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Catherine Rohr helps former felons defy odds, start businesses

Catherine Rohr is the founder of Defy Ventures, a New York‐based nonprofit that equips former drug dealers and gang leaders to launch legal and profitable businesses. Since its founding in 2010, Defy’s student entrepreneurs have launched 21 businesses. Before Defy, Rohr spent six years in private equity and venture capital.

Catherine Rohr’s American dream is different than the average entrepreneur’s. Yes, she has a background in investments, but now she invests in people through Defy Ventures, a program that teaches former felons to be successful entrepreneurs.

After visiting a Texas prison with a friend, Rohr’s world was turned upside down when she discovered many inmates are profitable businessmen and entrepreneurs, but are stuck in a cycle of incarceration.

“Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever done,” she said. “Pretend you got caught and paid the full price for what you did, but for the rest of your life, this is your primary identity. This is the world I play in.”

Rohr challenged the inmates she met in Texas to develop business plans that would give them profitable, legal work outside prison. The results were phenomenal: After the program, her students had a 98 percent employment rate, less than 5 percent recidivism rate and earned $13 million in their first year out.

But the redemption stories she creates also mirror her own. After being unexpectedly divorced, Rohr had relationships with former program members and found herself facing a very public resignation that left her with nothing financially and emotionally.

During her low point, she relied on friends and “more therapy than I care to admit” to put her back together. She found the support she needed to start Defy Ventures, and two years ago began building a program to help former inmates find, build and use their entrepreneurial skills.

“America puts these people in the trash pile,” Rohr said. “They represent America’s most overlooked talent pool: the underdogs.” But, she says they are brilliantly equipped to be leaders because of their street-smart and entrepreneurial (albeit illegal) past activities. After going through 1,000 hours of character and business development, the former felons come out as business people ready to face the world.

Rohr brought three of her recent students (they graduated from Defy last week) to Big Omaha to share their stories. Their crimes ranged from selling marijuana to car theft and conspiring to commit wire fraud. Each of them now has a profitable business where they are founders and leaders of their own companies.

“Defy has restored in me a knowledge of how to apply my street-savvy business techniques that I have into something legit,” said Jose Mendoza, founder of Clean Slate, a blind-cleaning business in New York. “And Defy has given me a clean slate.”

For Trevor Scotland, Defy gave him a platform for his voice and his business. “I had a real issue with what my future would have been like after prison,” Scotland said. “Moments like this are incredible because here I get to share my story and not be ashamed of it. And more than that, I’ve had one-on-ones with Seth Godin, I’ve had one-on-ones with the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. So I feel like my future is bright and young.”

In addition to building the New York program, Rohr is working to replicate it nationally in all 50 states. Her goal? “To bring national healing and economic opportunities to every urban area in America.” She said everyone has something Defy students need, so she challenged Big Omaha attendees to spread the word and give the program the credibility it needs to move forward.

“We need credibility because these are the most underserved people in the country,” Rohr said. “Be an advocate.”



Big Omaha is a two-and-a-half-day event that aims to inspire, educate and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the heart of the Midwest. Produced by Silicon Prairie News, it’s part of the Big Series, the nation’s most ambitious events on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Big Omaha Video Series is presented by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Based in Kansas City, Mo., the Kauffman Foundation is among the largest foundations in the U.S. with a mission to foster a society of economically independent individuals who are engaged citizens, continuing the improvement of their communities.

Credits: Video by Quadrant5. Snippet photo by Malone & Company.

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