As I stood outside the auditorium of the Women’s State Prison in Corona California, I could hear music coming from the room and caught a glimpse of the Entrepreneurs In Training dancing through the cracked doors of the auditorium. I felt their excitement and it was definitely coming through to all of the volunteers waiting to go inside. The Entrepreneurs In Training were working on their last minute touches to welcome the Defy Ventures volunteers.  We were all excited to meet them and to share a new experience with each other and with the Defy Ventures community. Once we were given the OK to go in, we were greeted with music and two rows of women on each side of us with their hands up high giving us high-fives, dancing, and wearing huge smiles on their faces.

Most of us, at one point or another, have made bad choices, hung out with the wrong people, or been in some kind of trouble. As human beings, part of our experience is living through the lens of duality. We all have a good side and a bad sidel. The wonderful thing is that we can change, transform, and evolve from our experiences. This story is about people who have made mistakes in their past and are now choosing to heal and embark on a journey to becoming the best versions of themselves one day at a time with the help of people like you and me.

A Values-Led Day

As a values-led company, gap intelligence gives each gapper the opportunity to volunteer a day at a nonprofit organization of their choice. We call this our Values-Led Day, and it is part of our company culture of doing great for ourselves, for each other, and our communities. Having this great opportunity to give back, I started to think of where I wanted to volunteer. Our CEO, Gary Peterson, talked about his experience volunteering at an organization called Defy Ventures, at one of our company meetings, and how moved he was by the experience. He invited Timothy, a Defy Ventures Graduate and Alumni, to come to gap intelligence and share his story with us. He spoke about how Defy Ventures and the volunteers truly changed his life and how grateful he was for the help of caring individuals who believed in him. Timothy was able to open his own business once out of prison.

Defy Ventures is a nonprofit organization that helps incarcerated women and men become the CEOs of their New Life through entrepreneurial programs. CEOs of their New Life is a holistic and confidence-building program that prepares Entrepreneurs In Training (EITs) to rewrite their future with comprehensive employment-readiness, healthy habits, and entrepreneurship training. One of the other programs is The Entrepreneur Bootcamp, which helps potential EITs that didn’t have access to the CEO of your New Life program during their incarceration or reentry. And the final program is the Business Incubator Program where they learn to start over by creating their own businesses and become entrepreneurs. Most people who have been incarcerated have a hard time finding a job once they are out due to stigmas, discrimination, and labels. The return-to-prison rate is over 30%; the odds are not good for the 7 million Americans in our prisons, on probation, or on parole. You can’t start a new life when you are locked in your old one.

The Introduction

We started with a quick paced 20-30-minute networking exercise to connect and find commonalities. We were handed a sheet of paper with several squares and each square had a statement such as: “Do you like to read? Do you play a musical instrument? Are you an only child?”

It was a fun and easy way to introduce ourselves, shake hands, exchange smiles, and make eye contact with as many EITs as we could to break the ice. As volunteers, we’re asked to introduce ourselves– but not just stand up and say your name, where you work, and how you will be the best mentor for the EITs. Rather, you had to dance your way to the front of the stage! It was fun to watch everyone dancing and once at the front, we shared how we can help the EITs through our own professional and personal experiences as entrepreneurs and leaders in our industries and communities.

The Pitch

The EITs were ready to pitch their business ideas in a Shark Tank-style set up. As I listened to one of the EITs pitch her business idea, I was not only impressed with the idea, but the courage it took  to stand in front of complete strangers and open her heart and share an idea birthed from pain. Many of the business ideas had direct connections to their own personal experiences of trauma and how they are passionate about helping others. As I looked around the room, these women looked like my friends from Jr High and High School, they looked like my family members. And, they looked like me.

One of the EITs created a card game with the intention of creating dialogue between children and their parents. Each card had different questions as simple as “How are you feeling today?” She created this game because she was unable to speak with her mother about how she was abused. She just couldn’t find the words to tell her mother. The communication simply wasn’t there. And this game would give both the parent and child the opportunity to open a safe space to begin to have conversations and build the confidence to express what needs to be expressed. She wants to help other girls just like her not have to go through what she went through; falling into addiction and with the wrong crowd trying to numb her pain.

Another EIT created a small stuffed animal that carried a recording of your loved one’s heartbeat. She came up with this idea after having a conversation with her husband where he put her hand over his heart and told her that his heart is with her at all times. Family separation is extremely hard for these women as a lot them are mothers and wives.

The EIT who won the competition was a woman who created a doll called “The You Doll,” inspired by her daughter who was born with 4 toes, to create a doll that looks just like “her”. After receiving her first doll the little girl wondered why the doll had 5 toes and she only had 4. This tore her mother’s heart because her daughter thought there was something “wrong” with her. Her mother vehemently told her there was nothing wrong with her. That she was a beautiful little girl and from this heartfelt experience she created “The You Doll” for all children born in their own unique way. This could be children born with down syndrome or without arms or legs. Dolls should reflect the beauty within each child no matter what they look like.

It was also graduation day and family members flew in from as far as Texas to support and see their loved ones graduate from the program. The women dressed up in a cap and gown and you could see how happy they were to have completed the 7 month program and become graduates. Some of them have been in prison since the age of 14 and never graduated from High School. Putting on a cap and gown and having their family members there to celebrate along with them was certainly healing and inspiring for all the graduates.

My Takeaways

After sharing a full day of heart opening emotional connections of laughter and tears with the EITs  and volunteers, this experience will continue to inspire me for years to come to help those who are most in need. As people, we are wired to help each other and we want to be of service to one another, it’s our true nature. Transformation is something we can all achieve. We are most certainly not defined by our mistakes but by what we contribute to one another. Passion is one of our values here at gap intelligence and we are inspired by life. Displaying compassion is what gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to help others in need. Everyone deserves a second chance.

I could not have said it better than my fellow gapper, Katie Hess whom I shared the experience with:

“What has impacted me the most about my experience with Defy Ventures and the EITs, is the amount of transformation that these men and women have experienced. It’s more than just being able to come up with a business idea and pitch (which is a huge accomplishment on its own). It’s also about the self-awareness and emotional intelligence that they have gained; it’s about forgiveness of themselves and others; it’s about being grateful and supporting each other through the process, and it’s about moving forward. Each EIT I spoke with told me that I am helping to change their life – what they don’t realize is how much each of them and the experience of volunteering with Defy continues to change mine.”

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