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Defy Colorado is a nonprofit organization that helps individuals with criminal histories — who they call Entrepreneurs in Training — create legal business ventures outside of prison. Within a growing network of three Colorado prisons, Defy runs a rigorous eight-month program focusing on reentry planning, employment readiness, entrepreneurship and character development, culminating in a Shark Tank-style pitch competition. Operating in concert with the Department of Corrections, Defy is demonstrating a model to reduce recidivism that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment.

Techstars has been a longtime supporter of Defy Colorado (along with its founding organization, Defy Ventures) because we support the mission of creating second chances through entrepreneurship. And we believe that we are uniquely positioned to help, precisely because of who we are. In fact, the first principle in the Techstars Code of Conduct is: “We give first.” That means that, at Techstars, we help others whenever possible by responding quickly to requests for help to intentionally create an ongoing cycle of virtue. We appreciate the help of others, respect “no” as an answer and share talent and business opportunities.

Breaking the Cycle of Recidivism

Defined as “a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, especially criminal behavior,” recidivism creates a revolving door to prison and a legacy of poverty, dependency, violence and incarceration that is passed down from generation to generation.

Here in Colorado, the prison population is expected to increase by 20% by 2025. And of the approximately 9,000 individuals expected to be released from prison this year, more than half (54%) are estimated to return to prison within the next three years. Difficulty in obtaining employment and housing are two of the largest correlating factors.

Humanizing Connections

When it comes to our work with Defy Colorado, we’re focused on how we can bring Techstars’ unique insights and the power of our network to people with criminal histories, helping to break the cycle of recidivism. By collaborating with Defy to help people with criminal histories create legal business ventures, the Techstars Network is helping break the cycle of recidivism, and there are so many ways to get involved: employment readiness, character development, and entrepreneurship training inside prisons, as well as robust post-release services that include job placement and executive mentorship, startup incubation, and pitch competition judging.

Techstars Foundation advisory board member and Google employee Amanda West and Techstars’ EVP of Operations Scott Ford have each offered their expertise to help Defy’s Entrepreneurs in Training improve their ideas, hone their pitches and ultimately, to equip these incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals with the resources and connections they need to succeed in post-release life. Both Amanda and Scott were blown away — and inspired by — their experiences with Defy Colorado.

“These humanizing connections offer a very uplifting way for our network to get involved, both contributing to the rehabilitation of currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and impacting the injustices of our legal system,” West said.

That human connection is crucial.

“When discussing individuals with criminal histories, it’s easy to come in with preconceived notions or stereotypes, but actually sitting down and interacting with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals helps you realize that they’re just like you,” Ford said.

Best of all, it’s not a heavy lift to help out. Both Scott and Amanda noted how rewarding it was to make such a significant impact on someone with minimal effort. Sure, volunteering takes time, but everyone has the ability to help in some capacity.

Utilizing our network’s privilege in order to drive personal and economic growth for people with criminal histories allows us to drive a meaningful impact and provide a ray of hope. By harnessing the talents of the state’s currently and formerly incarcerated individuals as well as community and business leaders like Amanda and Scott, Defy Colorado helps individuals with criminal histories to defy the odds.