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Catherine Hoke

Founder, CEO, Defy Ventures

Catherine Hoke

[Image: Flickr user Enixii]

The Problem:

"They say that America is the land of second chances, but it's really not. Once you have an X on your back, you almost have no opportunities," says Catherine Hoke. "Of people who are rearrested in America, 89% of them are unemployed at the time of their arrest."

Catherine Hoke

The Epiphany:

According to company legend, Hoke, a former venture capitalist, had a revelation while touring Texas prisons in 2004. Drug and crime rings are organized in much the same way as major corporations—why not put those skills to good, legal use?

The Execution:

Hoke started with an entrepreneurship program in the Texas prison system; then, in 2010, after moving to New York, she founded Defy Ventures. The six-month program teaches former inmates entrepreneurship basics that participants can then use to enter business-plan competitions. After that, a three-month incubator helps graduates turn their plans into reality.

The Result:

Since its launch, Defy Ventures has produced 115 graduates, 71 of whom have launched their own companies. Working outside the prison system has allowed Hoke to adopt a blended-learning, online-offline model to "make the program more scalable, and therefore have a bigger impact," she says. What's next? Taking Defy national.