Prison entrepreneurs in training need your help

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 27, 2017

As faithful readers of this column know, since July 2016, I have been spending some time in prison — in an attempt to bring entrepreneurship INTO the prison. There are lots of programs for when the formerly incarcerated get out, but there are very few programs developed for the time while they are in prison to prepare them for re-entry into society, and to perhaps even start a small business.

I became aware of a program, Defy Ventures, conceived by Catherine Hoke, the CEO, to bring this kind of thinking and training into the prison. Defy is currently in 20-plus prisons, and they recently started their program in our own Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.

In July, I visited the California State Prison in Lancaster to see the program for the first time up close and personal. Let me make it easy for you. If you spend a day in a Level 4 prison, I assure you will not view the world the same way when you get home.

For this adventure, I conned my partner, Mark Bowles, to join me and we spent the day there. Prior to arriving, Hoke, herself a force of nature, said, “You know I am a shameless con myself and I am going to ask you for money before you leave.” So what else is new? I get that ask on a regular basis!

At the end of the day, she comes to us and wants a $500 contribution to Defy. We told her no. What we did say is “If you bring the program to San Diego, to Donovan, we will raise $100,000 to run the program there for two years.”

She gave me that look — the one that balances the spread between, “gimme a break, who the ____ do you think you are,” and “maybe this short fellow and his tall sidekick can pull it off.”

So in August, I wrote a column about our experience in the prison and 43 days later, we had raised $110,000 — including $25,000 from readers of this column. These were people we had never heard of, who just responded and sent in checks from $25 to $2,000. Fifty thousand dollars came from the local foundation at our own Union Bank, and the last dough came from my gang including entrepreneurs Tom Tullie and Taner Halicioglu.

On Jan. 27, Defy launched at Donovan. The management of the prison was incredibly supportive. (Leadership matters). There are 50 to 60 EITs (entrepreneurs in training) who are in the program. They are white, black, Hispanic, transgender, have tattoos and many have been in prison for more than 10 years — with another bunch to go before they get out. You have not met these folks at the local country club tea.

But they are real people, smart people and they are determined to change their lives and never make that bad choice and that stupid mistake again. They are actually very entrepreneurial in many ways; they just did their hustle on the wrong side of the law. (Maybe you have too, but just didn’t get caught). The Defy program works. The recidivism rate for their graduates is less than 4 percent.

OK, I, too, am a con with a shameless ask. On March 27, Defy is holding an all-day event at Donovan, the first of three during the training, in which the EITs share their resume, their personal statements, and the first stirrings of a business plan. The goal is to match “volunteers” to the EITs. In other words, I need 50 to 55 people who would like to mentor some fledgling entrepreneurs.

Let me tell you this; it is easy to mentor a Ph.D. computer science genius from UCSD. Now try it with this group. I assure you that at the end of the day, you will have learned more than they did. So, if you would like to go to prison and think you can add value to another person’s life, send me an email, and I will put you on the list. You will have to fill out some routine forms to get clearance. We need both men and women. What motivated my gang to back this program in our hometown, was because when the EITs get out, they are going to be our neighbors.

Rule No. 500:  “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”– Bob Dylan

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