“How many of you are nervous to be here?” Andrew the director said as we settled into our seats in the outbuilding at RJD Correctional Facility in California a few weeks ago.
We were there to meet with inmates, at the Maximum Security facility who, in this program are called EIT’s (Entrepreneurs In Training, a more humanizing term for men who spanned in age from 24-59 years old and had been incarcerated for anywhere from 4 to 39 years).
In a shark tank style competition, my job was to hear them pitch their business ideas for a chance to win an IOU in the form of cash when they are released from Prison.
I wasn’t nervous.
It felt like I was among family.
My brother has life without parole and is currently facing the Death Penalty for another murder. Hearing the sounds of steel doors locking and Corrections Officers staring me down is nothing new to me.
I’m completely at ease around murderers in a place literally devoid of hope.
Wow, that seems so strange to type.
My experience, however, that warm October day with Defy, was one of the most hope-filled days of my life.
Give Me The Truth, and Nothing But The Truth.
There was emotional vulnerability in an empathy exercise called “Step Up To The Line” that proved we were more alike than different (despite the number of tattoos we had).
There was overwhelming pride in watching grown men I’d met 7 hours earlier, walk in cap and gown, (some for the first time ever), across a stage to, in Steven, one EIT’s words, “finally make my dad proud”.
Steven and 21 others completed a program that 70 other men started and dropped out of, to earn a certificate from Baylor in front of their families and share a meal together afterward.
There was courage that Saturday, to share their wildest dreams with complete strangers in hopes that we’d offer valuable insight into how they could make them a reality.
There is no pity in Prison, and there is certainly none at Defy.
If their business wasn’t feasible, we had to tell them. Suddenly the word “Truth” tattooed on my wrist took on a new meaning for me.
Occasionally, we need to face the fact that our business dreams need a revamp.
We need someone to shoot straight with us.
Joe, an EIT born inside a prison to an incarcerated mother and father, sadly ended up there himself for murder. He was so excited to introduce me to his wife and daughter at the graduation. He has a life sentence, and may not ever be paroled.
Yet he pursued his pitch with as much passion as Alejandro, who is getting out in 10 days and won money to get his art book published and start a business helping youth use art to express themselves.
Our dreams may never come to fruition.
It doesn’t mean we give up on them.
Joe certainly hasn’t.
The mantra for our business is “Don’t Do it Alone”… and it meant more to me than ever before within that concrete building typically used to hold a hundred bunks 3 high of some of the most hardened criminals in San Diego.
Like you and I in business, these men need a mentor.
They need someone who has gone before them to pave the way for success despite many obstacles most of us won’t ever face.
Give Me Something To Believe In:
You and I have become accustomed to hearing “no” as we’ve built our businesses. Yet, we’re entrepreneurs, so we press on.
Learning to delay gratification, men who are used to getting (or taking) what they want have learned to transform their hustle into honorable ventures that use skills they thought only good for leading the drug rings or gangs they were part of.
Because of the worst decision of their lives, men like Rickey, simply asked for a minimum wage job buffing floors “so shiny you can gaze at yourself like a mirror” upon his release in two months, after 39 years in prison. He will need a guide to give him the confidence to build a business and ask for what he’s worth, based on a skill he’s spent nearly 4 decades perfecting.
Most of all though, men like Karl, who handed me a yellow rose of friendship, with tears streaming down his face to tell me he was glad Chris and I came, and to say “I didn’t feel like I was in prison today” need someone to believe in them.
We all do.
With no family or friends in his life, Karl felt love at Defy. He openly wanted feedback and asked that we challenge his thinking and help him arrive at the right answers, already lurking within.
What We Can Do With Our Freedom:
As I sit here typing this, I’m looking at a bookcase full of knowledge.
At RJD Prison, all the books were locked up.
Literally, there were padlocks on the bookcases.
Knowledge is a privilege, my husband Chris quipped as we stood by the shelves containing old tattered books, likely donated ages ago.
We take for granted as business owners, in the free world, how readily available education is to us via Google or YouTube.
When’s the last time you logged into a course you bought, pulled the book off your nightstand and devoured it, knowing that you may not have access to it again – ever?
We certainly take for granted the freedoms we have…
…It was humbling to see that these men were hungry for knowledge and were seizing every opportunity they could to learn and grow.
I didn’t want to leave that day, 10 hours seemed like two. I wanted to give all my money to them as if to say “Here! Take it. I’ll help however I can!”
How You Can Help:
To that end, a portion of all the revenue Priority VA makes from here on out will go to support Defy. It’s simply too important to ignore that these men will re-enter society one day.
I want them to be prepared to give, and not take.
To build, and not destroy.
To be filled with hope, not apathy.
I’ll be coordinating events in months to come, looking for volunteers and I encourage you to consider joining me.
One 10 hour day inside a Maximum Security facility can mean a lifetime of hope for the EIT’s, and perhaps you, too.
To learn more about Defy Ventures and see how you can support them, check out their website, here. (www.defyventures.org)