Defy Ventures Helps Ex-Criminals Develop Start-Ups

Defy Ventures helped Maliki Cottrell, who served time for carrying a gun without a permit, build a trash-hauling business.  (Victor J. Blue for The New York Times)

As a heroin dealer in Rhode Island, Jose Vasquez made $2,000 a day. He said he had a way with his customers. He took his best clients out for dinner and bought them presents on their birthdays.

“Everyone sells drugs, right?” said Mr. Vasquez, who was arrested in 2009. “So you got to find a way to differentiate yourself.”  Since his release last year, Mr. Vasquez, 26, has found that some of his skills as a drug dealer were transferable to a more legitimate pursuit; he opened a personal concierge service, Happy Vida, which runs errands for busy New York professionals.

Mr. Vasquez is a member of the inaugural class of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization that offers a one-year entrepreneurial training and mentorship program to people with criminal backgrounds. On Saturday, Defy held its first sales exposition, and Mr. Vasquez and nine of his classmates presented their start-ups. Guests and about 70 Defy students were asked to vote for the best sales pitch. Mr. Vasquez’s business received the most votes and won a $500 prize.At Defy, everything seems to be a contest. The inaugural class, which will graduate in December, has competed for over $100,000 in seed money. “We target executives and the most accomplished former drug dealers we can find,” Defy’s founder and chief executive, Catherine Rohr, said. “They’re both drawn to competitive environments.”

Ms. Rohr, who has a background in venture capital, got the idea for Defy after visiting a Texas prison in 2004 as part of her church’s outreach program. The criminals she met there were charismatic, independent, resourceful, and willing to take risks, she said, much like her colleagues in the business world. Many of Defy’s students had managerial roles in the drug trade, overseeing teams of up to 40 people. Each Defy student is paired with a mentor in the business community.

“They have the raw talent and it’s great to watch that meeting up with their life goals,” said Jensen Ko, a mentor and the chief operating officer of Tiger Asia, a hedge fund. Mr. Ko was paired with Fabian Ruiz, who spent 21 years in prison for killing a man he believed to have shot his brother. Mr. Ruiz started Infor-Nation, a company that conducts Internet searches for inmates and sends the results by mail.

Defy, which was founded in 2010, has helped start 21 companies, which offer services like dog walking, catering and Web design. They are all businesses without storefronts and with low start-up costs.

“If you were arrested for a burglary, we don’t want you to start a home-cleaning service, but they can really do whatever they want,” Ms. Rohr said.

Students from Defy’s first group are no longer taking classes and are focused on running their businesses. At the exposition, they looked for new clients among Defy’s volunteer and mentor network. Mr. Vasquez was hoping to meet someone who could help introduce him to corporate clients. Guests also offered feedback on pricing structures and presentation.

At the start of the exposition, the students, per Ms. Rohr’s instructions, greeted one another with hugs and compliments. Defy is described as an “M.B.A.-style” program, but there is as much emphasis on so-called soft skills as there is on crunching numbers. Hugging is part of the curriculum. The students’ handshakes were firm and well practiced; they dressed impeccably.

“If I wasn’t smiling, Catherine would pinch my cheeks,” said Maliki Cottrell, 24, who started a company called I-Haul-Junk. He wore a plaid blazer with leather elbow patches. He has served time for carrying a gun without a permit.

Ms. Rohr, 35, is a stickler for discipline. Tardiness, informal footwear, or talking out of turn will earn students a punishment that they call an “A.P. Style,” which means writing out a section of The Associated Press stylebook by hand. It takes, they say, four hours.

The emphasis on discipline and emotional openness has created a sense of shared responsibility. The men hire one another when possible: Jeff Ewell, who founded a branding company, designed many of his fellow students’ Web sites, and Mr. Cottrell offers work only to young men who would otherwise, he says, be selling drugs.

Later that day, there was an exercise that Ms. Rohr called “step to the line,” in which Defy students and mentors revealed information about themselves. “Step to the line if you’ve ever been in prison,” she said. Nearly every Defy student walked toward the middle of the room. “Stay on the line if you were in prison for more than five years.”

About a third of the group trickled back toward the wall. “Ten years.” By the time Ms. Rohr counted up to 25, there were only two men left on the line: Edward Quick and Kenneth Wilson, who had done 27 and 28 years, both for murder.

The two met 30 years earlier at a Brooklyn jail and had not seen each other since. They hugged to great applause. Mr. Quick, 55, has been accepted in Defy’s second group of students and hopes to start a company offering transportation services for prisoners’ families.

Mr. Wilson, 58, is in the “Bootcamp,” an intensive one-month program that is part of the extended application process.

“I think people are generally willing to accept others if they take responsibility for their faults,” Ms. Rohr said.

It is a belief she has put into practice. In Texas, she founded a similar organization called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program but resigned in 2009 after admitting to “inappropriate relationships” — she does not go into detail — with graduates of the program. “I don’t skirt it,” she said. “I think we bond more deeply over our failures than our successes.”

article by Jessica Weisberg via


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