San Diego

Your Corner: From Prisoner to Entrepreneur

Prisoners pitch their ideas 'Shark Tank' style

A good idea can come from anywhere, and the proof is in prisons all over the country.

A group called Defy Ventures has taught thousands of inmates everything from shaking hands to pitching an idea for their own business.

“You see a transformation in front of your eyes,” said Andrew Glazier with Defy in Southern California.  “You see someone who really has built a lot of confidence, has a different sense of who they are and what they want to do. 

Glazier said there are currently around 1,000 inmates enrolled in the program in California alone.

One of them we met at Donovan State Prison was Oscar Rodriguez. He’s been behind bars for 21 years after leading police on a chase in a stolen car, running a red light and causing a deadly crash.

“I chose the wrong path early on,” said Rodriguez. “I know I can never undo what I’ve done to those victims, but I carry them with me every step of the way. They’re the biggest driving force to the changes I’ve made in my life.”

Rodriguez learned to be an artist in prison using whatever materials he could get his hands on, and now he wants to write a how-to book for other artists. That’s his pitch to a group of San Diego area business owners on the final day of the Defy program.

Think of it like Shark Tank. Prisoners give a two-minute pitch, and then get feedback from real-world business owners. The competition ends with a winner, and if that prisoner is released from prison someday, Defy will help fund the startup. The ideas are mostly skill based businesses that don’t require office space or overhead.

Glazier says they want the ideas to be realistic. “We want to give them practical skills and develop business ideas that they can actually implement when they’re released from prison.”

Steven Webb has served 21 years for second-degree murder. He says he says the program is helping him come up with a plan to follow in his father’s footsteps and start a plumbing business.

“I’ve gained a lot more confidence in mapping out my ideas and clarifying what I want in life, and my goals.”

The program does not end at the prison wall. Defy continues to help the program’s graduates after they’re released. They have a recidivism rate of around 5 percent which is far less than the roughly 45-percent average in California.

And that gives hope to prisoners like Oscar Rodriguez who recently found out he’s going back into the world after 21 years away.

“It will help me achieve success and it will help me become a better person. I know I’m going to get a mentor, and I’m going to do fine.”

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