Catherine Hoke

Speaker Update: Defy Venture’s Catherine Hoke

Catherine Hoke took the CIW stage this past October to discuss second chances—both for the ex-convicts that she mentors through her nonprofit Defy Ventures, and for herself.  Founder of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, Hoke had to resign after a scandal that rocked her organization to its core.  Today, she runs Defy Ventures, a a NYC-based entrepreneurship program and incubator that recognizes that many former drug dealers and gang leaders can become successful, legal entrepreneurs.  We recently caught up with Hoke to continue the conversation about second chances she started at CIW and learn whats next for Defy Ventures.

Catherine Hoke

Catherine Hoke bravely shared her story of mistakes, second chances and hope at CIW 2013.

On the CIW stage you shared your personal story of transformation after resigning from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a Texas-based nonprofit that you founded.  How does your story affect the way that you approach leading Defy Ventures today? 
I’m even more passionate about second chances and building a nationally scalable model that will bring redemptive healing and economic opportunities to formerly incarcerated people. We’re now rolling out a blended learning model that will become financially self-sustaining, and could operate without me. I’ve recruited an extremely capable team to realize this vision.

I’m more authentic; no one (including me) expects perfection from me now. I experience the freedom to be real. I have a far greater understanding of grace, and I embrace failure. I encourage our staff and entrepreneurs-in-training to be forthcoming with failures. We apply learning lessons, and move forward.
I’m also intentional about living and working sustainably, and I pay for daily accountability. I have my second chance at marriage, and am devoted to leading Defy with good personal boundaries, so that I can have a life outside of Defy. Besides, I’ve learned that a lot of things I create start to thrive when I get out of the way.

Tell us more about your plans to scale up Defy Ventures.  What will that process look like and who do you hope to reach? 

We’ve just rolled out the first phase of our scalable “blended learning solution,” which combines online training with in-person character development and application of the online training, and are currently accepting applications for online mentors. We’re serving 200 entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) this year as we alpha test the system and provide comprehensive entrepreneurship, employment and personal development training. Next year, we plan to serve up to 1,000 people and expand to a second city (we’re currently looking for committed funders). Our model will become financially self-sustaining, which also excites me. We hope to be truly national in 2016, and then even global.


The stories you and the Defy Ventures entrepreneurs told on the CIW stage have really inspired us.  What other success stories have come out of Defy Ventures since we saw you this October? 
The EITs you met onstage have since turned their business dreams into reality by launching their businesses—in fact, our grads just incorporated 25 new businesses last month; we financed them, and are now incubating them. Eighty percent have already generated revenue and many are already at least minimally profitable. We have everything from catering businesses to a dog treat company to a mobile app business! Our grads reported an average increase in income of 94 percent since starting Defy! I’m so proud of them! 
What other plans for Defy Ventures or otherwise do you have in the works?  
I’m pouring my energy into our blended learning model because this will change the world. Just between now and October, we’re creating 50 online courses so that our training will be broadly available. We’re also creating an online Train the Trainer series next year so that others, including the CIW community, can learn to implement local solutions. We anticipate that, over time, our solution will reach millions of people with criminal histories and their families in communities throughout the U.S. and the world.
We also have several other longer-term goals. We’ll pursue accreditation in 2016 when our new methodology is proven to be effective in serving a broader population. We’ve started conversations with brick and mortar and online universities, some of which have expressed interest in partnering with Defy to grant EITs college course credit for Defy training.  We’d like to eventually bring our training inside jails and prisons.  Once Defy is scaled nationally, we plan to build a movement and will use our voice and results to influence systemic reform and fight the serious injustice that is commonly tolerated in this system. 
Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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