One evening of September 2015, I sat in my apartment in San Francisco going through event listings on the internet and came across one titled “Business Coaching Night” which, being an entrepreneur, I found quite relevant. It was scheduled to start in two hours, and that too just three blocks away from my house.
According to the description, coaches would spend time mentoring entrepreneurs on their businesses and giving them career advice. Being relatively new in the Bay Area, and an entrepreneur myself, I thought to myself, why not! I could definitely use some guidance – and before I knew it, I was on my way to the event.
I arrived at the venue, and upon seeing the other attendees in the room, something just didn’t click. I couldn’t pin point what it was, but I could tell, I didn’t fit. Most of the people around me had really sharp features, some of them had tattoos, some, even scars. While I was still trying to study the room, the host got up to kick off the event, and that moment I found out, the room I was in, was full of formerly incarcerated individuals — fresh out of prison. Uh, I double and triple-checked to see if I was in the place I had actually signed up for, I was.
I just stood there, genuinely scared. How would you feel if you suddenly found out the room you were in, was full of felons? I suddenly felt a bit vulnerable and scared, not sure what to expect, and actually thinking of fleeing.
I had ended up at a business coaching night meant for incarcerated individuals. The event was put together by an organization called, Defy Ventures which is an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men and women of various ages.
It was I, amongst a few other volunteers, who were supposed to mentor the EITs (Entrepreneurs in Training) and give them career advice. EIT is the term coined by Defy Ventures for incarcerated individuals enrolled in the their program.
I decided to stick around and as the evening went on, we advised each EIT on their resumes and/or business plans. With every round, my heart just melted more and more hearing their heart throttling stories, and seeing the humility, modesty and gratefulness of each EIT. All my initial fears turned into love and gratefulness within no time.
During the break, I noticed a small group of people gathered around a woman chattering excitedly. I went and stood next to them to hear what the excitement was about. And I see Sheri’s gleaming eyes, and her cheerful voice saying “In just nine days, I will get up at midnight, walk to my fridge, MY own fridge; open it myself, and make myself a midnight snack!!” Making excited gestures she added, “and you know what I’ll do then? I’ll take the remote control in my hands, and watch TV ALL NIGHT!” Gesturing her hands close to her heart, she added, “and I will be able to keep the remote control in my own hands.. Just NINE DAYS!” And with that, she hugged me and everyone standing in that circle.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone, feel so grateful and happy, to be alive. I can never forget her smile and gleaming eyes. Sheri was living in a half-way house after being discharged from prison and would be going home in nine days.
Sheri’s mom gave birth to her in an alleyway. Her dad was never around. When she was 6 years old, her mom would ask her to deliver drugs around the neighborhood. She never got a chance to experience a childhood like children should. She got pregnant at 16, her husband used to beat her up before he finally left. In order to make a living, she got back to doing what she knew best — selling drugs. That’s how she had ended up in prison. That event was my first encounter with Defy Ventures.
I went back home that night having experienced a side of life I never knew existed.
At the Prison
A few days later, I signed up for Defy Venture’s upcoming in-prison trip at Solano California State Male-only Prison, to spend a whole day interacting with current inmates, incarcerated for various reasons from drug charges, gang abuse, fraud, and even murder; some of whom had been imprisoned for almost 55 years! Can you even imagine spending 55 years in confinement?
On the day of the event, our phones, wallets and keys were all taken away at the entrance, and we walked through corridors, and bars after bars, to reach this huge gymnasium like space.
Walking in a high security prison, in a foreign country I had just arrived at, surrounded by around 500 not very friendly faces, with a big PRISONER written on their blue jumpsuits, was a nerve wrecking feeling.
I thought I had lost my mind, and so did anyone who heard where I was going — I bet you all think the same too, but, here I was.
The day started with a very powerful exercise called ‘Step the Line’. I and other volunteer coaches, stood on one side of the line, and the inmates stood on the other. Some statements were read out aloud as the game started, and you were supposed to take a step towards the line if the statement was true for you. It started off casually with light questions like:
“‘I like rock music”
“I enjoy hip hop”
“I was mischievous as a child”
but got very real, very fast..
“I grew up in a violent neighborhood”
“I was sexually abused as a child”
“One of my parents was incarcerated”
“I’m here on a murder charge”
“I committed a felony but was able to get away with it”
“At least one of my parents had a substance addiction”
“At 18, the only person I could rely on was myself”
I couldn’t help but notice, that despite common assumption, it was not just the inmates who stepped at the line. There were hugs, there were tears, and silent reassuring nods.. The similarities between the volunteers and inmates were too stark, too many, and too painful.
It made me wonder that we may have been on different sides of the line, but deep down inside, we all held the same desires, and the same insecurities.
The day went on with a few more activities planned around mentoring the EITs regarding their businesses and careers, to make sure that when they got out of prison, they have all the knowledge and support needed to earn a respectable livelihood.
Days at the prison are extremely exhausting both physically and mentally, but the tears, laughter, hugs and the silent reassuring eyes and nods make it all worth it, and much more.
Thank you Defy.
I don’t think it’s even possible to put my experience in words. These people who had no support, grew up knowing no better, gave in to their circumstances, and considered themselves above law by not valuing their lives and doing wrong to others and themselves; now, are so eager and working hard to repent, to make a difference, and to be given a second chance.
I have a file full of gratitude reminders now, which comprises of fun stickers that are exchanged upon initial meeting, thank you tickets which EITs give out to whoever impacted them, and wonderful reassuring messages full of love and gratefulness.
In the United States, 76% individuals end up back at the prison within 3 years of being discharged which is why, the mission of Defy ventures is to make sure that when these people get out of prison, they have all the knowledge and support needed to earn a respectable livelihood.
It has been almost two years volunteering with Defy Ventures as an Executive Coach, and it has been a very inspirational journey for me. I’ve met some amazing people - extremely resilient, and full of hope — who put the word ‘hustle’ to shame. Catherine Hoke is the amazing woman behind this initiative and I couldn’t have been more grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this.