Human rights

The Worst Thing You’ve Ever Done

Over the last year, I have been blown away by my experiences with Defy Ventures, an organization that gives business training and mentoring to people with criminal backgrounds. I must admit I was pretty nervous the first time I walked into a room filled with people who had rap sheets, but after everyone introduced themselves with a bear hug, and I got to hear why these people were choosing to change their lives, I could no longer hold on to my fear or negative assumptions.

 A Clean Slate  Through her M.B.A.-style program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Rohr is helping former prisoners, including Maliki Cottrell (left) and Marlon Llin (center), learn how to launch their own companies.

A Clean Slate Through her M.B.A.-style program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Rohr is helping former prisoners, including Maliki Cottrell (left) and Marlon Llin (center), learn how to launch their own companies. Photo credit: Miller Mobley

I believe in potential; I believe that people grow and become better versions of themselves, and I know that I’m not the only one. But in The United States, we do not extend that faith to people who have been behind bars.

What would it be like if you were permanently known for the worst thing you’ve ever done?

This is a line from Catherine Rohr’s article in Inc. CEO and Founder of Defy Ventures, she has helped transform the lives of thousands of motivated individuals, and by extension, strengthen the communities and families that they came from.

I urge you to read this article. I urge you to question the beliefs that you have. I urge you to support an organization that bolsters our society with the very people who are shunned by society. Oh yeah, and I urge you to like them on facebook!

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.

An Interview with Caitlin Kelley, founder of Africa Volunteer Corps (Part 2)

And now for the completion of my interview with Caitlin Kelley. If you haven’t read the first part, click here. (Or if you’re lazy read this: Caitlin Kelley is the co-founder of Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization which trains Tanzanian volunteers and pairs them volunteer opportunities. Her mission is to utilize the existing talent in Tanzania rather than perpetuating a culture of dependency on foreign volunteers and aid (which in her opinion, and mine) does more harm than good. This also makes more financial sense. When I volunteered in Africa for 7 months it cost $5,000 (Airfare, vaccinations, visas, insurance and food and housing while I was there), but it only costs a few hundred dollars to support a local volunteer. This Tuesday she will be hosting an event called Visualize the Change 2012, where you hear stories of how local volunteers in Tanzania are making a difference. This even is also raising money for her next group of Tanzanian volunteers). And now for the interview:

Caitlin with Desmond Tutu

Has AVC changed at all since you first came up with the idea for it?


Not much. The idea came to me in a flash, in a complete eureka moment, and it felt like the entire vision downloaded from the universe all at once that night. There are ways that we might expand how we implement the vision. For example, there is a huge need for teachers in Tanzania so we are planning how we might create a special program just for teachers. And there are some great possibilities in potentially working with for-profit companies. But the original vision–of incubating African leaders for African development, of unleashing the incredible potential lying dormant in Africa’s young people, in making sure Africans are the ones in charge of improving lives in their own societies–has remained unwavering.

I love what you said about downloading the idea from the universe. I’ve learned from The Artist’s Way that there are so many answers and ideas floating around us and we just need to be perceptive to them; willing to download them from the universe. But every great idea needs funding to become a reality. What are you looking forward to about your upcoming fundraiser on Oct. 9th?

I’m really excited to inspire people with stories of grassroots African activists and the incredible work they are doing to create positive change in their own communities. In this country we tend only to hear stories about the bad things that happen in Africa, and we are aware that there are people in need, but we never hear about the many amazing local people who are doing incredible things to make the world a better place. We as a global community will improve many, many more lives if we can put fire under the momentum of those local people who are already doing great things in their own societies. 

When I was raising money for my work in Africa I met a lot of people who were angry that I wanted to help in Africa when there is already so much poverty in America. Why do you think people should care about Africa when there are so many local problems?

I believe that all human beings are our brothers and sisters. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We don’t need to have an either/or mentality about doing good. It’s wonderful to care about multiple causes. For example, obviously I am quite dedicated to Africa, but I also give a lot to causes in the U.S., especially education, the environment, and women’s health.

What changes are you looking forward to in the upcoming year?

We’re expanding! For our pilot year (this year), we placed 7 Tanzanian volunteers to work for a year at 7 development projects. Next year we want to place 20. Our model consists of investing in leaders, so for every volunteer who goes through our program, the ripple effects are huge. Earlier this year, when I saw what our volunteers had accomplished in such a short period of time, I thought, “These are only 7 people. There are 1 billion people in Africa. How many more like them are out there?” So I can’t wait to see what happens with a bigger group.

Also, most of our current volunteers have applied to extend another year, so I am really excited to see what they can accomplish with a second year and how they grow. They already inspire me so much, so I can’t wait to see what they can do with more time and experience.


How can people get involved?

By helping spread the word–to friends and on social media. And donating is a great way to make a difference for a cause you care about. Sign up to give a regular amount every month. Even a small amount is great because when nonprofits know exactly how much money is coming in every month, we can spend less time fundraising and more time doing good. We are also currently looking for people to help us with marketing and communications, grant writing, and event planning.


Wow, Caitlin, you have a long and exciting journey ahead of you, and you’ve already come so far. Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up? What made you keep going?

There haven’t (yet) been any times when I really wanted to throw my hands up and walk away, but there have been plenty of challenging moments, ones where it can be hard to see how we will move forward. But there is always a way. A few years ago, we spent a year preparing to register (i.e. incorporate), including 2 months of meeting for hours every week to hammer out 20 pages of by-laws, taking a 10 hour bus ride to the capital, only to show up at the ministry and be told that we couldn’t register the way we had planned because of a law no one (not even the lawyers we consulted) had told us about. It brought us almost completely back to square one. And it was another 2 years before we got registered. But, like many unexpected setbacks, it work out for the best because we ended up being able to register in a different way that gives us a lot more flexibility for future growth.

What keeps me going is having  a sense of humor, embracing every challenge or failure as an opportunity to grow, and believing with every fiber of my being in our mission. Life is inevitably full of barriers, especially when you are trying to create change, so you just have to remember that impossibility is an illusion. If it’s possible within the realm of physics, it’s possible. You just have to figure it out.

When things are hard or frustrating I try to take some time to connect with the bigger vision, by meditating or writing, or even talking to myself. It reconnects me with my passion and excitement and that fire in my belly. It helps me come back to knowing that every boring task or frustrating problem are all steps up the mountain, all pieces of the bigger goal.

That should be a bumper sticker, “Impossibility is an illusion.” As you can see, Caitlin has a huge and challenging dream but she’s tackling it with perseverance and passion. I know she will succeed because her mission is truly good, and she has the drive. If you’re in the New York area, I’d love to see you at her event, Visualize Change, on Tuesday, Oct. 9 from 5:30-9:30. There aren’t enough people in the world like Caitlin Kelley, so when you find one, it’s important to give them as much support as possible!

An interview with Caitlin Kelley, founder of Africa Volunteer Corps (Part 1)

I met the vivacious Caitlin Kelley over a year ago, and she left a great impact on me. She’s kind of like Lucille Ball meets Princess Diana. While eating tacos in Union Square, she told me about the Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization she started with Jafari Msaki. AVC trains and mentors Tanzanian volunteers, utilizing natural talent and knowledge rather than importing foreign volunteers who (even with good intentions) might not being making the best impact. I was so excited to hear that AVC existed because it addressed all the personal qualms that I had when I was a volunteer in Mozambique. She is currently preparing for her event, Visualize Change, which you can attend (Tuesday, Oct. 9 5:30-9:30), so I’m very grateful she was able to take some time to share her story with my amazing readers:

Caitlin on the left in Tanzania

You volunteered in Tanzania after college. What attracted you to international volunteer work, and why Tanzania?

I knew I wanted to work in development in Africa and I wanted to get my feet wet. From having majored in African history in college, I had a lot of problems with how many development projects are run because they often hurt more than they help by dis-empowering the very people they are aiming to help. I wanted to spend some time on the ground listening and exploring in order to see where I might fit, where I might be able to use my knowledge and passion to make the world a better place. I wanted to find where I could help without perpetuating the relationships of dependence that I had seen repeating themselves over and over again for 200-300 years.

I chose Tanzania because I wanted to learn Swahili. Swahili is very widely spoken in East and Central Africa, and I wanted to communicate with people on their own terms, so it had always been a professional goal to speak Swahili.

You had an amazing time while you were there, but I know that it was also troubling. Can you explain the negative side of volunteer work that you witnessed?

One of the negatives was seeing the chaos other foreign volunteers had created, mostly by not understanding the culture and staying for too short a time to make any real impact. It was also really frustrating to see foreigners coming in to do work for free that locals were qualified to do, which creates a disincentive to hire locals, which in turn harms the local economy, thus harming the very people the volunteers are there to help.

After this experience you came up with the idea for Africa Volunteer Corps, an NGO that unites passionate Tanzanian volunteers with local NGOs (non-governmental organization). How did your friends and family react when you first shared your mission?

I came home from my first trip to Tanzania right before Thanksgiving, so I made the announcement at the dinner table. Totally excited, I announced to everyone, “I am going to start an NGO in Africa!” Crickets. My family was really proud of me for having a bold vision, but they didn’t understand the vision so they were worried it wouldn’t work.

I realized very quickly that it didn’t matter whether my friends and family saw the vision. It only mattered that I did. One of my favorite quotes is from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” My vision was crystal clear and I believed very strongly in my ability to figure out how to make it a reality, so I just pushed forward, step by step, until I made it happen.

Did you meet resistance?

I can say I have faced a lot of challenges, but I wouldn’t say I’ve faced resistance. Most people tend to be very supportive, especially in Tanzania.

The main resistance that I face is inside myself, fear of making mistakes and the inevitable resistance of constantly pushing outside my comfort zone. I am constantly learning and growing and stepping into the unknown, which can be scary and intimidating and uncomfortable. I get resistance from my ego, which is afraid to be vulnerable or admit that I can’t do everything.

What helped you move forward?

I try every day to be the best version of myself. I embrace growth and am grateful for opportunities to learn and improve. I meditate every day and am a very spiritual person, which for me helps me keep things in perspective, learn from my mistakes, and accept the unknown and things I can’t control. I think positively and find the lesson and the gratitude in every experience. Every problem is just a challenge, and every challenge is an opportunity to learn and get better.

What has been the most rewarding part of running AVC?

Caitlin with her first group of Tanzanian volunteers (photo by  Tegra Stone Nuess)

Seeing the difference we are making in people’s lives. When one of our volunteers tells us that she always wanted to help orphans and street children, but she didn’t know how to go about it, and now she feels confident that she has the skills to start her own children’s center. When one of our volunteers tells me that she didn’t understand the realities of AIDS before working with HIV positive people, and now even though she sees things every day that make her want to cry, she loves her work because she I absolutely lives for those moments.

If someone has a dream for making the world better, what advice would you give them?

Take care of yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t think that making the world better has to mean you run yourself ragged. If you don’t take care of your body and do things that you love and take time off, you will burn out.

Listen to your instincts. People may not get your vision, and that’s ok. Listen and welcome new ideas, especially from the population you are trying to help, but trust yourself.

Fall in love with fear. Pushing outside your comfort zone is scary, so feeling fear is a sign that you are doing something right, taking risks and growing. If you feel like you are about to jump out of an airplane, you know you’re in the exact right spot.

Great words to end on! Hold tight for Part 2! If you’re interested so far, make sure to bet tickets for Visualize the Change this Tuesday.


I’ve been waiting to say this for 3.5 years! I’m engaged! On Friday night Mike took me to the promenade under the Brooklyn bridge; the spot where he first told me he loved me. As the sun set over the East River he said I was the best part of his life and asked me to marry him! Of course I said yes. Then we went to Bubby’s for dinner. I’m so glad he proposed first because I had my sneaking suspicions and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy dinner if I was nervous the whole time.

Ahhh NY can be so beautiful!

Bubby’s just happened to have an old school photo booth in the back. We were able to take these awesome, over-joyed, really cheesy pictures just minutes into the engagement.

And for all you ring fanatics, it’s gorgeous. As long as we’ve been together, Mike’s known that I won’t wear diamonds. I learned about blood diamonds in college and swore that no piece of jewelry was worth (indirectly) funding warlords. The Kimberley certificate was supposed to prevent the sales of diamonds from conflict zones, but unfortunately warlords are just selling their diamonds across the borders to non-conflict zones, and so the wars are still being funded.

Anyways, Mike picked out a beautiful Alexandrite stone. This was the original birthstone for June babies (which is me!) until it became too expensive to mine. It changes from purple, green or blue depending on the light source, so I feel like I’m wearing an adult mood ring! Every time I look at it it looks different. He could not have picked out something better suited for me 🙂

So now we’re just enjoying our engagement. We’ve decided not to start making any plans for at least 2 weeks. I promise this blog won’t become all about wedding plans.


Only 2 more days to make a difference!

I think it’s everyone responsibility to help others and give when you can. One of my most rewarding personal experiences has been when I volunteered in Nicaragua, Kenya and Mozambique. However, I’ve witnessed some terrible abuses of donations and some very lazy, or incompetent international volunteers.

Caitlin with Desmond Tutu

My friend, Caitlin Kelley, was similarly frustrated by the volunteer situation while she was in Tanzania. She noticed that there were so many talented, motivated locals who wanted nothing more than to help their people. At the same time, there were numerous international volunteers who had to spend months learning the language and culture before they could do anything.

While these volunteers had the best intentions, they were also taking away volunteer opportunities from these locals who wanted to do good. Caitlin teamed up with her friend, Jafari Msaki, and started Africa Volunteer Corps to help train local leaders and secure volunteer positions with local NGOs.

You can get a set of these beautiful, beaded nesting boxes with a donation of $115 or more!

They have their first group of Tanzanian volunteers and Caitlin is trying to raise $5,000 to pay their living stipend. They only need to raise another $400, but the deadline is FRIDAY! Please visit the fundraising site and give what you can. Make sure to watch the video – she explains the mission beautifully. 

p.s. If you’d like to read the post I wrote about the need for local volunteers, check out her blog!

A right to be protected.

Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue sk...

Image via Wikipedia

Do you believe that the law should protect you from discrimination and harassment?

Do you believe every man and woman deserves this protection?

Do you believe people of every age/creed/ and race deserves this?

Do you believe every gay/ straight/ bi person deserves this?

I hope so. Fortunately the Human Rights Act provides this protection. Can you think of any reason why a person wouldn’t deserve this protection? Maybe because they murdered a child? Maybe because they are a terrorist? Maybe because they identify as a different gender than what they were born as? No, that last one would be absurd. Right?

In New York State, the bill excludes gender identity. That means any transgender person can be fired from their job, evicted from their apartment, sexually harassed, refused medicaid, and much more, and there is no law to protect them. The Human Rights Act was written to protect people who are must vulnerable to discrimination, and yet it is leaving out a group who needs it. They are not asking for extra rights, just the basic rights that most people take for granted. New York City has a bill that includes gender identity protection , but New York State does not, and neither do many other States.

For the past week I’ve been volunteering at the Empire State Pride Agenda. It’s boring work but it needs to be done. Eventually wrongs get righted. We look back at history and ask how did people ever justify slavery? Why weren’t women allowed to vote? Why were Jews banned from golf courses? Why was it such a big deal that JFK was catholic? Think of all the things we find acceptable in this day in age, and wonder if your grandchild will one day ask you why. Do you have a reason?

One of the people I look up to must in the world is transgendered. Not only is he hilarious, intelligent, open-minded and an amazing cook, he taught me what it means to truly accept yourself. The HeSo project would never have been possible if he didn’t first inspire me. A gift like that needs to be treasured and protected.