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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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While Defy is not the only prisoner re-entry program in New York – the Doe Fund and Osborne Association are among the more prominent – Defy may be the sole program in the US that connects ex-convicts with top business leaders in classes and through one-on-one mentorships, according to Michael Caslin, a professor of entrepreneurship at Baruch College in New York.

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"Defy has the potential to be the most effective and largest in America over time, given the [New York State] prison population and its ability to replicate," he says. 

If the pilot program is successful, Rohr aims to take Defy nationwide. She already has a network of supporters across the US.

"As soon as she feels New York is under control, I'm on board with Chicago," says Seth Kravitz, the founder of several start-up companies in Chicago, who flew to New York recently to volunteer with Defy.

Ultimately, however, the program will be judged on the ability of ex-convicts to turn their lives around. "The success of Defy depends on you guys," Amy Kleine, program director with the Weinberg Foundation, which has funded PEP in Texas, told the group at the end of that Saturday competition.

"I tried to talk Catherine out of this," she told the inmates. "But it's working. Catherine has put more work into this than you would believe. Make her proud."

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How to find out more on job training for ex-cons:

More than 650,000 inmates are released from US prisons each year. Ex-cons find that getting a job isn't easy. But jobs are key to keeping them from committing new crimes and returning to prison.

Defy Ventures uses an intensive internship program to offer ex-convicts a chance to succeed as entrepreneurs and as income earners, fathers, and role models in their communities (see accompanying story).

•The Delancey Street Foundation (415-512-5104), based in San Francisco with five locations nationwide, has a 40-year record of helping ex-convicts through its residency program and job-skills training.

•The Safer Foundation (312-922-2200) is a Chicago-based nonprofit group that supports the efforts of people with criminal records to become employed, law-abiding members of the community.

• The Prison Entrepreneurship Program links inmates to top business and academic talent employing an MBA-level curriculum and mentor relationships.


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