Ex-Inmates 'Defy' Odds Channeling Skills into Startups

For one ex-convict-turned-business owner, a fresh start means letting go.

“Often when you’re starting a business or really anything at all, a lot of what is holding you back from jumping comes from within,” says Rob Lilly, NYC Power House executive chef and owner.

Lilly, a self-described social entrepreneur who served a 6-month prison sentence for what he describes as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is a graduate of Defy Ventures. The two-year-old non-profit organization is based in New York City and seeks to transform the lives of ex-cons who enroll in the program by tapping their entrepreneurial skills and channeling them toward legal business ventures.

“You can be your own worst enemy… if you don’t let go,” Lilly tells FOXBusiness.com.

Lilly’s gusto for catering is a nostalgic one – a joy learned over years of sharing in family gatherings. He says ingrained in the company’s business plan is a mission to hire, train and mentor young fathers, exclusively, so that they can provide for their families.

Lilly’s father was in and out of jail throughout his childhood. The summer before his freshman year at Howard University Lilly was arrested for burglary and sentenced to five years’ probation. In college he began dealing drugs, and was caught for criminal possession of a loaded firearm and possession of narcotics with intent to distribute – just as his probation was ending. A benevolent judge sentenced him to six months in prison.

Defy Founder and CEO Catherine Rohr’s first memory of Lilly is of a young man both aware and unapologetic of his past. “He introduced himself as a third-generation felon,” Rohr says. “But he always had a vision for utilizing his skills.”

A New Road

Rohr says the organization works with students to strengthen and redirect the business management skills used for drug dealing and other criminal activities.

Applicants participate in a three-week trial boot camp. If accepted, students move onto a four-month Entrepreneurship Fellowship training program. There students have the chance to qualify for startup grants and enter the “Incubator,” where they can get continued support as they launch their businesses.

Defy functions similarly to MBA programs. Students receive training in entrepreneurship, character development and financing opportunities, and get connected to a network of mentors and friends. The program is almost entirely free for students (the only cost Defy does not cover is textbooks). Today there about 60 students enrolled in Defy’s third class.

According to Rohr, 70% of kids with felon parents follow in their parents’ footsteps. After Defy, graduates had a 98% employment rate and a less than 5% recidivism rate (the national average for juveniles is 55 to 75%, according to GovTrack.) Since Defy launched two years ago, 100-plus graduates have started 44 companies. In the coming months, Defy is looking to put its training online to make it accessible across the U.S.

Cynthia Franklin, adjunct professor at NYU Stern School of Business, says oftentimes the very traits that help entrepreneurs succeed – a bias toward action, dogged determination, and single-mindedness – can doom them to failure. Still, one of the things she makes sure students know is many successful entrepreneurs have failed before succeeding. She says one thing that is apparent about Defy students is they have already showed “incredible resilience” and “indomitable spirits.”

“[Defy students] know that missteps don’t define who you are; it’s how well you recover,” she says.

Walking the Walk

Before Defy, Rohr headed the Texas-based organization Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), teaching entrepreneurship to men serving time. In 2009, Rohr resigned from PEP after admitting to having personal relationships with some students. After much personal turmoil, Rohr says she picked herself up, leaning on her faith, and dove back into work, using all of her savings to launch Defy. She is open about the scandal, using her story as an example for students to know they have options.

“Often the second chance is the first legitimate chance you get,” Rohr says.

Lilly also recalls one of the first times he met Rohr and says her transparency regarding her past helped him drop his guard. For her part, Rohr says she is just happy to be able to be a part of these new beginnings.

“It’s easy to point fingers, but what does it take to lend a hand?”