Looking for a new investment? These entrepreneurs-in-training might be your best bet.

Imagine you’re a venture capitalist, searching for an innovative young entrepreneur with whom to invest your cash.

You’re looking for someone smart — someone who can face and overcome all the obstacles that will lie in their path to success. You want a creative thinker, an innovator, someone who thinks outside the box in order to meet their bottom line. You want someone charismatic, with an ability to sell their product to anyone anywhere.

The best place to look? It might be prison.


Photo via iStock.

It turns out that a life of crime might actually prepare people for a life of corporate success.

"The same traits that would make anyone well-suited to the challenges of entrepreneurship are true for our EITs," says Mariah Dickinson, executive communications director at Defy Ventures, which provides business training to former prison inmates (or, as they're called at Defy, entrepreneurs-in-training, or EITs).

"But on top of that," she says, "I think many of our EITs have an even greater hunger to prove themselves and their worth to the world because of their situation."

But there’s one big problem: It’s really difficult for former inmates to make the connections and get the resources they need to make a fresh start in life.

"There are a lot of organizations with hiring policies that include background checks and questions about past criminal records," Dickinson says. "A lot of times, [having a record] ends up being a no-go for someone who's looking for a job."

Without a legal way to provide for themselves and their families, many feel forced to return to crime in order to make a living, even if they have the skills and desire to leave their criminal histories behind.

"I see these guys — I see so many successes. And some of the failures you see, I think are because they just plain didn't have the preparation and resources when they got out," says Glenn Dahl, co-founder of Dave's Killer Bread, a company which makes a point of offering employment to people who have criminal backgrounds. Dahl funded some of Defy Ventures' early programs and recently joined its advisory board. "We have people that are going to get out one way or the other," he adds. "We really need to try to do what we can to give them a chance when they get out."

That's where Defy comes in. It helps former prisoners parlay their talents into legitimate business opportunities.

Defy Founder Catherine Hoke high-fives a group of EITs. Photo by Defy Ventures.

Founded in 2010 by Catherine Hoke, Defy Ventures offers current and former inmates the opportunity to enroll in MBA-style programs that equip them with the skills they need to become employed or open their own businesses.

The EITs go through intensive leadership development, mentorships with corporate executives, financial investment training, and rigorous coursework, culminating in their own written business plan.

Judges listen to an EIT presentation. Photo by Defy Ventures.

Then they're offered the chance to enroll in a startup incubator and given opportunities to compete, "Shark Tank"-style, for seed money to start their own businesses.

Or they take what they've learned and use it to find employment. "We do have volunteers that have hired our EITs, or have connected them to hiring opportunities and gotten them interviews," Dickinson says. "The network really does help."

Volunteers and EITs do an exercise demonstrating that the two groups are not as different as they might seem. Photo by Defy Ventures.

The results, so far, have been better than great.

The National Institute of Justice reports that the recidivism rate in the United States hovers around 77% after five years. But according to Defy, only about 3% of their graduates find themselves back in jail, which, as Hoke told Bloomberg, is "unheard of."

That reduced return rate has huge cost implications. In California, one inmate costs the government over $70,000 per year, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office. So by helping inmates establish themselves outside the system, Defy is saving taxpayer money.

Defy reports that their graduates have also started over 165 companies that were incubated as part of the program. They've created over 350 new jobs.

An EIT and his family celebrate on graduation day. Photo by Defy Ventures.

Participants in the program also gain something that's pretty important when it comes time to get a job out in the world: self-confidence.

"The important thing is learning how to present yourself when you get out," Dahl says. "They need to be prepared to sell themselves whether it’s in an interview, selling a business plan, or if it's just the energy that it takes to start fitting in in society. … All these kind of things are not done unless you have confidence."

Hoke presents seed money to a winning EIT. Photo via Defy Ventures.

Most importantly, Defy gives former inmates the opportunity to prove that people are not defined by their pasts.

"People actually rely on me now, and that's a beautiful thing," said Lasyah Palmer, a graduate and CEO of his company, LegalTech. "The biggest gift that I've received was to hear my oldest son say he was proud of me."

One of the most harmful stigmas associated with prisoners is that they can't, won't, or don't want to change. But the reality is that many people go through drastic life transformations while in prison that leave them with a strong desire to reinvent themselves in a positive way — a desire that almost everyone can relate to.

"We're all ex-somethings," Hoke says often, both on the organization's website and in real life. "I wish we’d ask ourselves, 'What would it be like if I was only known for the worst thing I’ve done?' Moved by empathy, we’d recognize people for who they are today and not for the mistakes they made yesterday."

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