Catherine Rohr helps ex-cons return to society by learning to start businesses
Former venture capitalist Catherine Rohr founded the nonprofit Defy Ventures to train ex-prisoners in the ethical and other demands of becoming legitimate entrepreneurs.
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Tall and slender, Rohr easily commands a room of tattooed, tough-talking ex-cons. She's used to being surrounded by men, having been the sole girl on her high school wrestling team in California and one of the few women at the private-equity firms where she worked after graduating from business school at the University of California, Berkeley.Skip to next paragraph
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During an initial Defy class, Rohr had the men laughing as she instructed them how to hold a microphone ("not sideways like you're a rapper") and on the importance of smiling in public speaking (she'll poke their cheeks with a pen to remind them to grin).
Aside from Rohr's infectious enthusiasm, a key to the success of Defy is finding ex-convicts who truly want to stay out of trouble. During the recent business pitch competition, Juan Vasquez didn't make it past the first round with his idea for an eco-friendly floor-cleaning business. But the middle-aged Mr. Vasquez, who has spent half his life in jail for conspiracy to sell drugs, was among many there moved to tears by the support of the 31 volunteers, the Defy staff, and his classmates who, like him, seek to overcome their circumstances.
"I've been out of jail for two years," he said, standing before the group, his eyes watering. "I'm on federal parole. To be around ex-convicts who are striving for a better life, it's overwhelming."
Defy participants say they turned to illegal activities for lack of alternatives. It was the only option, says Michael Phillips, who was released in September after serving 12 years for drug crimes. As a child he ran away from foster care and lived on New York's streets, working his way up the drug ladder to a point where he oversaw 12 employees and pocketed $60,000 a week, he says.
Now he works for $12 an hour.
"You're taking quite the financial hit," Rohr said to him after one class.
"It's a huge hit! It's a scalping!" he replied with a laugh. But he quickly added that his wife and two children are too important to him to risk losing them again.
Defy seeks to capitalize on that earnest and genuine desire for self-improvement.
The impact from two months of business training with Rohr and her staff, along with weekend-long life-coaching sessions is already noticeable, says donor and volunteer Bill Hwang, chief executive of the private equity firm Tiger Asia Management.
"The first day, they didn't talk, they didn't smile. There was a lot of initial skepticism," Mr. Hwang says. "I see a huge change. They're trusting other people for the first time; they're giving other people a chance to help them."
Some ex-cons have quit, however, under the weight of 15 to 20 hours of weekly classes and dozens more hours of homework assignments – in addition to a full-time job and college course work for some. The group nearly halved since the three-phase program started in late December.
The two-month entrepreneurship and life transformation session ended in late February with the business pitch competition. A four-month entrepreneurship fellowship concludes in June with a final business plan competition for the $100,000 in seed money.
Starting this month, all of the men will launch businesses, and some will begin hiring staff. Those who don't generate enough profits to sustain themselves as entrepreneurs will receive assistance in finding careers..