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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."

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Your weekly roundup of internet sunshine.

Hey everyone! Hope you're staying safe and healthy, and if you're not, at least you know you're not alone. I mean, omicron? Phew. Pandemics certainly know how to keep us on our toes.

If you need a respite or distraction from all that, we've got you covered. If immersing yourself in cute animal videos and feel-good stories of human awesomeness is wrong, who wants to be right? Nobody, that's who.

We all need a break from the less pleasant parts of life, and cheering ourselves up with simple, happy things is a tried and true way to push those endorphins and lift our mood for a bit.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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1. Fair Trade Woven Dark Gray Alpaca Blend Scarf

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