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

Entrepreneurs are first and foremost all about creativity — they see a better future, and strive with minimal resources to achieve it.

Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures embodies this creativity as she reimagines our correctional system and works to create a better future for folks with criminal histories.

In 2004,while serving as a venture capitalist herself, Hoke had the opportunity to tour several Texas state prisons.

She quickly observed that many of the incarcerated men she met shared key qualities with the visionary entrepreneurs she worked with every day — a relentless drive to turn a profit, the willingness to take calculated risks and charisma that turns a no into a yes.

She saw an opportunity to turn their hustle into legitimate businesses, giving these ex-convicts a second chance.

More than 100 million Americans have a criminal history, according to a Department of Justice survey. According to a study in the journal Crime & Delinquency, 50 percent of black males and 40 percent of white males have been arrested by the time they are 23 years old.

Hoke believes that through training, these individuals can become successful entrepreneurs, high-performing employees, engaged parents and committed role models and leaders in their communities. She also believes that Defy Ventures, her entrepreneurship program for people with criminal histories, can have a broader impact on society by helping to reduce national recidivism rates.

In this episode of Ventured, I spoke to Hoke about how former inmates turn their experience of running illegitimate business operations into the startup American dream. We deviate from the traditional view of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur by shining a light on the efforts of these former inmates.



Defy Ventures is Khan Academy plus Y Combinator

Hoke describes Defy Ventures as a combination of online learning and an accelerator program. When the students are still in prison, they are offered an average of 10 hours of online and in-person training each week.


Through the “CEO of Your New Life” program, students undergo the ideation process, then gain practical entrepreneurship lessons in market research, operations and generating customer demand.

Early success of Defy graduates

Graduates of Defy Ventures eventually start their own businesses and become their own bosses. At last count, Hoke says Defy has created 200 employment opportunities for grads and others. Students who go through the program often hire each other. Businesses that have come out of Defy include pet walking, cleaning services and catering companies.

One of the biggest success stories from Defy Ventures is that of Coss Marte, founder of Conbody. Marte lost 70 pounds in his 9’x6’ prison cell and wanted to share his fitness regimen with others. While he received initial funding through Defy, other angel investors filled out a $100,000 funding round so he could build out the physical space for his gym. Marte recently opened his studio and now has 4,000 customers.



Impacting society, not just the bottom line

In many ways, Defy Ventures can have as much impact on our society as the next billion-dollar tech innovation. The program doesn’t just teach men how to become great entrepreneurs, it also teaches them how to be leaders and role models. It’s important that families are growing together and these values are passed along, which is why at Defy, anyone in the family can also take the online courses and attend certain open events.

The long-term impact of Defy is also measured by their effort to improve the recidivism rate.

In America, five years from their release date, nearly 80 percent of those convicts are re-arrested. In contrast, Defy graduates have a 3 percent recidivism rate. While it’s still early, there’s optimism that Defy can help some of these national problems we are facing.