On a crisp morning in March 2018, I nervously stood outside the walls of California State Prison, Los Angeles County. It was my first time volunteering in prison with Defy Ventures. Going to prison was nerve-wracking because I had no idea what to expect. Would prison be as intense as portrayed in the media? Would the incarcerated men respect me as a business coach? To my surprise and delight, my experience that day shattered my perceptions of incarcerated people and the criminal justice system.
Defy Ventures is a non-profit that provides career and business-readiness training for currently and formerly incarcerated people. Through both in-prison and post-release events, Defy teaches its Entrepreneurs In Training (EITs) everything from entrepreneurship to forgiveness. Defy Ventures volunteers typically coach EITs through resume and personal statement creation, and serve as judges in Defy's in-prison business pitch competitions.
The beauty of Defy Ventures is that its events are equally as enriching for the volunteers as they are for the EITs. The cornerstone of all of Defy's in-prison events is "Step-to-the-Line," which is a humanizing and tear-inducing exercise aimed at breaking down emotional and psychological walls. No matter how many times I participate in this exercise, I find myself learning something new about myself and the others around me. Defy's events are eye-opening experiences in general. The enthusiasm of the EITs is palpable at every event: this kind of deep motivation and desire for personal growth is honestly hard to find outside of prison. It's difficult to describe in-prison events in words, but the adjective that I hear time and time again from both volunteers and EITs is "transformational."
This is Defy's secret: humanizing empathy and radical forgiveness through the lens of entrepreneurship and business training. In my own life, entrepreneurship has served as a transformational method of self-discovery and empowerment. Although my own startups did not go as well as I would have hoped, they helped me to taste a little bit of freedom and believe that I could make an impact on my community. This, I feel, is what Defy Ventures provides to the currently and formerly incarcerated individuals that it works with. Not all of the business ideas that the EITs come up with will come to fruition, and that's okay! What's important are the feelings of hope and self-worth that come with the journey of entrepreneurship. The EITs that go through Defy Ventures' "CEO of Your New Life" program will remember those feelings for the rest of their life. It is no surprise that while national recidivism rates hover around 30%, Defy graduates boast a 7.2% recidivism rate.
I am truly humbled by the opportunity to work with the inspiring EITs of Defy Ventures. The work that Defy is doing both in-prison and post-release is so crucial not only in empowering returning citizens but also in shifting the public's perception of the criminal justice system and people with criminal histories. And entrepreneurship is the perfect vehicle to enact this positive change!
But there is still a lot of work to be done to reach these goals. This past year, I had the honor of starting Defy’s SoCal Associate Board to engage young professionals in the greater Los Angeles area. We have a lot of new initiatives planned for 2020, so I’m excited to see how our team grows and continues to further Defy’s work. If you’re interested in joining us, please contact me at [email protected].
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