Looking for a new investment? These entrepreneurs-in-training might be your best bet.
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Dave's Killer Bread

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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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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