NSP Celebrates Defy Ventures Graduation

NSP Celebrates Defy Ventures Graduation

Graduates celebrate at NSP
Inmates and volunteers form connections


CONTACT Cara Wilwerding, Communications Manager

OFFICE 402-479-5712 | cara.wilwerding@nebraska.gov

May 2, 2017 (Lincoln, Neb.) – The gymnasium at the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP) was bustling with energy, enthusiasm and new ideas on Thursday.

Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization that aims to transform the lives of business leaders and individuals with criminal records, held their graduation ceremony honoring 26 graduates. These graduates, also known as Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs), are given the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to local business leaders and entrepreneurs. After months of research, hard work and dedication, the EITs earned a Certificate of Career Readiness from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

“A lot of these men have put their hopes and dreams in a box and they’re just about survival here,” said Jeremy Bouman, Nebraska executive director of Defy Ventures. “We tap into self-esteem and confidence.”

Thursday’s ceremony welcomed volunteers from the business community to join EITs in a variety of get-to-know-you exercises – learning about their successes, failures and lives before incarceration. While the program’s focus is centered on business and personal development, it is also about getting to know people on a human level.

“This is not what [executives] expect to see in a maximum security prison,” Bouman said. “It breaks down walls. Bringing people in to coach and mentor these individuals gives them hope.”

Pitch contests were held throughout the day, whittling 26 business ideas down to the top 15 and then the top five and then the top one. Bouman said since September, EITs have spent an average of 15 to 20 hours per week perfecting their ideas.

“I’ve done three of these events for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) and I’m changed,” said Willy Theisen, founder of Godfather’s Pizza and Thursday’s top volunteer. “I’m almost speechless.”

Family members were invited to watch part of the pitch contest and attend the graduation ceremony. EITs with children under 18 in attendance presented them with a teddy bear and a rose. At the conclusion of the ceremony, EITs had the opportunity to publicly thank individual family members for their love and support.

“It’s pretty exciting,” EIT Terry Racicky said. “There’s definitely a lot of generosity, encouragement and love.”

Racicky, who pitched his idea for an organic custom gardening business, placed third in the contest and received a $300 voucher from Defy Ventures, which he can access upon his release. The first place winner, Eric Moore, received a $500 voucher for his idea to provide transportation solutions for families in Nebraska with incarcerated loved ones.

After seeing success in New York and California, Defy Founder and CEO Catherine Hoke introduced the program to NDCS in September. Hoke said some employees were wary of the program and its benefits at first, but that’s no longer the case.

“Breaking into a new system always comes with some challenges, but I feel like we’re already on the other side,” she said. “We couldn’t have better support here.”

Defy is currently offered at NSP and the Omaha Correctional Center (OCC), and will be launching at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI) in June. Bouman said he’d like to see the program in three or four more facilities within the next year.

“The transformation is incredible,” Bouman said. “Seeing the guys at the kick-off event last year and seeing them today is like looking at a before and after picture.”

While they’ve come a long way, today’s graduation ceremony doesn’t necessarily have to mark the end of these EITs’ involvement with Defy Ventures. The organization also offers post-release assistance with resume writing, business concept development and learning skills like how to talk about incarceration during a job interview.

“I need you to leave here today and be ambassadors,” NDCS Director Scott Frakes said to the graduates. “I want you to be ambassadors for this program, I want you to be ambassadors for life, for hope, for the belief that every one of you and every other man that lives in this facility has the potential for greater success.”