United States,

Catherine Hoke is breaking the cycle of incarceration in the US by empowering men and women with criminal histories to leverage their innate entrepreneurial skills to create profitable, sustainable, legal enterprises. 

This profile below was prepared when Catherine Hoke was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Catherine Hoke is breaking the cycle of incarceration in the US by empowering men and women with criminal histories to leverage their innate entrepreneurial skills to create profitable, sustainable, legal enterprises. 


The idea behind Defy Ventures is both new and unconventional, and it starts with the recognition that many men and women with criminal histories have strong entrepreneurial talent. They managed teams, displayed resourcefulness, and ran businesses—albeit illicit ones—such as drug or auto theft rings. In founding Defy, Catherine asked herself: rather than relegate these individuals to minimum wage jobs after they have served their time, why not equip them to channel that talent in legitimate ways and launch business ventures? In doing so, individuals with criminal records will not only start successful business ventures, become employers, and pay taxes, but they will also become positive role models who help repair and stabilize their own communities. In this way, Defy is improving the lives of men and women who have been released from prison, reintegrating them into society in a way that the US criminal justice system has failed to do. The organization also aims to shift perceptions of what these individuals are capable of as human beings and as business leaders. 

At the core of Defy Ventures is a year-long entrepreneurship and mentorship program. High-potential candidates are selected and matched with local business executives who provide guidance on business planning and leadership development. The executives then help candidates compete for $100,000 in seed funding to launch new businesses. The program resembles a fast-track MBA. However, just as powerful as the skills candidates gain are the relationships and empathy developed between mentor and mentee. In fact, through these relationships, Catherine hopes to recruit advocates within the business community for broader prison reform. She sees that despite prison reform arguably being the civil rights issue of our time, it will never gain traction unless it garners the attention and support of people in middle- and upper-class communities. 

Catherine brings with her in launching Defy Ventures six years’ experience in venture capital and private equity as well as dramatic success in a similar program she launched in Texas. The recidivism rate among those with whom she worked was less than 5 percent—compared to the national average of 75 percent. 98 percent of this prototype program’s graduates were employed and 10 percent of the graduates had launched successful small businesses. 


The US imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world by far—barring the tiny Seychelles whose total prison population is fewer than 800 people. There are more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison or jail opened every 10 days. But mass incarceration itself is only part of the problem: In the US, we also do a terrible job of keeping people out of prison after they have been released. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 650,000 people are released from Federal and State prisons each year. Close to 75 percent will be re-arrested for a new offense within three years at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $250,000 per person for an average prison term of five years. The cycle is also devastating for families and communities: children with an incarcerated parent are at high risk to serve a prison sentence as well. 

Part of the reason recidivism is so high is that the formerly incarcerated have great difficulty finding work. Though employers are not supposed to discriminate based on criminal records, studies show that if you’ve been in prison, you’re either half as likely (if you’re white) or one-third as likely (if you’re black) to get hired. And you’ll earn 40 percent less than someone with similar experience but no record. For those with business and leadership acumen, the post-prison realities can be especially disillusioning, as their talents are overshadowed by their criminal histories. Relegated to minimum wage jobs in high-poverty communities, many develop illegal businesses or engage in criminal transactions that appear more lucrative in the short-term. It is often more tempting to choose an opportunity to earn $5,000 in five minutes through illegal means than overcoming the perceived or real barriers to achieving meaningful, legal, and sustainable employment. The result is a revolving door to prison and a legacy of poverty, welfare dependence, and incarceration that is passed down through the generations. 

The problem, therefore, is one of a largely overlooked talent pool and a fundamental lack of opportunity. But it is sustained by a much deeper problem—one of stigmatization and disenfranchisement. Despite people having served their time, our society stacks the odds in nearly every way against these returning citizens and their communities. Transformative change will thus require a more realistic and empathetic understanding of the structural factors—both pre- and post-prison—that contribute to cycles of incarceration. 


The Defy entrepreneurship program is a mix of training and mentorship. It begins with a rigorous selection process that tests applicants’ personal competencies, work ethic, behavior patterns, and undeveloped potential. Those who make the final cut spend twelve months refining and demonstrating their entrepreneurial skills and abilities. This culminates in small business incubation that supports the most promising business concepts from each training class with the goal of building scalable, profit-generating ventures that provide employment to Defy graduates and others. The year is spent as much on leadership development and decision-making as on profit margins and supply chains. Training sessions focus on everything from life skills and parenting to the importance of being vulnerable and developing emotional literacy. Catherine has put certain rituals in place to break down the social and emotional barriers that many of the formerly incarcerated people have spent their lives building. These include morning bear hugs and regular acknowledgments of student appreciation for one another. 

The relationships between student entrepreneurs and their mentors are a defining component of Defy and are central both to the training and to the broader strategy of systemic change. From day one, corporate executives, investors, entrepreneurs and other business professionals are recruited to participate in the initial screening of applicants. These business leaders are often drawn to Defy because it has a high intrigue factor and because they may be frustrated with more traditional avenues for lending their time. According to Catherine, investors and executives also have a strong appreciation for the underdog—or a good “ROI story”—which makes for a strong fit. 

Defy’s volunteer executives follow the student entrepreneurs as they progress through the program—investing their own time and expertise in the form of one-on-one coaching or leading a lesson on entrepreneurship for the entire class. They prepare students to effectively pitch their business ideas to potential investors and ultimately help connect the most promising, investment-ready ventures with seed funding. The skills and expertise that volunteers provide are invaluable, but their interaction with students is important for another reason: It helps the executives to develop a deeper understanding of and empathy for men and women with criminal histories and their capabilities. Defy’s executive volunteers have noted how much they feel they have in common with the students and how humbled they are by their experiences and their commitment. Catherine seeks to cultivate this understanding and new perspective into a powerful voice that the business community can use to advocate for criminal justice reform. 

Catherine understands that while there are enormous benefits in terms of economic opportunities and reduced recidivism for Defy students (benefits that extend far into their communities); systemic change will require reframing the way people in society view people with criminal histories. To that end, she and her team work hard to share Defy’s approach and their stories—initially focused on the business community—and, whenever possible, to get their stories picked up in prominent media. This past fall, Defy was featured in The New York Times, which told the story of one of Defy’s early graduates, Jose Vasquez. Jose grew up in one of the poorest parts of Providence, Rhode Island and started selling drugs early; it was essentially the family business. By the time he was 17, Jose had spun off his own drug-selling venture and was making $2,000 a day. But he got caught, along with his father and two cousins—all of whom ended up in jail. Today, with Defy’s backing, Jose has successfully launched his first legitimate venture, a corporate concierge business. He recently hired his first employee. He’s become a role model in his community, and he anticipates hiring many more people from that community. Jose is also contributing back to Defy as a donor, recruiter, and a mentor himself, which Catherine had anticipated would happen. This type of supportive community is one of the fundamental pieces missing for most returning citizens who are former prisoners. Filling that void is a significant step. 

Defy’s vision is to create a model that, in time, will provide life-transforming opportunities to people with criminal histories in every urban community in the US. Its primary strategy is threefold: (i) Continue to grow and refine Defy’s NYC program so that it can serve more students and serve them better. This includes engaging more executives, investors, and entrepreneurs in the private sector as mentors and volunteers, refining the curriculum, and more systematically tracking data on employment and recidivism; (ii) Defy will begin fundraising for and designing a model of national expansion in partnership with urban business networks and citizen organizations (COs); (iii) Defy will aggressively leverage the stories of its graduates and volunteers to change the conversation about criminal justice in this country and build a coalition of voices who advocate for broader policy reforms. 

Over the next several years, Defy anticipates expanding to at least two more urban areas in the US. It will loosely follow a franchise model, providing capacity-building support to improve partners’ operational excellence in volunteer recruitment and management, fundraising, board development, evaluation tools and metrics, and shared best practices for program execution. Given that Catherine’s goal is to create localized solutions in every urban community in America, she is building a broad, long-term resource development strategy that is focused on leveraging support from the private sector (e.g. corporations, private and family foundations, and wealthy individuals from the corporate and faith-based sectors) to sustain aggressive growth and expansion. 

Defy has been successful at fundraising, having passed the million dollar mark in its second year. By then it had defined its approach and was hiring staff, and developing infrastructure. To date, it has raised 100 percent of its funding from private and family foundations, corporations and individual donors. It has also begun exploring a plan that will allow Defy to recoup a percentage of its investment funds with earned income generated through licensing portions of Defy’s intellectual property (i.e. curriculum manuals and staff training). Another potential source of earned income may come from social enterprise profits derived from taking partial ownership of students’ businesses started through Defy’s Entrepreneurship Incubator and, in the longer run, Defy’s own social enterprise. 

In addition to financial resources, Defy relies on substantial in-kind support that is provided by volunteers (over 600 by year three). As executive involvement is a cornerstone feature of its program and fundraising model, Defy will continuously seek to build new partnerships with business leaders—particularly investors, entrepreneurs/business owners, lawyers, and human resources and operations professionals—to donate their time and money to help Defy think through its replication and growth strategy and to identify and cultivate the best human talent. 


Catherine grew up in a family that taught her never to shy away from a challenge. Her father was an immigrant inventor who came to the US with $200 in his pocket. He always encouraged her to create things for herself and solve problems. As early as age seven, Catherine was making money and starting small businesses—selling recycled golf balls, breeding hamsters, and even earning $1 per match to wrestle neighbors to the ground. (They were no match. Catherine went on to win a high school wrestling championship in California.) 

Always highly driven, after finishing an undergraduate degree in business at Berkeley, Catherine pursued a career in venture capital and private equity, where for six years she sourced deals and became steeped in the world of entrepreneurship. Then a friend invited her to tour some Texas penitentiaries as part of a prison ministry program, and the experience was transformative. Where she expected to find caged animals, she saw human beings. Catherine recalls how quickly her “lock them up and throw away the key” attitude was turned on its head. She was ashamed by how prejudiced she had been. 

As Catherine spoke with the men in prison, something else happened: she recognized that many shared the same characteristics of the entrepreneurs she pursued in venture capital—charisma, resourcefulness, and the ability to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ She understood that, unless they had access to the fundamentals of (legal) business and a support network to coach and guide them, most were destined to repeat their crimes, spend their lives behind bars, and pass a legacy of crime and imprisonment to their children. Catherine couldn’t help but wonder: What if we equipped entrepreneurial people who have committed crimes to use their skills for good? Within a year, Catherine had dropped everything and moved to Texas and was breaking ground doing precisely that.