Defy Ventures has been providing entrepreneurship training since 2011 in a community setting and since 2014 in prison settings. Since then, our program has evolved continuously as we learned from mistakes and iterated. Entrepreneurship remains central to our programming both because of the economic opportunities it can offer and also because of its power to transform mindsets. Entrepreneurship demands an asset-based mindset to be successful; when combined with the personal development and skill development contained in the Defy program, it is a powerful combination that supports successful reentry.
We have learned over time that a few things work best in helping our program graduates launch businesses after their release. First, we recognize that not all of our graduates are going to start businesses – in fact, only a small percentage of them will, and that is great. If even 10% of our graduates are able to start businesses while all others achieve successful reentry with a meaningful career and put to use the entrepreneurial skills as intrapreneurs in someone else’s company, that is a home run for Defy Ventures. So, an important piece of what works is helping to set realistic expectations with our graduates about starting a business, and ensuring that they understand that they need to put their successful reentry first – and that means finding a job, even if they intend to pursue a business startup.
Second, even for those who think they want to start a business, part of what works for us is to establish some criteria for whether we will support them in that endeavor or not. While we do not pretend to be a highly selective incubator that is searching for the next idea that will break the internet, we do know that we need to have criteria that allows us to select individuals who show that they have both the entrepreneurial spirit, the commitment, and at least a kernel of an idea that can be successful. In order to join the Defy incubator, applicants need to finish a prerequisite curriculum (usually in prison, but we offer it online as well), and pitch their business to a group of judges from the business community. The judges are looking for the qualities that are more likely to result in successful launch of a business.
Third, we have seen that the businesses we support are typically of lower complexity and the kind that, if successful, will produce sustainable income. These are not likely to be funded by venture capitalists and scale to become national enterprises (although we would be excited if they did!). They don’t need a lengthy curriculum series – the basic information is sufficient when paired with a high-quality mentor and ongoing workshops.
Finally, we know the program works best when we can provide access to some level of seed capital when EITs are ready to launch, both in the form of grants and loans (through a lender partner).
One of the Defy graduates, Timothy Jackson, demonstrates all that works well in this process. Upon his release, he was able to find employment and pair with a mentor who was a successful venture capitalist. Timothy had developed his idea while still incarcerated, and was able to demonstrate his commitment and talent. His mentor told me on more than one occasion how he could see that Timothy had what it took to be a successful entrepreneur – he was the hardest worker he’d ever seen and knew how to push through the obstacles in front of him. Timothy worked to develop his business, and with the support of his mentor as well as other volunteers who stepped in as specific content coaches, he was able to successfully pitch his commercial cleaning business to a Defy investment committee for initial seed capital. His business continues to do well.
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