One early afternoon in May, a crowd of inmates at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York took their seats on the bleachers in the prison’s gymnasium for a surprise meeting.
The prison superintendent, Catherine Jacobsen, paced center court silently for a few minutes, waiting for the chatter to quiet down. Eventually, she told the men she had some bad news to report about one of the prison’s most popular programs.
“I’m sure you’re aware of the news about Defy Ventures,” she began.
They were. The news was not good. The popular program designed to tutor incarcerated men and women in entrepreneurship had recently been subject to negative media attention. The nonprofit’s highly celebrated founder, Catherine Hoke, author of the well-reviewed memoir “A Second Chance,” was accused of misconduct in March. Accusations had also surfaced that the group had exaggerated its success helping participants launch businesses.
“Defy as an organization is being disbanded,” Jacobsen said as the inmates struggled to process the news.
Both of us were there when she said it. We looked at one another with disbelief. We had benefited from the program, and put our hearts into it, first as entrepreneurs-in-training and later as facilitators, helping our fellow inmates navigate the program and learn to turn our ideas into viable businesses.
Defy is a reentry program that works with inmates to establish job readiness, character development and communication skills. In addition to plotting business launches of their own, the students share an overarching goal to become, as the program puts it, “CEO of Your New Life.” The key to doing so is taking ownership of the here and now, and understanding that what is done is done and that the future is what you make it.
The six-month course prepares students to be entrepreneurs by offering courses in business management, technology and developing goals, among other things. Finally, participants outline their ideas in a Shark Tank-style competition known as a rocket pitch. The winners acquire funding to help them launch their companies, as well as additional practical advice on how to present their proposals to banks and investors.
Among the projects in development by inmates at Wallkill were a trucking company, a greeting card business and the Back 2 Life Sneaker & Accessory Cleaning company.
For participants, the news was devastating.
“I felt the door was shut in my face,” entrepreneur-in-training Andy Lopez said. “Defy made me feel like I could be part of something that my environment told me I could not be part of.”
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As disappointing as this news was, we and the other Defy facilitators were not ready to give up. We had already been through the CEO Your new Life course. In addition, if the experience had taught us anything, it is that setbacks are common in business: if you want to succeed, you need to overcome them.
Two weeks later, we were among ten Defy facilitators who decided to continue the program. The organization may not have been perfect, but we were not looking for perfect and the facilitators agreed. Defy was one of the few opportunities to come along in prison. It had helped us. We were not going to give up.
As Defy facilitator Michael Pagan put it, this was a chance to “not only prove that Catherine Hoke’s vision for the program was not in vain, but to keep the mission alive.”
For a month, we continued to hold Defy courses on our own. The facilitators taught what we learned to the new cohort of entrepreneurs-in-training — smaller in number, but still dedicated. Among their business ideas: a food truck, a dog-walking venture, a landscaping business and a company offering care packages for inmates and others via catalog.
When the organization eventually returned to Wallkill under new leadership, we were ready to pick up where we’d left off.
In late July, the new cohort assembled in the gym for a coaching event with a group of executive volunteers, including a venture capitalist, the CEO of a marketing company and a transition logistics specialist. As usual, it began with “the welcoming tunnel,” which is like what you see on college bowl game day, with participants busting through a banner as Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” played in the background. Then the volunteers were invited to give their biggest “business brag.”
The one that stood out most to entrepreneurs-in-training was probably the story told by an ice cream executive. He started out as a worker cleaning Haagen-Dazs freezers in the cold winters of New York, one of his first jobs after receiving clemency following 10 years of incarceration. He managed to work his way up the ladder and became a top salesman. Then he invested his salary in buying into the brand. The mid-level manager he once worked for, he said, is now an employee of his.
At the event, Jason Wang, a Defy staffer, praised the participants for keeping the program alive during its transition.
“You guys are the proof in the pudding,” he said. “The strongest steel goes through the hottest fire, which is the true test of character.”
Defy’s new CEO and president, Andrew Glazier, agreed.
“It was a testament to the value of the program,” he said. “That people at Wallkill were willing to step up and say, ‘This is too valuable to lose, and we’re going to keep it going as long as we can.’”
A version of this article was published in the Monday, Dec. 3 print edition.
This story has been approved for publication by an official with Wallkill Correctional Facility. Note: Ravon Gordon and Darrion Alls are Defy peer facilitators and students in NYU’s Prison Education Program. Email them at [email protected]