When The Lesson About Setting Boundaries Is Learned The Hard Way

Defy Venture’s CEO Catherine Hoke was like a lot of startup founders–burning the candle at both ends. Here’s what she wishes she knew then.

When The Lesson About Setting Boundaries Is Learned The Hard Way
[Image: Flickr user Rebecca Siegel]

Catherine Hoke knows the importance of setting boundaries. But it wasn’t always this way.


Hoke says she spent many years surviving on three to four hours of sleep working with venture capital and private equity firms before founding Defy Ventures, a New York-based entrepreneurial training program and business incubator for former gang leaders and drug dealers.

Earlier this year, Hoke was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People. We spoke with Hoke to find out what lessons she’s learned, as well as what she wished she knew when she was first starting out.

Find the right people, right from the start

Everyone says they want to start with a great team, but when you don’t have the infrastructure, that’s hard to do, Hoke says. She was desperate to “fill a seat” instead of postponing the search and spending time to find the right person for the job, she admits.

“We ended up compromising, hiring people that didn’t have the attributes I was looking for,” Hoke says. “[It] becomes more costly in the long run.” If a candidate doesn’t have the skills but does have the traits for the job, they can grow into the position, she says. (For example, a salesperson better be a closer, and an assistant needs to be detail oriented.) Having to fire someone sets the organization back and is unpleasant, Hoke says. “[The] pain could be avoided on the front end.”

Set personal boundaries

Hoke says she wished she’d led more sustainably earlier in her career. While she knew it wasn’t healthy, she was getting by on a couple hours of sleep every night. Now, Hoke’s established what she refers to as “line in the sand” self-imposed boundaries. These include:

  • Taking at least 10 minutes a day for quiet time
  • Having one “date night” with her husband during the week
  • Not being away from her husband for more than four consecutive days
  • Sleeping an average of eight hours a night
  • Exercising four times a week
  • Taking the supplement Emergen-C every day
  • Takes three weeks of vacation per year, one of which must be seven consecutive days
  • Has a monthly “monk” day, where she steers clear of her phone and email

The time away from technology allows her to focus on “big picture” projects and invest in her own leadership, without the distraction, she says. To stay on track, Hoke checks in regularly with her business and time management coach.

Know your value

In the four years since its founding, Defy Ventures has served 115 Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs), and is on track to serve 200 this year alone. The company’s launching its program nationally, allowing EITs to take courses remotely, attend in-person character development workshops, and meet with business mentors either remotely or in person.

Recently, Defy Ventures started charging tuition for its program. “We have a great product or service and we’ve been giving it away for free,” Hoke says. Now, the price point is “enough [for participants] to have skin in the game,” and Hoke says the change is paying off.

Program retention is much higher, and she’s noticed a change in the EITs’ attitudes. “It’s valued,” she says. Don’t price your product or service low just to stay competitive, Hoke advises.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.