It’s easy to write off new entrepreneurs from unlikely places, and we as a society have trained ourselves to forget about those condemned to prison and correctional facilities. Yet the resilience shown by many prisoners, eager to reintegrate into society in productive ways, is the exact type of tenacity necessary to succeed in the unpredictable world of startups and freelancing. Non-profit Defy Ventures has been tapping into that previously untouched potential, setting the stage for inclusive entrepreneurialism. Finally, investors and business leaders are beginning to take notice.
THE DEFY MODEL: OPPORTUNITY AND IMPACT
Defy Ventures is a non-profit that challenges society’s perception of incarcerated individuals by viewing them as Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs)—full of untapped potential. This shift in perspective is more than semantics; it represents a profound change in how society perceives incarcerated individuals.
By providing hands-on training and traditional educational resources to inmates seeking career development, Defy helps overcome the lack of access to resources faced by inmates. The organization upgrades participants with leadership development, personal growth training, and startup incubation. Defy’s focus extends beyond startups to include gig workers, digital nomads, handymen, HVAC technicians, and freelancers, supporting small business owners with essential tools to kickstart their careers and make a meaningful impact in their communities.
The non-profit’s impact is far-reaching, providing a powerful solution to reduce recidivism rates. According to the report dated 2021, Defy Ventures has a three-year recidivism rate of less than 15% (compared to the national average of 39%), and 84% of Defy graduates who were seeking employment found job placement. Defy is changing the lives of EITs and reframing the narrative of what an entrepreneur can look like, where they can come from, and the environments in which they can thrive.
WITNESSING IMPACT: ENTREPRENEURSHIP AS A VEHICLE FOR CHANGE
Defy’s narrative of transformation demonstrates that the spirit of resilience and the passion of prisoners—combined with education, new opportunities, and support—translate into successful entrepreneurship from a segment of society too often brushed aside.
As an entrepreneur and volunteer, I was honored to participate in a Defy Ventures pitch competition and attend Defy’s graduation ceremony in a California prison. I went in with many misconceptions about the program and the participants, but my experiences with Defy rewrote those expectations. I learned that it takes nine months of rigorous study, examinations, and focus on personal growth, which prevents the faint-hearted and less resilient individuals from making it onto the EIT graduation list. Defy challenges participants and finds those with the tenacity and adaptability that any business leader knows are so vital in today’s tumultuous job market.
I believe that it is crucial to avoid romanticizing this journey or overlooking the past mistakes of the EITs. Instead, Defy’s aim is to recognize the current potential in each of them and provide them with the tools and opportunities to nurture that better future. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs came from troubled backgrounds and have overcome personal struggles, reinforcing that adversity often breeds resilience and innovation. Defy’s graduates embody this energy and possibility.
THE CALL TO ACTION: OUR ROLE AS INVESTORS AND ENTREPRENEURS
Inclusive entrepreneurship is the idea that all people, irrespective of their demographic, socioeconomic, or personal characteristics, should have equal opportunities to become entrepreneurs, start their businesses, and contribute to the economic development of their communities. As investors and business leaders, we can further this cause by considering how our portfolios can diversify and thus encompass ventures, freelancers, and entrepreneurs that break traditional molds.
Investors and business owners can consider collaborating with organizations like Defy Ventures and others that provide training and support to marginalized groups such as the incarcerated, immigrants, veterans, and refugees. Often non-profits eager to team up with hiring partners, these organizations have a deep understanding of the unique challenges faced by marginalized individuals and can help develop their entrepreneurial skills. Collaboration can be a quick shortcut to finding untapped pools of freelancers and gig workers.
By investing money and support in these programs, you contribute to their sustainability and enable them to continue their valuable work, essentially lengthening the alternative entrepreneur’s runway through education and mentorship. There can also be tax benefits for supporting these organizations financially. When hiring, consider utilizing such non-profits as a starting point for due diligence and skill verification. They can provide insights and recommendations about the skills and potential of their graduates, helping you make informed decisions and identify talented individuals who may bring diverse perspectives and experiences to your team.
Another crucial step is to encourage your own HR teams to broaden their pool of applicants for both traditional employment positions and freelance or gig work. Leaders can encourage teams to request certain new hires or contracting positions be filled with alternative freelancers who will bring valuable and unique insight from their unique experiences. Consider implementing strategies such as storytelling screening processes, skills-based assessments, and targeted outreach to underrepresented communities to ensure a more inclusive and equitable hiring process.
By actively working with organizations that train marginalized individuals, supporting them financially, and widening the scope of applicants for gigs, financial leaders and business owners can embrace inclusive entrepreneurship. By doing so, they not only contribute to social impact but also unlock untapped talent, drive innovation, and create a more diverse and resilient business ecosystem.
The work of Defy Ventures and similar organizations serves as an inspiration for both young entrepreneurs who are seeking to make a difference and investors keen on partnering with organizations that promote inclusive entrepreneurship. The journey Defy Venture’s graduates embarked upon is about more than starting a business. It is about reclaiming prisoners’ lives, defying the odds, and breaking cycles of negativity. For the EITs, inclusive entrepreneurship is not just a vocation but a lifeline.