Catherine Hoke

Ashoka Fellow
New York, New York, United States
Fellow Since 2013


This profile was prepared when Catherine Hoke was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.
The New Idea
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 Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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