If you want to see the word ‘defy’ in action, you might look to Catherine Hoke. Since childhood, she has embodied defiance, resisting attempts to stop her from achieving her goal. She has a spirit nurtured by her father who told her she could be anything she wanted to be.
That’s why, at just 7 years old, when her family moved to America, she dreamed of becoming President of the United States. The fact that she was French Canadian was a roadblock her father quickly dismissed.
“I want you to think about how you can still make that happen,” he told her. “Go think about that and let me know how you will do it.”
So Catherine came up with a plan.
“I’ve got it. I’m going to be a lawyer and change the constitution of the US and become the President.”
From then on, Catherine says, her father introduced her as “the future President of the United States.”
As a teenager, Catherine flouted convention as the first female wrestler on the boy’s high school team, eventually becoming the 1994 California Women’s Freestyle Wrestling State Champion.
And as a young college graduate climbing the Wall Street ladder, she was making her mark in a male-dominated world. But she felt something was missing.
“I was 25 years old, making more money than I needed. As I looked at the partners, I knew I could be successful. But I asked myself, if I died today why would my life even matter? I started to speak with people who had found meaning in their lives. I realized that it was when they were giving of themselves, not taking, that they found purpose. I concluded that the way to have meaning was not by doing another deal, but by serving.”
For Catherine, the chance to serve came a short time later during a tour of the Texas prison system that she took with great trepidation. Despite her fears, she realized that the prisoners she met were human beings, people who knew how to run illegal but often profitable businesses, but not how to outrun the law. What if she could channel their hustle into legitimate business opportunities and give these incarcerated men a second chance on the outside?
Once again, Catherine chose to defy expectations, abandoning Wall Street to work in what she calls her favorite place to be…inside prison.
“I wonder why so many people who aren’t incarcerated live like they are incarcerated. Why do we make so many excuses not to pursue a deeply fulfilling and generous life that matters?”
In 2004, shortly after leaving her prestigious job on Wall Street, Catherine founded the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a non-profit designed to help men in the Texas prison system unlock their positive potential and earn a second chance at a stable and rewarding life.
In 2010, after making mistakes that led to a public resignation scandal, Catherine moved back to New York City. Given a second chance to give second chances to others, she built on her original model and founded Defy Ventures, with a mission to use entrepreneurship to transform lives and create legacies of success.
“In America, we say we’re the land of second chances, but we’re often not. Even though you’ve paid your debt to society and served your time, you get out of prison and live out a life sentence with ‘invisible cuffs.’ My goal is to level the playing field for the biggest underdogs and the most overlooked talent pool in America. We work with men, women and youth with criminal histories and teach them how to start businesses and how to restart their lives, period.”
“We use entrepreneurship to get them interested in the first place. But holistic transformation is more important me than starting a business.”
To that end, Defy offers mentoring, group discussions and some 200 online courses dealing with business and life skills training. For example, a course called How to Give a Meaningful Apology teaches them how to repair broken bonds and relationships with their children and loved ones.
“We use entrepreneurship to give people a vision worth fighting for, and build in the healing, character development, and life skills that will allow them to succeed.”
After release, former prisoners can join Defy’s employment program, receive intense life and business mentoring, and enter Defy’s entrepreneurship incubator, through which they receive funding and startup services. Once they join Defy’s program, participants are known, not as ex-cons, but as Entrepreneurs-In-Training (EITs).
In the six years since its founding, Defy Ventures has grown from a post-release program to a nationwide non-profit, serving prisoners in New York, New Jersey and California -- with plans to expand to 5 more states already in the works -- and serving former inmates in 18 states.
You don’t need Catherine’s background in finance to know that Defy is a wise investment. In California, for example, the cost of incarcerating one person for just one year is $47,000 while Defy’s program costs just $500. And while the national recidivism rate is 76%, for the graduates of Defy Ventures it is an impressively low 3.2%, bolstered by a 95% employment rate.
And there is another dramatic statistic that makes Defy’s mission so urgent. Seventy percent of children with incarcerated parents end up in prison themselves; a generational legacy which Catherine is committed to changing.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else because I’m so passionate about this.”
I believe this is my life’s work…unless we do a good enough job to put Defy out of business. My wish is that we be moved by empathy to recognize people for who they are today, not for mistakes they made yesterday.”
We defy anyone to disagree with that.
In addition to her work with Defy Ventures, Catherine is currently writing a book meant to challenge and coach readers to figure out what will excite them to get up in the morning … and how to live a life that matters more.
Be a judge for Defy’s own national shark tank competitions, or become an executive mentor or an online resume coach. Think about hiring a Defy graduate and giving someone a second chance. Provide a $500 scholarship or come to prison for a Defy coaching night.
For more opportunities to transform a life, contact firstname.lastname@example.org