Catherine Hoke, Defy Ventures, Woman Entrepreneur

imgresI was introduced to Catherine and was hesitant.  I did a little research into what Defy Ventures did and wanted to know exactly why she wanted to meet with me.  I finding that I have so little time for those meetings where the conversation will be interesting but it doesn’t fit into my limited list of why we should meet.  Yes it has come to that.  I acquiesced and set a time to meet with Catherine.  Catherine blows in with intensity, energy, passion and lots of lessons learned in one fell swoop.  She has made her mission to transform the lives of people with criminal histories become entrepreneurs.  If you think about it, many of these people were entrepreneurs before going to prison yet they were entrepreneurial on the wrong side of the law.

Catherine grew up in Montreal.  Her father, a Hungarian Yugoslavian immigrant landed there when he was 22 with $200 in his pocket.  He was an electrical engineering inventor.  He moved the family to the US when she was 7. Stanford brought him over to teach a class.  When Catherine was 7 she was taught to build inventions and show the business model to her father.  Her Mom stayed home and was a mid-wife before that.  She was all about being caring and passionate about underserved communities.  After two years in the Bay Area her father transferred to UCDavis because he loved to ski.  Closer to the mountains.

Catherine started selling hamsters at 7.  Sold golf balls by digging them out of the water and building a business around it.  Sold Cutco knives by learning how to smile really hard.  She translated her father’s books because his English was broken and he paid her.  She babysat.  She was also the first woman on the all-boys wrestling team getting her ass kicked regularly.  She is a doer and tough to boot.

After graduating high school Catherine landed at UCBerkeley where she majored in business.  She had originally got turned down for the undergraduate business degree and wrote an appeals letter to get in.  While she was at Berkeley she played on the women’s rugby team. She also was an assistant coached in wrestling at a high school in Oakland.

College ends and she takes a job at Summit Partners as an associate.  She was located in the Palo Alto office that focused on technology.  She was cold calling CEO’s to find deals.  She sourced 3 deals in 3 years.  She realized she wasn’t so into doing all the diligence but preferred sales.  It was time to move on.  She ended up at American Security Capital Partners where she was the Director of Investment Development.  It was a big title moving from an associate.  It was also a big move.  ASCP is located in NYC.

On the side Catherine was involved with a church and they asked her to go  to Romania to work with young children who had been orphaned after she had been at ASCP for two weeks.  She went. Two Americans had built an orphanage and essentially left 30 kids there to wither away.  Going there was a huge life shift.  She came back questioning her priorities and purpose.  She had returned to work where she sat around a large table talking about big companies that they were working with.  She began to think is this how I want to live my life.

She stayed for a few years at ASCP thinking the whole time how do I combine my life of deal making with my heart for injustice.  She continued to go back and forth to Romania the entire time.  At 26 she goes to a dinner party and meets a woman who asks her what she is doing on Easter weekend.  It was 3 weeks away.  She was flying down to a Texas prison and wanted to know if Catherine wanted to come along.  First she said no.  Her only exposure to criminals was when she was 12 and her friend was brutally murdered.  Two sixteen year old boys had robbed her friend and pushed him under a train.  They only got 5 years.  She was very negative on prisoners but decided to go anyway.  It was a humanities mission.

She was blown away by the whole experience.  She started to challenge her own perceptions of what kind of people were behind those brick walls.  She was so intrigued that she began to go down to Texas over the next two years visiting women’s death row and 3 male prisons.  She learned a lot about drugs, gangs and how entrepreneurial many of the prisoners were.  They had managed a team, made profits, had results under high risk management until they got busted.  She was young and naive but started to think what if these people were given the opportunity to use those skills and go into something legit how it would change everything.

Her next trip down to Texas was for a wedding.  She visited a prison again this time bringing along some business people and put on a seminar.  She saw that many of the prisoners saw that their skills sets were.  They had no role models.  Many who are drug dealers believe that prison is a right of passage.    Learning about being an entrepreneur just opens your head to look at the world differently  That day Catherine was the most inspired person in the room.  After two hours she said to the warden, I am going to start a correspondence program around entrepreneurship right now.  She began to go down there every month.  She got Harvard MBA’s to look at the business plans the prisoners wrote and critique them.  She eventually got 32 MBA programs to work with her.

This was the birth of PEP (Prisoner Entrepreneurial Program).  That was eleven years ago.  80% of the people that were in her program had done violent crimes and 90% of them went on to get employed.  Catherine got too involved.  She would pick up the prisoners at the gate after they were released.  She got a local real estate firm in Texas to give her three homes for the newly released prisoners to live and continue their education.  60 companies were built out of this.  1000 people have gone through the program and less than 5% have returned to prison.  It was effective and privately funded.  She did this for five years.

Let’s take a step backward.  Catherine had been married for 9 years.  She was married in college.  Her husband had moved with her each time.  When she went to Texas and saw the prisoners and then she never returned to NYC.  He came too.  She had never fundraised before so to start the program she put in $50K of her own money and cleared out her 401K.  She had gone all in.  When she got there she drove all her stuff down in a van, the van got broken into and she had nothing.  She became a professional fundraiser for this program.  Then her husband asked for a divorce.  She was taken by surprise.  She began sleeping with the people who had just been paroled and out of prison that were in the program.  It was a terrible leadership decision.  Fast forward…a divorce, everything was in the papers, humiliation for bad mistakes, she was forced to resign. It was a disgrace.  It was time to leave Texas.

Catherine was super depressed.  She had tried to kill herself.  Then she got over 1000 letters from people who supported what she had done and said that in life there are second chances. She went on the road to Brazil, Costa Rica and therapy camps.  If people had not reached out she probably would have fallen into an abyss.  She eventually returned to NYC where she got a job back in the VC world.  She felt like a sell out and did not take the job.  She decided to go back to what she cared about, the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Catherine began doing research on every model in America. What worked and what didn’t.  She launched Defy Ventures to give people second chances.  After all, she was being given a second chance.  She started fundraising, built a team and worked on a methodology.  She started giving classes.  First to men and then to women who had just got out of prison.  A holistic training program geared towards entrepreneurship.  She puts on Shark Tank events where people compete for $100K grants.  They also focus on career preparation and placement.  Simple things are taught like how to shake a hand, dining etiquette, how to put together a resume, what to put on LinkedIn, how to give a meaningful apology and how to use the internet.  How to live a new life.

She began as a brick and mortar operation.  They are now scaling the curriculum to be taught on line.  She had even filmed the CEO of TDAmeritrade who was a gang member as a kid.  It is about overcoming shame and stigma.  There are 3-5 hours of online training then local peer groups are assigned and one investment professional to the person.  They meet weekly.  She has recruited 3000 mentors for this.  Last year they even began a blended learning system adding tuition.  It makes people work even harder when they have a little skin in the game.

Catherine has this program in 9 states and is about to enter CA.  On a personal note, she got remarried a year and a half ago.  They work together.  She couldn’t be happier. Defy should be profitable by 2018.  She is making a serious difference in an arena that nobody has seemed to change in a big way.  Her work is impressive.  It is her passion about making a change.  She was recently awarded the MDC Humanitarian Award for second chances. What is more amazing is how she came back to do it again after a huge fall.  I’d put my money on Catherine.  She is really doing the work that we can all stand up and applaud.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Erin

    Good stuff.

  2. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Wow. That is some amazing story. The thing about people who do big things is that they often also make big mistakes. She’s far more fascinating to me, knowing that she’s experienced and overcome so much, than if she was just a saint.Great share today 🙂

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      I agree! I like that insight very much. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jill F.

    Thanks for sharing her work and story. I love your Woman Entrepreneur Monday posts – they are much needed fuel and inspiration. Don’t stop!

  4. Susan Rubinsky

    Wow. I am glad you met her. Otherwise I may never have heard this story.

  5. TanyaMonteiro

    I too am glad you met and shared the story. Wishing Catherine all the very very best as she rides this next wave. Inspired, Thank you.

  6. Kenny Fraser

    Awesome story. This has to be repeatable in other places and cultures as well with the right determination. True inspiration.

  7. Chris O'Hare

    My name is Christopher O’Hare, I am an EIT in Defy Ventures, and I wanted to comment on this article. Catherine Hoke is as amazing as you wrote but she is so much more. Catherine not only teaches the Entrepreneurs in Training, (EITs) about business, and the soft skills needed to succeed, she restores the humanity that has been stripped away by a system that is more often an incubator for crime than a rehabilitator and a population that quite often doesn’t believe in rehabilitation or second chances. I lived it, for the first 8 years after a four year incarceration I was forced into low paying and no future jobs . I have over 20 years in the customer service industry and couldn’t get a job paying over $12.00 an hour. Now I own my own business and instead of having my resume and application discarded because of my record, I work for myself. At the point that I am ready to expand and hire I will look for people with criminal histories, most likely Defy Ventures EITs. Catherine Hoke gave me my life back.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Congratulations. To be able to take your second chance and turn that into lemonade deserves a huge round of applause.

  8. TheAmazingT

    This is a great testimony of that proves we all have a second