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Founding Story

In 2004, while immersed in a career
in venture capital and private equity,
Catherine Hoke received the opportunity
to tour several Texas prisons.


At one prison, Catherine discovered 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, charisma that turns a no into a yes. She learned that many gangs and drug rings are run similarly to corporations—with sophisticated governance, bylaws, detailed bookkeeping, and complex marketing strategies.

Catherine asked herself, “What would happen if these former street “chief executives” were equipped to hustle legitimately?” She saw that, unless the men had access to the fundamentals of legal business and a support network to coach them, these men would be destined to become statistics, spend their lives behind bars, and pass a legacy of crime and imprisonment to their children. The statistic that 70% of the children of incarcerated people follow in their parents’ footsteps to prison shocked her. She believed that the best way to break generational patterns was to equip these people to become legal providers, active mothers and fathers, and community leaders.

Visiting the prison a second time, she conducted a “Business 101” seminar with some executive recruits, and spontaneously decided to run the prison’s first business plan competition. These early efforts quickly evolved into the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), which blossomed into a statewide organization in Texas teaching entrepreneurship and character development to men serving time. After investing her entire savings and 401K into launching the organization, Catherine grew PEP into a $2.5 million organization that graduated 600 students, helped launch 60 startups, achieved an employment rate of 98% and resulted in a return-to-prison rate of less than 5%. PEP attracted a network of 7,500 executive volunteers and supporters (including 32 MBA program partners) and received national recognition and awards. | Learn more about Catherine and PEP

In 2009, following personal turmoil that Catherine still shares openly, she resigned from PEP. Amidst pain and loss, she experienced firsthand the strength of an encouraging community that rallied behind her and believed in her potential—despite her public mistakes. Armed with incredible leadership lessons, even more empathy, and a transformed perspective from the grace she experienced, Catherine moved back to New York City (her favorite city in the world) in search of next steps. Since age 26, Catherine has been blessed with deep awareness of her life calling to use her “everything” to love and serve others. Her enduring commitment to do so led to the birth of Defy Ventures.

In October 2010, Catherine established Defy Ventures in New York City. Her vision has been to build a replicable model that will impact every urban community in America. Catherine put in every dollar she had (again) to launch the nonprofit, and raised funding from pioneering supporters who believed in her vision to use entrepreneurship as a platform to create healing and economic opportunities nationally.

In January 2012, Defy Ventures launched its pilot group of Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) — 21 of whom created a startup business and graduated one year later in a cap-and-gown ceremony. To date, Defy EITs have launched 165+ businesses and created 350+ employment opportunities for Defy program participants and others. Defy has engaged over 3,500 executive volunteers from the private sector who have contributed 15,000+ hours as business pitch competition judges, mentors, and business coaches. Initially conceived as a program targeting men, in the fall of 2012 Defy opened up enrollment to women and continues to refine its program model, serve more future entrepreneurs, and pursue a national expansion.