Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. I learned about the program while at SmartRecruiters’ Hiring Success conference in April 2017. I was getting drinks with some colleagues and met a panelist from the conference who had just returned from a weekend in California’s only maximum security prison volunteering with Defy Ventures.
Images courtesy of Christopher Michel Photography.
He spoke with so much passion about the life-changing impact of the program that one drink with him turned into a 4-hour conversation. By the end, we knew each other a lot better and one thing was certain, I could not miss the next opportunity to be part of Defy Ventures. So a few months later I found myself on a bus making the 8-hour journey from San Francisco to Southern Oregon and the Pelican Bay State Prison to spend the weekend with 77 incarcerated men. I knew already the experience would affect me but I didn’t yet know to what extent these men and their stories would stay in my heart.
“Kunlyna, who has been incarcerated for over 15 years donated to Defy Ventures the wages he’s earned in the prison at a rate of a $0.37 an hour.”
One moment I’d like to share is when Kunlyna, who has been incarcerated for over 15 years donated to Defy Ventures the wages he’s earned in the prison at a rate of a $0.37 an hour. In fact, when the payment to the program took too long to process –he put the cash in an envelope, looked up their address on a brochure, and mailed it in.
At Pelican Bay, like most prisons, there isn’t much association between individuals of different races. It’s dangerous to even try. These division dissolved within the 77 volunteers enrolled in Defy Venture’s 6-month full-time immersive class. These men make strategies for entering the workforce after their release whether that’s finding a job or starting their own business. They also make emotional strategies for expressing their feelings. Participants graduate this program with a sense of excitement at the prospect of the ways they’ll be able to contribute to their families and communities.
“The participants feel acknowledged as people instead of another number in the prison system.”
The program creates a space where racial division is no longer a survival strategy. The participants feel acknowledged as people instead of just another number in the prison system. Exercises of recognition like giving each other bear hugs or words of encouragement may seem uncomfortable at first but have a profound effect on how these men see themselves because, in the end, they leave with a renewed sense of self-worth.
Participants of the program are called Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs). At the end of the 6 months, the EITs pitch their startup ideas to the volunteers and one idea is chosen and that EIT receives, upon his release, a stipend to pursue his business idea. As one of those volunteers, I was able to provide feedback and allocate points to determine who would win.
The winning pitch came from Troy. His idea was to start an organic garden service. He asked for $5k for seeds, tools, and gardening materials. His pitch was that people don’t possess the knowledge or time to plant their own gardens but they still want a patch of their own. His business would be to consult these people, helping them plan and cultivate their own garden. These edible gardens would provide produce and promote healthy living. In order to spread the word, he would advertise at farmer’s markets in conjunction with a simple website on which he could display a growing portfolio of work from offering his services to family and friends. His goal is to earn a profit of $2.5k per month and offer a free garden to the elderly community.
His pitch was perfect. He even did the research to find out there was no competition in his area. I thought this idea addressed a real need and ended up awarding him all my points. If his business ever extends to San Francisco he will have a loyal customer in me. The niche he found spoke to his interests and experience. I was blown away.
“Jolly Jonathan is a 25-year-old who has spent 16 of those years in prison. Prison has been his life since he was 9 years old. Imagine that. “
Someone else I want to introduce is Jolly Jonathan. A 25-year-old who has spent 16 of those years in prison. Prison has been his life since he was 9 years old. Imagine that. The reason: A scene that involves his parents, drugs, and a bad decision. What could he possibly know at the age of 9?
I learned this when we did an exercise called Step to the Line. EITs form one line, volunteers form another. The lines face each other about 10 feet apart. Each EIT faced a volunteer. The organizer would then state a sentence. If it were true for any individual, they’d step forward. Volunteers and EITs were confronted by their similarities as they stepped toe to toe for many statements. For one statement – “I lost my innocence before the age of 10” – both Jonathan and I stepped up to the line.
As the exercise progressed, questions got deeper, and both EITs and volunteers realized how much more they had in common than either had imagined. Tears, hugs, and empathy, poured from both rows.
Two questions stood out to me: “I had 50 or more books at home growing up”. Almost all volunteers stepped to the line but this was the opposite for EITs. They stayed back. The second question was “At least one of my parents told me ‘I love you’ frequently while growing up.” Again almost all volunteers stepped to the line and EITs stayed back.
“That’s when I broke down. The earlier question about losing our innocence before the age of 10 took a deeper meaning.”
That’s when I broke down. The earlier question about losing our innocence before the age of 10 took a deeper meaning. When I was 9, I was in a situation as grave and provoking as Jonathan’s. The difference was that he acted whereas I stood back immobile and frightened. I had felt this way because I never grew up in a rough neighborhood like Jonathan had. I had more than 50 books at home and had read them all. My dad kissed my brother, my sister, and me goodnight every day. I was a secure child and could count on love whereas Jonathan could not. Because of that, he reacted and I did not and he ended up where he is now. Both incidents stemmed from circumstances that were out of our control.
EITs ended the course with a graduation. For many of these men, this was the first time they were experiencing a graduation. Families in attendance gleamed with pride and cheered on their loved ones. What caught my eye was how EITs were sitting and interacting with one another. The racial divide was obliterated. A once segregated group was now simply a group of friends.
“I thought that being a man meant being physically strong and holding my ground. Defy Ventures made me realize that I can have a productive future, a career that will make my family and community proud. That’s what matters to me now.”
One EIT stated after the graduation “I thought that being a man meant being physically strong and holding my ground. Defy Ventures made me realize that I can have a productive future, a career that will make my family and community proud. That’s what matters to me now.”
Defy Ventures graduates totaled 197 in 2017, that’s almost 10% of the entire incarcerated population of Pelican Bay. According to those who work within the prison, there is a palpable change in the attitude of the participants of Defy Ventures and it has a positive influence on the entire Pelican Bay culture. Defy Ventures hopes to initiate 30% of all prisoners into the program within the next 2 years which could be a major tipping point that changes the culture within the walls of California’s only maximum security prison.
“Defy Ventures is in 30 prisons to date and plans to be active in every prison in America in the next 13 years.”
Defy Ventures is in 30 prisons to date and plans to be active in every prison in America in the next 13 years. The stats speak for themselves Defy Ventures’ graduates have a 95% employment rate once they leave prison whereas 89% of them were unemployed when they entered. 72% of people who leave prison find themselves back behind bars but only 3% of Defy Ventures graduates re-enter the prison system
Defy Ventures is changing the nature of mass incarceration in America. Its impact is long-lasting and undeniable. I’m a volunteer, a donor, and a mentor and I welcome you to join me in creating a new future for these deserving participants.