Catherine Hoke knows that doing something wrong doesn’t make you a bad person, and that one's life shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. She works every day to make sure that's true for others.
A Second Chance: For You, For Me, And For The Rest Of Us by Catherine Hoke, The Domino Project, 240 pages, Hardcover, February 2018, ISBN 9780999669501
Coss Marte was bringing in $2 million a year by the time he turned 19. The organization he ran had incredible margins and a high customer retention rate, despite operating in extremely difficult conditions. The problem with his financial success story? It was the result of selling drugs, and it landed him in prison at the age of 23. Catherine Hoke—founder and CEO of Defy Ventures and author of the new book A Second Chance—is not the first person to contend that drug dealers and gang leaders have similar qualities to many of the most successful CEOs and entrepreneurs. But what they lack, she says, is a good risk management strategy (Marte, after all, ended up in jail), and “the ability to see themselves as positive contributors to their community.”
Considering the state of the American economy in the 21st century, with corporate malfeasance on the order of Enron and Worldcom, or the havoc wreaked by the financial crisis of 2008 that brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse and set off the largest recession since the Great Depression, I would argue that far too many CEOs lack a good risk management strategy, as well, and are not exactly positive contributors to society themselves.
Unlike most white collar criminals, though, Coss Marte ended up in jail, and was so dangerously overweight and unhealthy when he arrived that doctors told him he might not live to see his release date. Ending up in solitary confinement after an altercation with a correctional officer is what may have saved his life, and helped launch his new career. In conditions considered psychological torture by many, Hoke tells us how:
Coss came up with an innovative workout regimen and lost 70 pounds in six months. After he was released from “the hole” back to the prison yard, he led a group of 20 incarcerated men through his workout regimen, and they lost a thousand pounds collectively.
So, what does that have to do with Catherine Hoke and Defy Ventures? Well…
When Coss got out of prison, Defy’s incubator provided him with the training, access, mentoring, and financing needed to turn his idea into a business. … [Marte's] ConBody serves 5,000 customers a day. Coss has given a TEDx Talk. He’s had a seven page spread in Men’s Fitness. He’s hired 15 people with criminal histories, including other Defy grads, as trainers. Through ConBodyLive.com, he has customers in 24 countries. Defy helped him raise $250,000 more from investors to scale his business.
What Defy offered was a real second chance, and some backing to capitalize on it. That allowed Marte to use his natural hustle to begin a legit business, and the change has paid off. Marte relied on the foot traffic when he started selling marijuana at the age of 13 outside a bodega on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Just last year, when “Saks Fifth Avenue needed more foot traffic … they built a ConBody gym inside the Manhattan department store.”
Most of the stories Hoke shares in the book aren’t of successful business breakthroughs, though. They are of more personal, elementary breakthroughs, but they are indispensable to living a successful life—whether you live in prison or not. They are mostly the stories of people still behind bars, making the emotional and psychological leaps needed to understand that they aren’t defined by their past, that they can still make a positive contribution to their communities and to society.
Hoke, who had a good friend of hers brutally murdered when she was 12 years old, developed a tough-on-crime, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key-mentality for much of her life because of what she considered the light sentences of her friend's murderers. Today, she is in the same room with people who have committed similar crimes on a regular basis, asking them to step to the line, letting them know it's okay to forgive themselves—that it is, in fact, the first step toward transformation and becoming "the CEOs of their new lives." That doesn't mean they don't feel guilt or remorse. What it means is that they know that they're still worthy of love, or know it for the first time, and don't have to live their lives in shame. One Defy class described attends their graduating ceremony in arm and leg shackles, and Hoke has to hold the mic for them to make the business pitches that are a part of that day, and to speak from the heart to the family members who have shown up to witness it. And it's still a joyous, tears-of-joy filled event. The men smile ear-to-ear, stand tall with pride in what they've accomplished and a new belief in themselves. Perhaps you don't believe they deserve that. Perhaps you don't think they deserve redemption or a second chance. But what Defy is doing is working—for those in the program, for the taxpayer, and for society. Over 75 percent of people who have served time in prison end up going back in after they're released. Over 95 percent of Defy Venture’s Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs) never return, and they have a 95 percent employment rate upon release.
It’s not the first time that an organization founded by Catherine Hoke has achieved these kind of results. Graduates of her first organization, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in Texas, achieved almost identical recidivism and employment rates. But she was so absorbed in the mission of PEP at the time that her marriage fell apart and she made some choices that led the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to ban her from all Texas prisons, which makes Hoke's personal journey a vital part of the story:
During this turbulent time, I made choices that I’ve regretted to this day. I lost sight of my boundaries and ended up having intimate relations with more than one graduate.
I hadn’t broken laws. The men has been released from prison. But that didn’t stop the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) from determining that my choices were inappropriate. Still filled with shame, I didn’t disagree with them.
To keep the program operating, she had to sever all affiliation with it. She emailed 7,500 of PEP’s supporters with the news not only of her resignation, but telling them of her divorce and her subsequent relationships. She also called the Dallas Morning News and gave them the full story, just three weeks after they had published a “Sunday morning, front page article about her success with PEP.” The scandal, the public shaming she endured, and the depths of the despair she describes are heart-wrenching—but no more so than the stories of the prisoners in the book. And if she had stopped there, that sex scandal is probably what she would be known for. She wouldn't have been able to continue her work and share those stories, or her own. But Catherine Hoke didn’t stop there. She found acceptance and healing in the wake of it. She was helped along by her pastor, her mentors, her friends, and her faith, and found a renewed commitment to the cause. And “after one long year of therapy, life boot-camps, and soul-searching,” she founded Defy Ventures. Not only did she recommit to the cause, she was taking it nationwide (PEP only operated in Texas.) Her story, and the story of the Entrepreneurs in Training she shares, illustrates a reality in all our lives:
We’re all behind bars—the bars of perfection, the bars of shame, of judging and being judged.
But we don't have to remain "shackled by our pasts," by self-doubt and shame and a fear of others' judgment.
A Second Chance is a book about entrepreneurship, and providing a second chance for incarcerated people (though Hoke also points out that, “if you knew my EIT’s backstories, you might realize that we are more often in the legitimate-first-chance business) by channeling their hustle into entrepreneurship, into what Hoke calls our "generous hustle." But it’s also a book about forgiveness, grace, acceptance, dignity, and transformation. It is about taking off our masks, grieving, and healing—and then moving on. It is about how “we can build our futures without being shackled by our past.” It is about the power of hope and love. It’s about the stories (and lies) we tell ourselves that come to control our lives, and how to be more honest and forgiving with both ourselves and others.
It is also a story about honest, authentic leadership, about owning up to your mistakes and getting back into the arena to continue making a positive contribution, and the fact that you don’t have to have a groundbreaking idea to make a real breakthrough:
Seth Godin taught my EITs, “Reject the mythology that a business has to be innovative. Instead, figure out how to be useful—how to solve someone’s problems and get paid for it.”
At Defy, we have our EITs start simple cash-flow businesses—companies they can incorporate and get to profitability within three months, like painting companies or dog-walking companies. And we make them launch their companies uncomfortably fast. As of 2017, we’ve incubated and funded 170 of our grads’ fast-start businesses, and their companies have been so successful that they’re our best fair-chance employers—they’ve hired nearly 400 other people who needed second chances!
The point is, stop trying to be so fancy. Just start simple and do something.
We should all wonder why, in the land of the free, we lead the world in mass incarceration. (The United States, which represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, houses 22 percent—almost a quarter!—of the world's prison population.) After we wonder about it and educate ourselves as to the causes, we should do something about it. It's become an increasingly bipartisan issue in the last few years, so we should be able to help make a change by nudging our representatives in that direction.
In the meantime, it is still the daily reality for millions of men and women in our country, and for the millions more who have been locked up and are now out on probation and parole, struggling to find work and make an honest living. Defy is changing the lives of these men and women, one class at a time, all based on entrepreneurial principles and the simple idea that doing something wrong doesn’t make you a bad person, that your life shouldn’t be defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done. If you'd like to help, or need help yourself, you can learn more by getting a copy of A Second Chance, or heading over to www.defyventures.org today.