Statement

Defy Ventures’ Board Statement
March 27, 2018

Dear Defy Supporters:

On Wednesday, March 21, our founder, Catherine Hoke, submitted her resignation as the CEO of Defy Ventures. With heavy hearts, our Board of Directors accepted her resignation and, effective immediately, our own Andrew Glazier (who has been serving as Defy’s Chief Program Officer), is stepping in as President and interim CEO.

The Board expresses its enormous appreciation for Catherine’s dedication and service as CEO. Over the last seven and a half years, Catherine has grown Defy from a small nonprofit to a national movement in the fight for prison reform and second chances. There are so many people who attribute their rekindled hope and transformed lives to her leadership and example. Catherine’s creativity, relentless work ethic, vulnerability, and courageous advocacy is embodied in Defy’s mission and will continue to carry our organization into the future.

Our Board fully understands that Catherine’s involvement in and advocacy for Defy has been critical to Defy. Despite the obstacles, Catherine has promised her unwavering commitment to Defy’s continued success, and her resolve is an inspiration to our Board and staff. We are pleased that she wants to continue an ongoing relationship with us as an external advisor and she will continue to be a strong advocate for the organization.

Our management team and Board aspire to the highest standards of integrity. With the assistance of independent outside counsel, our Board has been investigating the many allegations described in the media earlier this month. Due to the broad spectrum of the allegations, the investigation is ongoing, and final conclusions have not yet been reached. To the extent the investigation reveals areas for improvement at Defy, we are committed to making necessary changes.

Our Board and staff have been deeply encouraged to hear from countless prison partners, donors, and volunteers that they continue to be fully committed to Defy. We couldn’t operate without the generous support of partners like you. We are as appreciative as ever for your steadfast commitment and for standing alongside our dedicated staff and deserving EITs.

Sincerely,
The Board of Directors of Defy Ventures 

 

Catherine Hoke’s Statement and Letter of Resignation
March 21, 2018

This letter was written to reflect my own views (and not that of the Board or the organization).

This letter is long. Particularly if you gave an ounce of credibility to the recent defamatory news about Defy and me, I hope you will read this response before reaching your verdict.

I’ve dedicated the last 13 years to fighting on the front lines in the battle for second chances for people with criminal histories.

As Founder & CEO of Defy Ventures, I have helped pioneer a movement that’s working to end the epidemics of mass incarceration and recidivism that plague our country. I couldn’t be prouder of the work my team and I have accomplished and the people we’ve served who inspire us never to give up. We’ve unleashed hope and kindness in some of the darkest, most depressing, and violent places in our country.

We’ve dedicated ourselves to empowering each person in our program with access to education, mentoring, community, and economic opportunity. My intention for our participants is for them to rediscover hope and live up to their fullest potential as inspiring contributors who use their courageous voices to transform our communities.

The journey of Defy has been incredibly challenging since founding it in 2010. It’s work that can feel daunting on even the best days. Yet, serving our committed program participants, whom we refer to as Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs), in partnership with compassionate volunteers, correctional officials, and our extraordinary staff, makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

On March 16, 2018, an article was published in The Daily Beast that spread deceitful allegations about Defy and me. This attack was not an attempt to reveal truth. It was part of an intentional, pre-meditated, malicious plan that The Daily Beast recklessly facilitated. In advance, some of our most important stakeholders reported threats of a “scorched earth” campaign by someone whose stated goal was to “eliminate Defy.”

If you read the article and formed negative judgments about Defy and me, I understand. It’s a normal human reaction. “Innocent until proven guilty” is one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system. Yet it’s nearly impossible to practice in 2018. In an age of 140 characters, sensationalized headlines, and snap judgments formed while scrolling through social media feeds, it can be easy to brush aside the presumption of innocence as naïve or unnecessary.

Nevertheless, to someone who is living through the nightmare of false allegations, the absence of a presumption of innocence is a profound reminder of what our EITs may have gone through before becoming Defy participants.  

The article in question repeated false claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault against me from 2014. This is old news. In 2014, Defy retained a law firm in connection with the claims. The claims were untrue then, and they remain untrue now.

In the spirit of radical transparency, I am embarrassed about some things I’ve said as a brazen entrepreneur, and I take full ownership of making brash statements that I regret. I am guilty of telling former employees “no corporate [insert profanity].” I am guilty of facilitating match-making introductions between staff to people outside the organization (but only with their explicit permission). I am certainly guilty of making some truly catastrophic hiring decisions.

That being said, I will not stand by silently without addressing the distorted and false allegations against me that were reported in the article.

Let me be very clear:

I have never once sexually harassed, or assaulted, a current or former staff member or current or former EIT. These false claims are categorically untrue and deceitful. Further, I have been a faithful wife to my husband, to whom I have been married since 2013.

I recently wrote a book about second chances and taking responsibility. In 2009, I announced that I had had legal, consensual relationships with men released from prison who had participated in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Texas organization I founded. My redemption story, which is on the public record, might make it easier for some to believe that I would engage in harassing behavior. I have not.

Since 2009, I’ve had a target on my back. With this latest news story, I am fully aware that the target on my back has grown exponentially.

I wish I could say attacks like this were isolated incidents. Threats, attacks, and attempts at extortion haven’t just happened to me once or twice; they have occurred far more than I care to acknowledge as a CEO who leads in challenging environments. It has been all-too-easy for any disgruntled former employee or EIT to vengefully retaliate by inventing salacious allegations against me.

As for the allegations about Defy that don’t involve my personal conduct, I have complete confidence that Defy’s Board will responsibly handle the bombardment of allegations that has led them to institute an exhaustive investigation. Before the investigation is complete, it would not be legally advisable for them to make a comprehensive statement regarding the allegations and outcomes.

Skeptics may judge my Board’s silence as apathy or guilt, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Defy’s thoughtful Board is doing what any responsible fiduciaries would do during such an attack. In January, they retained WilmerHale, a top law firm, to conduct an independent investigation, from which I recused myself. (And for the record, WilmerHale has generously donated their services pro bono.) 

As an organization that grew up overnight, we have openly acknowledged that we still have opportunities for improvement, which we pursue with commitment every day. However, the process of working through our growing pains is completely different than the scenario painted in the article. My exceptional senior leadership team and I stand by our results.

Here are the facts. Since 2015, when Defy launched its in-prison program, my Chief Program Officer and his program team have documented records of enrolling 3,503 incarcerated men and women in Defy’s rigorous in-prison program (which takes six to 12 months to complete). Our only requirement for admission is that EITs complete our application. Of those who enrolled, 1,021 are currently working toward their graduation and 1,298 have graduated. The balance either were removed, transferred to another prison, dropped out, or were released prior to graduation. As the program rapidly scaled, we have continued making informed improvements, and we’re proud that Defy’s in-prison program retention rate stands at 85% today. We have served 546 formerly incarcerated people (of which 354 completed programming and 192 are still actively participating). Our program team conducted our latest recidivism checks on March 1, 2018, and confirmed that released graduates of our CEO of Your New Life program have maintained a recidivism rate of less than 5% over the three-year period that we track. If there are any errors or omissions in our methodologies or reporting, they have not been deliberate, and if identified, I assure you that Defy will take the necessary measures to rectify them. In the meantime, as the Board and our team endure this trial, I ask that you stand with Defy.

A line-by-line debunking of every defamatory allegation in The Daily Beast article is not the intent of this letter. I am confident that after concluding the exhaustive investigation, Defy’s Board and team will go to great lengths to address any remaining concerns of Defy’s stakeholders.

However, because the following allegations are antithetical to our mission, I will address the allegations that Defy or its staff: 1) does this work to benefit from the plights of people with criminal histories; 2) defrauds donors; or 3) manipulatively uses our most sacred program exercise, Step to the Line, as a fundraising tool.

First, we do not charge tuition, though we previously charged a modest membership fee for formerly incarcerated EITs who were employed and capable of contributing. The remaining costs of serving them were subsidized by donors’ scholarships. We waived fees for anyone who could not afford them. When we collected membership fees, it was a fraction of our cost to serve the EIT. Since 2010, Defy has collected total membership fees of $125K, and membership fees never exceeded 4% of Defy’s total revenue in any given year. Because our cost per head has steadily decreased over the years, and because the process of collecting fees was not worthwhile, we discontinued the practice. However, I still believe in the principle of having employed, tax-paying citizens modestly contribute toward their continuing education and small business incubation services.

Second, as you can see in our 2016 audited financials on Defy’s website, 82.6% of Defy’s expenses went to direct program services. This far exceeds The Better Business Bureau’s standards for nonprofit management, which recommend that at least 65% of a nonprofit’s total expenses should be for program activities. Our 2017 audit is underway, but based on our unaudited financial statements, we are confident that the completed audit will show that program expenses represented more than 80% of total expenses in 2017. I am confident that the ongoing investigation will validate these statements. Further, nearly every member of Defy’s leadership team (and most of our other staff) work for wages below their market rate. If personal profit was our primary objective, I assure you that there are far easier and more lucrative paths to prosperity.

And finally, as for The Daily Beast’s misleading reporting about Step to the Line: we regularly do this important exercise with EITs only – when donors are not present – and EITs consistently report it to be one of the most humanizing and empowering experience of their lives. At the end of the exercise, we call out the question, I might not be able to explain it, but even though I’ve been revealing difficult things and have made myself vulnerable in this exercise, right here, right now, I feel safe, accepted and loved.” In 13 years of leading this exercise with thousands of EITs, they overwhelmingly agree with this statement. Prison officials who not only witness Step to the Line, but sometimes even participate themselves, frequently say it is one of the most remarkable, game-changing elements of our innovative programming.

More than 4,400 volunteers have personally experienced Defy’s transformative impact. If you haven’t coached EITs at a prison event or mentored in our post-release incubator, please join us. If you have doubts, please reference check our work with some of our country’s most reputable leaders, government officials, corrections authorities, EITs, or Defy family members.

Defy’s work is too important to let personal attacks against me jeopardize Defy’s mission. Therefore, I am voluntarily resigning as the CEO. Stepping down as CEO is the most difficult decision I have ever made.

I came to this excruciating conclusion because I love Defy and this is my best effort to protect it. I am hopeful that my resignation will create a distance from me that will help shield this amazing organization and our devoted staff from further impact of these absurd, false, and defamatory allegations.

Further scaling the effective programs of Defy will require an exceptional operator. Our existing team consists of highly-qualified leaders who can now take the helm of Defy. Our Board is working diligently to appoint a new Interim CEO. I cannot say enough great things about the integrity, sacrifice, devotion, grit, intentions, experience, and competence of the Defy team. Working in the trenches with this team has often been gut-wrenching and overwhelming, yet also awe-inspiring, joyful, and deeply rewarding. They are the most committed leaders I have had the privilege of working with in my life. If you don’t already know Defy’s leadership team, please consider meeting with them before you form judgments about the sustainability of our organization. Defy will prevail.

As for me, I’ve never had a Plan B beyond this work. Although I’m resigning as CEO, I am not quitting on my mission. I plan to continue serving Defy as an advisor. My first priority is to do everything in my power to ensure Defy makes a full and speedy recovery from this attack. I am fully committed to Defy’s near- and long-term success. I hope to serve as an external advocate and fundraiser for Defy and to lead events in prisons where I remain welcomed.

In fact, my farewell party is on for April 7-8 at Pelican Bay State Prison. We have ~100 executives registered to volunteer, 89 EITs scheduled to graduate, and Defy is subsidizing the travel to Pelican Bay for EITs’ families and children so they can witness what most EITs consider to be the proudest accomplishment of their lives. EITs will pitch their business ideas, get coaching, participate in Step to the Line, and graduate in beautiful caps and gowns. For about half of them, this is their first graduation. They will be presented with Baylor University MBA program certificates for completing Defy’s comprehensive program. At this event, we are also graduating our second cohort in solitary confinement.

The recently retired warden of Pelican Bay, Clark Ducart, says this about our impact at his prison: “I’ve never seen anything like Defy, and I’ve been in corrections for 31 years. Defy has changed the culture at my institution. If you’re a warden, figure out how to get Defy.”

In the midst of this attack, I haven’t lost sight of who I am or my life calling. I live to serve EITs like William, who lives in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Imagine getting locked up at the age of 12, as he was. Today he is 22 years old. Two months ago, he said on video:

“Before I was always just a number, an inmate … that’s all I ever wanted to be. But now I’m an EIT, an Entrepreneur-in-Training … I’ve got a business idea … I take responsibility for my actions … I’m actually a father now, a husband, something I never before took pride in being … It was all about me, me, me … now it’s about what can become of me … It’s all about what I can do for everyone else … They [Defy] teach you how to make something out of nothing … and the majority of us grew up in nothing … single mother, single father, no parents at all, foster home … but what if you could make nothing into something? Making something out of nothing made me feel like I stood a chance … because now I know that I have the tools to succeed. Like we like to say, I can Defy the odds … I am the CEO of My New Life.”

I will never, ever turn my back on William or his peers, and I will advocate for criminal justice reform until I’m dead.

The fight against mass incarceration and cycles of recidivism is far from over, and until it is, you won’t stop hearing from me. I look forward to continuing to create barrier-breaking solutions for this sector. I’m devoting my life to spreading messages of second chances, forgiveness, and sacrifice. I pledge to continue doing everything in my power to bring justice and opportunity to people who are often voiceless, stigmatized, and written off.

More than ever, Defy’s team and EITs need you to be their advocates and generous supporters. Please fight for Defy. Not for me, or to prove our attackers wrong. But for our EITs. They deserve to win.

At Defy’s graduation ceremonies, we play the Jason Mraz song “I Won’t Give Up” as EITs ballroom dance so tenderly with their mothers, wives, and children. Every day, I will carry in my heart those sacred memories from Defy to remind me to keep fighting for justice and opportunity.

To our EITs, Defy families, staff, correctional partners, volunteers, and donors: I love you for your compassion, courage, and service. I give you my word, I won’t give up. And if you want me to come around, just ask.

Serving at Defy Ventures has been the greatest honor of my life. You have made every ounce of the sacrifice worthwhile. Thank you for believing in me and in Defy, and for generously giving us the opportunity to create the change that’s possible when people truly care.

In gratitude and service,
Catherine Hoke