One by one, men whom much of society had long ago condemned and castigated as unworthy and unrepentant strolled to the front of a crowded classroom to share their visions and wisdom.
The radiant sunlight and bustling midtown NYC street corners gave the at-first-glance impression it was just any other Saturday in one of the world’s most colorful and quizzical cities. But for the 27 or so students and all those who had come to hear their voices and ideas it was anything but.
It was Graduation Day for the inaugural class of Defy Ventures, a two-year-old nonprofit organization that offers one-year entrepreneurial training and M.B.A.-style mentorship programs to aspiring entrepreneurs with criminal backgrounds for having committed crimes ranging from robbery to murder.
With an emphasis on discipline and emotional openness, students spend months meeting for several days a week to develop such skills as balancing accounting and tax sheets, maintaining cash flow and securing patents. In addition, multiple workshops are also held on how to behave in professional settings, how to speak in public and how to be a better parent.
But more than all the academia, for dreamers like Jose Vasquez the program offers the kind of second chance he long feared would never again come his way. On this day, Vasquez and nine of his classmates competed for start-up capital awarded based on winning sale’s pitches made to potential investors and venture capitalists.
Among riveted audience members, it was clear all Vasquez’s hard work had paid huge dividends. Naturally as personable as he is entrepreneurial, the 26-year-old Rhode Island man boasts of having once pocketed as much as $2,000 per day in heroin sales and of knowing his clients so well he took the best of them out for dinner and bought them gifts for their birthdays.
“Everyone sells drugs, right?” Vasquez, convicted in 2009, rhetorically asked in a New York Times interview. “So you got to find a way to differentiate yourself.”
Throughout the exposition, Vasquez proved most adept in pinpointing details of his plan in launching a personal concierge service that would run errands for busy NYC professionals. In walking away with the day’s $500 prize, he also further distinguished himself as a clear-cut favorite in securing an even greater share of the more than $100,000 in seed money students compete for throughout the entire year.
“Many of the qualities that made these men good at being bad guys are the same qualities that make effective entrepreneurs,” said Catherine Rohr, Defy Venture’s 35-year-old founder. “Some of the men in this class had up to 40 employees under management. The goal is to help these students apply their abilities to legal endeavors.
“We target executives and the most accomplished former drug dealers we can find,” she added. “They’re both drawn to competitive environments.”
Over its first two years, Defy has helped start 21 companies, ranging from businesses which offer such services as dog walking, catering and Web design. Collectively, Defy has raised more than $1.5 million in donations and pledges from VC firms, hedge funds, businesses, and private foundations.
At the most recent exposition, students from Defy’s graduating class also solicited clients from among the company’s volunteer and mentor networks. Vasquez spent much of his time mingling with corporate types he hoped might be able to introduce him to new clients and fellow design student Jeff Ewell proudly raved of having designed the Web sites of most of his classmates.
"I've always been the type of person to attack everything alone," Ewell told the Times. "The one thing we never learned to do was trust in another individual. But we’ve kind of became a brotherhood."
Rohr filled seats for her inaugural class after requesting referrals from the NYC parole and probation departments and about 25 prisoner rehabilitation programs. Of the 180 applications received for the free classes, she looked for candidates who had high school diplomas or GEDs and those who had openly owned up to their crimes and seemed most motivated to change their lives.
Even with that, the Defy way has proven not to be geared for everyone. Initially, Rohr started with 50 students, meaning nearly half her current class quit before the program was completed.
“To succeed, these men must learn to reject failure, which isn't always easy,” said Rohr. “Failure can have its own comforts. When Jesus would go up to a leper or a blind person and ask, 'Do you want to be healed?' it always seemed to me such an idiotic question. Of course you want to be healed… but a leper was taken care of.
“If you're not a leper anymore, you have to provide for yourself,” she added. “You have all these different expectations if you're no longer the blind man. That's how it is with our guys, too. And not all of them want to see."
At its essence, Rohr defines Defy as driven by the thought of changing the way men and students think of and view themselves. One of her most utilized techniques is something she calls the Ten Bear Hugs, and each of her classes starts with group hugs and everyone in the room exchanging warm embraces.
It’s a far cry from the life Fabian Ruiz painfully remembers. Jailed since the age of 16 and for nearly half his life for the retaliation murder of the man who killed his older brother, Ruiz recounts a world where he became accustomed to New York State officers and corrections officials "not even looking at inmates as people."
Now 37-years-old and the founder of Infor-Nation, a start-up that will sell printouts of webpages to inmates of the NYC prison system that are now blocked from using the Internet, Ruiz almost looks as forward to the thought of being treated humanely as he does running his own business.
“I knew I was going to have to make my own job," Ruiz said of his change in attitude and the way he is now respected.
Defy Ventures is the brainchild of Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a similarly themed Houston-based not-for-profit launched in 2004 by Rohr and her then husband. There, she and a group of other volunteer executives taught classes about marketing, finance and how to act professionally.
PEP operated for around five years, graduating around 500 students— about 60 of whom went on to start their own businesses—and establishing a recidivism rate among its graduates roughly 30 percent lower than that of the national average. Rohr resigned from PEP in 2009 and a little more than a year later the doors to Deny swung open.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.