Ex-Criminals Transfer Skills to Start-Ups

Defy Ventures offers entrepreneurship training and mentorship to students, including "the most accomplished former drug dealers."

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This weekend, the New York Times profiled Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization that offers a one-year entrepreneurial training and mentorship program to people who want to start their own businesses. What makes it unique? For starters, the students have criminal backgrounds ranging from robbery to murder.

The inaugural class held its first sales exposition Saturday, where 10 classmates presented their ideas for start-ups. The winner, former heroin dealer Jose Vasquez, received the $500 prize. Here, New York Times writer Jessica Weisberg explains how a focus on emotional openness as well as business principles and discipline helps participants transfer skills that are often built on illegal activity to conventional success:

At Defy, everything seems to be a contest. The inaugural class, which will graduate in December, has competed for over $100,000 in seed money. “We target executives and the most accomplished former drug dealers we can find," Defy's founder and chief executive, Catherine Rohr, said. “They're both drawn to competitive environments."

Ms. Rohr, who has a background in venture capital, got the idea for Defy after visiting a Texas prison in 2004 as part of her church's outreach program. The criminals she met there were charismatic, independent, resourceful, and willing to take risks, she said, much like her colleagues in the business world. Many of Defy's students had managerial roles in the drug trade, overseeing teams of up to 40 people. Each Defy student is paired with a mentor in the business community.

“They have the raw talent and it's great to watch that meeting up with their life goals," said Jensen Ko, a mentor and the chief operating officer of Tiger Asia, a hedge fund. Mr. Ko was paired with Fabian Ruiz, who spent 21 years in prison for killing a man he believed to have shot his brother. Mr. Ruiz started Infor-Nation, a company that conducts Internet searches for inmates and sends the results by mail.

Defy, which was founded in 2010, has helped start 21 companies, which offer services like dog walking, catering and Web design. They are all businesses without storefronts and with low start-up costs.

Read more at the New York Times.

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