that sort of exposure. The amazing people who go through the Defy program end up showing a little kid on the street that they don’t have to be a criminal to make money. That makes everyone safer.


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