Voices and Faces of Lifers With Optimistic Progress Group At Defy Ventures Business Pitch Competition
By: “Humble” Hung Ly (pronounced “Lee”). Defy @ Solano Level II Peer Group Facilitator/Enrollment Coordinator
Defy Ventures returned to the Level II gymnasium at California Prison-Solano on Wednesday, February 21st, 2018, for Cohort V’s BPC and CEO of Your New Life – White Belt Graduation.
Representing the LWOP Group, “Successful” Steven Jones Jr. (Cohort II), “Justified” Joe Bell (Cohort III), “Rapid” Rich Hodge (Cohort III), and I (Cohort IV), served as members of the Defy @ Solano Coordinators and Facilitators team, providing assistance, exceeding, and logicistal support in organizing the event.
CEO YNL is a program developed by Defy Ventures, Inc., a non-profit organization serving men and women with criminal histories nationally, who are returning or have returned to society, redirecting their natural talents, creating profitable and legal business ventures, gaining valuable employment and personal development skills, and building character.
To meet the requirements of CEO YNL, entrepreneurs-in-training (or EIT, what participants are referred as) complete 100 video courses taught by some of the country’s leading experts, developed comprehensive and realistic reentry plans, including written plans related to personal growth, health and appearance, relationship management, decision making, finding employment, and commitments to staying free. EITs are also required to formulate a small business idea that will allow them to generate legal income upon release.
Defy is in the business of creating “legitimate first chances.” “Transform your Hustle” and “Defy Odds” is the motto. Defy has incubated and financed over 100 of its EITs companies. Grads have reported an 83% increase in income and achieved a 95% employment rate. Defy’s recidivision rate is less than 5%.
Beginning at 6:00 a.m., the Defy @ Solano team arrived at the gym to prepare for the big event by setting up the stage, chairs, and tables. The Solano Vision News was present with journalists and a photographer, while the media crew set up the sound equipment. Cohort IV EITs arrived about an hour later with their cue card, props, fresh shaved faces/haircuts, ironed shirts, and a mixture of confidence and anxiety.
Last minute pitch practices were conducted in several small groups with Defy @ Solano team timing and coaching the EIT contestants.
At about 9:00 a.m., Founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, Catherine Hoke, made her grand entrance along with her Defy team; Bay Area Executive Director Veronica Ensign, Director of Engagement-Live Events, Danielle McMorran; Post Release Program Manager-Southern California, Quan Huyunh (who paroled from Solano in the year 2015 after serving 16 years), Family Liasion Michelle Garcia, Event Planner-Northern California Scott Chamberlain. Photographer Nancy Rothstein hired by Defy to capture memorable moments of the event, was also present and snapping away.
After taking several minutes to catch up with correctional staff and past cohort alumnis and meeting Cohort V EDITs, Catherine stepped on-stage and opened the event. Catherine announced a special guest, her friend and supporter, David Hornik, will be arriving shortly to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Suddenly, “Tunnel up!” was shouted from all directions. Over a hundred volunteer coaces serving as BPC judges arrived in groups. Arrivals were welcomed in the Defy Tradition by passing through the “Tunnel of Love,” with up-raised arms, high-fives, and cheers from the EITs before loud music. EITs networked, exchanged stickers, and took photos with volunteers for about an hour, while the rest of the volunteers gradually filled the gym. Without further due, the anticipated birthday boy, a Venture capitalists from August Capital and a regular at Solano, arrived with a group of colleagues.
Following the arrival of the last group, Catherine, with mic in-hand, announced for everyone to find a seat before she called, “Time!” or face the penalty of doing push-ups onstage. The penalty was avoided as everyone swiftly made their way to the seating area.
With mic in-hand and her usual dynamic personality, Danielle, Catherine’s co-emcee, summoned Rich onto the stage to explain the “Level 10 Clap,” which is a noisy standing ovation applause. Rich started with level 1, a lame golf clap. “We’re going to get this party jumpin’ like some hot grease,” Rich said. As he counted with his fingers to 8, 9, 10, the gym was on their feet, clapping loudly, cheering, and whistling.
As soon as everyone settled down, a round of 18 bear hugs (signifying the year 2018) was announced. With the stopwatch counting, EITs excitedly rushed from an open pair of arms to the next as they counted down from 18 while the volunteers did the same with each other. After this icebreaker, ground rules were in order. EITs and volunteers were instructed to face and look directly into each others eyes and commit to treating each other with respect and humanity. Affirmations were shared between EITs and volunteers.
Once trust was established, Catherine welcomed Mr. Hornik onto the stage. With music blaring through the speakers, Mr. Hornik danced his way onstage, finishing off with a carthweel while Catherine danced along. After a brief speech, Mr. Hornik redirected the focus to the volunteers. Mr. Hornik asked the volunteers to stand at the amount their businesses are worth as he counted from the millions to the billions. At the billion mark, one man stood which caused a Level 10 clap. Catherine handed Mr. Hornik a birthday cake cap, which he wore almost the entire day. EITs, volunteers, and Defy staff sang “Happy Birthday,” and when the song ended, a painting signed by all EITs was presented as a birthday gift.
Groups of Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and business executives were invited onstage with typical Defy energy. After dancing their way onstage, volunteers took turns shamelessly giving his/her company brag and why he/she would make a good BPC judge. The introductions were both mind-blowing and entertaining. Many big-name companies were represented, such as Netflix, Lyft, Apple, Google, Simplexity, and Pandora. When the last group of volunteers danced off-stage, Solano’s fifth BPC officially kicked off.
Upon breaking down to 2-3 EITs per station, Catherine warned EITs, “If you don’t pitch, you don’t graduate.” For some, the desire to don cap and gown and walk the stage to complete CEO YNL dissipated any fear of public speaking. Pitching rules were announced; first, panel moderators have 45 seconds to read the presenter’s leadership statement. Second, the presenter has up to 3 minutes to pitch his idea and make an “ask” (investment, mentor, references, etc.) within that time or face disqualifcation. Third, 3.5 minutes of Q & A. Last, 2 minutes of feedback.
Over 30 EITs pitched small business ideas before judges with curious Defy Staff, and proud peer facilitators listening in. These pitches included mobile hair salons, motorcycle cleaning services, cause-related crochet clothing training and manufacturing, and boothless photo station machines. Upon completion of the quartersfinals, judges took several minutes to deliberate.
As soon as decisions were reached, Catherine guided the event into the next phase, an exercise in empathy and commonalities called “Step to the Line.” Volunteers and EITs were instructed to spread out on opposite sides of a pair of colorful duct tapelines, running diagonally across the gym floor. Once in place, both sides are to face each other, looking directly in each other’s eyes, while remaining silent. Speaking softly, Catherine guided the group through the process, reading from a sheet of statements. Participants were instructed to step to the line if true or take 5 steps back if false. As it became more intense and personal, socioeconomic patterns emerged. Almost all volunteers earned college degrees compared to the several EITs on the opposite side.
Economically, most EITs grew up in poverty whereas only a handful of volunteers experienced such hardship. Common ground was reached between both sides when a statement regarding driving under the influence was read. Catherine warned the volunteers, “Driving under the influence is a carime. If you kill someone, you can easily be in their shoes,” referring to the opposite side. “I committed a violent offense,” all volunteers stepped back while majority of the EITs stepped up. “I said committed, not convicted,” after a brief moment, several volunteers returned to the line. “I once thought of ending my life,” bringing several brave souls forward from both sides. Watery eyes emerged followed with empathetic handshakes across the line.
A session in active listening and honesty called “60 Second Questions,” was initiated. Participants took turns answering questions posed by Catherine while the person directly in front, listened. After affirming each other, both sides left with a better understanding of each other. I had the honor of sharing this moment with Bill from Netflix who treated me with utmost respect and understanding.
It was time to announce the semifinalists. Every EIT that pitched hoped to hear his name. Once called, the semifinalists were soon beaming onstage, receiving congratulations from Catherine. The semifinalists locked hands, squatted down, and jumped in the air, raising their arms together in celebration of their advancement to the next round.
During the lunch break, fresh salad and sandwiches with chips were served. EITs and volunteers ate their lunches while socializing and exchanging “Sweet Sheets,” with one another to jot down comments.
Lunch was cut short and it was time to start the semifinals. Each semifinalist faced 3 additional judging panels in hopes of advancing to the finals. Upon completion, judges deliberated for several minutes and submitted their decisions.
During the next portion of the event called, “I Choose You,” volunteers were instructed to line up on the tapeline with begging, cupped hands. EITs carefully picked their favorite volunteers by handing out signed business card-type cards to their chosen 10. Once all cards were passed out, the role was switched. EITs received cards from volunteers.
Once all the chairs were placed back into rows, it was time to announce the Top 5 finalists. As soon as their names were called, the finalists ecstatically made their way onstage to a Level 10 clap with cmaeras snapping away. The finalists proudly raised linked hands for a victory photo. With mic in-hand, the finalists each presented their pitch on stage for everyone to hear. As soon as the last finalist walked off-stage, EITs and volunteers picked their favorite pitch by placing a ticket in a paper bag marked with a finalist’s name.
Catherine took a moment to speak to volunteers requesting donations for EIT scholarships. “At Defy, we don’t work with criminals; we work with people with criminal histories… You’re probably wondering why we work with lifers who aren’t getting out. A lifer sentenced to 25 years-to-life has a parole hearing on his/her 25th year for possible release. For those sentenced to life without parole, some are getting their sentence commuted to 25 years-to-life, so they have a chance to be released as well.”
The event relocated to the Level 2 visiting room for the graduation ceremony. EITs were reunited with proud family members while Mr. Hornik and his band set up their equipment. Once all EITs made it into the visiting room, the band perfomed several cover songs while volunteers, EITs, and family members showed off their dance moves. It was a concert, celebration, and party all-together.
EITs briefly left the room to don royal blue caps and gowns and for some, it was for the very first time. Volunteers and family took their seats. With the beautiful, but powerful sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance,” filling the air. EITs returned, smiling proudly, while some threw their arms in the air. They walked in formation before taking their seats.
After a long day of anticipation, the moment the EITs and everyone else have been waiting for has arrived. Graduates were called onstage one after another to receive their CEYO YNL Completion and Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business-Career Readiness certificates replete with firm handshakes and a congratulatory photo op with Catherine.
Grads presented their loved ones with roses and teddy bears wearing t-shirts customized by the EIT the day before. Grads and family/significant other danced, taking in the moment. It was time to drop “Love Bombs.” Grads with the mic in-hand, welcomed their loved ones on stage to affirm each other, complete with hugs and affection.
Graduation cake and delicious pizza were served while grads spent time with loved ones taking photos while others conversed with volunteers and Defy staff in small groups. “Voices of Defy” was initiated with several EITs performing original songs and one spoken word. Rich, along with 2 other EITs, perfomed the song, “EIT,” with the catchy hook, “I’m an E.I., about my B.I. (bidness), I’m an E.I., I’m an EIT!”
Hours after BPC results were reached, Catherine summoned the finalists onstage to announce their places. Jeff Hall placed 5th with his business, “Secure Photos” and was awarded a $100 IOU oversized check. Once offstage, I asked Jeff if he had any comments for this article, he replied, “Yes — all too often, us LWOP are excluded from various programs simply because we are an LWOP… Defy invests in us as human beings and most importantly, treat us as humans, not a lost cause simply because of our sentence. Seeing the volunteers truly believing in me absolutely gives me hope that not everyone has given up on us LWOPs… I’m thankful for Defy for helping me focus in a positive direction for a positive future.”
The party continues as the band performs Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believin'”. Seizing the moment, Defy staff and an EIT jumped onstage, dancing and singing along with endless energy.
It was 8:00 p.m. and it was time to say goodbye to loved ones, volunteers, and Defy. I took a moment to thank volunteers and Defy staff. I expressed the importance of keeping LWOPs in the public eye, “Your LWOP EITs need you.” Catherine compassionately replied, “You guys are not forgotten. We are working on something for you.” After 14 long hours, the fifth BPC and graduation at Solano came to a satisfying end. What an awesome and memorable event!
As Defy @ Solano team members, we volunteer our time because first and foremost, we love Defy. Also, it is only appropriate to give back to our communitty as others before us had done to get through the program. Watching our fellow EITs grow into confident and professional men and graduating in the presence of their loved ones is priceless. Witnessing some of these EITs leave this environment better than when they came in brings joy to our hearts. That is our return. Congratulations Cohort IV for your hard work and determination in following through with the program. I want to thank the rest of the Defy @ Solano team who were not mentioned. Your assistance, motivation, and presence is greatly appreciated.
Special thanks to Catherine Hoke and the entire Defy staff for providing us the opportunity to become professional men with life and business skills, but most importantly, become better human beings. Thanks for the awesome graduation party and thanks to all volunteers.
The EITs named and identified in photos are serving life without the possibility of parole sentences. We accept, acknowledge, and regreat that we have made horrible choices in our past lives. Choices that lead to lives lost or damaged, and the families and communities who have been affected, which resulted in our removal from society. However, our past decisions do not define who we are today or who we will potentially become.
The reason why I decided to write about this experience is because LWOPs are often left in the dark. Not too often are we seen or heard in the free world. Therefore, I decided to take this opportunity to shine the light and create awarness, and to showcase LWOPs in our element and our positive direction — despite our sentence. Whether we spend the rest of our lives within secured permeters or potentionally earn freedom one day, we will continue to seek a better understanding of all the harm we have caused and skills to prevent ourselves from returning to that negative lifestyle we once lived. We are not a lost cause because we have found (for most) or will find (for others) ourselves on this long, and at times, bumpy road to redemption. We are “Lifers With Optimistic Progress, on a mission for greatness.”
To be announced, Cohort VI launch dates for Level 2 and 3. Contact any Defy @ Solano team member if you’re interested in becoming an EIT. Hustle Harder and Defy odds.
All photos are courtesy of Defy Ventures.
For more information about Defy Ventures, visit defyventures.org and follow on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.