Catherine Hoke

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Catherine Hoke
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
OccupationFounder, Former CEO PEP

Founder, Former CEO Defy Ventures

Founder, Cat Hoke LLC

Catherine Hoke is the founder and former CEO of Defy Ventures, a United States-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.[1][2] In 2014, Hoke was named in Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business [3] and was elected an Ashoka Fellow.[4] In 2015 Hoke received the MDC Partners Humanitarian Award on behalf of Defy Ventures.[5] In the same year, she was also named as a WIRED #maketechhuman Agent of Change.[6] Forbes included Hoke in its 2017 40 Women to Watch Over 40 list.[7] In 2018, Cat released her book A Second Chance: For You, For Me and For the Rest of Us (which was published by Seth Godin, and with the foreword written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook). Her book became a best seller. In it she writes about the power of forgiveness and her journey to redemption.[8] Hoke has also given many talks on the subject of second chances including a 2017 TedxSanFrancisco talk titled The Power of Second Chances.[9] In 2018, Cat was a guest on the Tim Ferriss podcast, episode #293 titled The Master of Second Chances.[10]


Early life[edit]

Cat was born in Montreal, Canada. Her Hungarian-Yugoslavian father, immigrated there when he was 22, and he became a successful inventor. As young as age seven, Cat began inventing solutions and proposing business models to her father, an engineer hired by Stanford University. From a young age, she says that she was consistently thinking about ways to give back to the underserved.

In high school, Cat channeled her competitive spirit into wrestling. She became the first girl to wrestle on the boys’ team. Cat owned the record for getting pinned the most and the fastest in her first year. She reports that the bruising and humiliation prepared her well for a challenging future. She improved by her second year, and also became a state champion wrestler in 1994 in the girls’ division.

While attending UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Catherine was a member of UC Berkeley's varsity rowing team and played on the women's rugby team.

After graduating from the University of California, Hoke was hired by Summit Partners, a venture capital firm, and several years later became the Director of Investment Development at American Securities Capital Partners in New York City. Cat found early success and grew in her role on an investment team as she mastered how to identify promising entrepreneurs.

Continuing her love for athletics over the years, Cat also became an accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu Competitor and trained at Renzo Gracie’s school in New York City.

Teaching Entrepreneurship in Prison[edit]

In 2004, Catherine Hoke (previously “Catherine Rohr”) toured several Texas prisons and discovered that many of the incarcerated men she met possessed strong business acumen, sales skills, and entrepreneurial qualities. She also found that many gangs and drug rings are run similarly to corporations —with bylaws, bookkeeping functions, marketing strategies, and quality control programs. Following this realization, Hoke recruited executive volunteers and conducted a business 101 seminar. Four months later, Hoke ran her first-ever business pitch competition, which was covered by the Wall Street Journal.[11] Hoke turned these efforts into the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a organization that she grew statewide in Texas, teaching entrepreneurship and character development to incarcerated men.

As of 2018, PEP graduated 1,300 students, and claims to have helped launch 200 start-ups. PEP states that graduates are achieving an employment rate of 100% within 90 days of release and that PEP has achieved this employment metric every month since May 2010. PEP graduates have a 3-year recidivism rate of less than 7% (compared to the national average of nearly 50%). As of 2018, six businesses that have been started by PEP graduates generate over $1M in gross annual revenue.[12]

PEP was nationally recognized for the organization's positive impact under Hoke's leadership. In 2007, Hoke received the Texas Governor's Award for Criminal Justice Volunteer Service for Social Innovation.[13] In 2007, Hoke also received the Manhattan Institute's Social Entrepreneurship Award.[14] In 2008, Hoke was inducted into the Philanthropy World Hall of Fame,[15] and PEP received the “Rising Star” award from the Monitor Group/Fast Company Social Capitalist Awards.[16] PEP also ranked as a finalist in contests for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation and the Ashoka Changemakers award.[17]

Hoke's work with PEP was featured in the following media outlets while she was CEO: Philanthropy World, National Public Radio, The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and Texas Monthly.

In 2009, Hoke was banned from Texas prisons after she admitted to having had legal, consensual adult relationships with people who had been released from prison. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice deemed those relationships inappropriate and threatened to extend this ban to PEP if Hoke continued her involvement with the program. She resigned shortly afterwards.[18][19] PEP has continued to thrive, and most of the employees, including the CEO, are graduates of the program.[20]

Education and Leadership Academy[edit]

PEP offers a diverse set of courses designed to train participants in many aspects of business. The program includes courses on creating business plans, employment workshops, financial literacy, character development, and business and social etiquette.[21]

Formal Graduation and Follow-up[edit]

Once the participants finish their courses, which include pitching their business plans, PEP graduates are invited to a formal graduation ceremony, attended by their family members in prison. PEP offers comprehensive post-release services, including housing, employment assistance, mentoring, and entrepreneurship resources.[22]

Defy Ventures[edit]

After leaving PEP [23] in October 2010, Hoke founded Defy Ventures in New York City.[24] Defy's vision is "To end mass incarceration and cycles of recidivism by using entrepreneurship as a tool to transform legacies and human potential.” Defy took on solving the issue of high recidivism rates through entrepreneurship programs that taught incarcerated participants a comprehensive business skill-set through comprehensive curriculum. Baylor University eventually accredited Defy's curriculum. Other aspects of the program focus on empathy, healing, and personal growth.[25]

Defy has served more than 4,100 men, women, and youth. More than 175 companies have been started by Defy's EITs (Entrepreneurs In Training), and more than 4,800 CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs, and business professionals have volunteered as faculty, mentors, coaches, employers, and Shark Tank-style pitch competition judges.

Notable volunteers and mentors for EITs have included John Hickenlooper, Preet Bharara, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Ferriss, Tim Draper, Seth Godin, Daymond John, and Duncan Niederauer as well as several Harvard Business School and Stanford School of Business professors[26]

In 2015 contributed to Defy, helping them to expand their program to the Bay Area.[27]

In 2017 Defy Ventures was named one of Inc.’s Top 25 Most Disruptive Companies of the Year[28]

Defy grew rapidly due in part to Catherine’s strong work ethic and drive to serve as many incarcerated people as possible.[29] The organization has expanded to operate in Nebraska, Northern California, Southern California, Colorado, New York, Connecticut, and Washington State.

Defy graduates have a <5% recidivism rate, which was verified in an extensive investigation.[30] Nationally, 76.6% of people released from prison are rearrested within five years [31] Defy has a 100% acceptance rate for applicants in prison, and operates in many maximum security prisons nationally.[32]

Under Hoke’s leadership, Defy Ventures was featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and


Defy Ventures states that their work helps "transform the hustle" of incarcerated people. The organization further explains that many incarcerated people are naturally entrepreneurial. Defy's role then is to equip the Entrepreneurs-in-Training (“EITs”) to refocus their efforts on legal businesses and equip them to reframe how they share their personal stories with the world.[33]

After two months of Introductory Training, EITs are then enrolled in the Defy Academy. The Defy Academy is the core 12-month entrepreneurship program that includes courses in business development, market research, finance, and more. After completing some training, EITs create business plans and financial models, and compete in four levels of “Shark Tank”-style pitch competitions to panels of judges that include successful CEOs and investors. The winners of the pitch competitions have received up to $15,000 in startup grants.[34]

Defy's program not only focuses on teaching beneficial skillsets to incarcerated people, but also includes holistic resources designed to equip graduates to become leaders and give back to their communities.[35]

Coss Marte, a Defy graduate,[36] started his company, ConBody, while incarcerated. ConBody is a rapidly growing "prison style bootcamp" that creates a motivational workout series online and in its New York City gym.

Tim Ferriss Podcast[edit]

In 2018, Catherine Hoke was a guest on the Tim Ferriss podcast, Episode 293.[37] Topics discussed included: Catherine's life moving to America; what drives Cat to pursue the work of "helping society’s underdogs"; the power of affirmations; forgiveness; and replacing self-limiting beliefs with self-freeing beliefs. Tim Ferriss joined Catherine at a prison for an event in 2018 and went on to interview Hoke's graduates in a separate episode called, “Tim Ferriss Goes to Maximum Security Prison,” Episode 323 [38]

Facebook Oculus VR Documentary - Step to the Line[edit]

In 2017, Facebook-owned Oculus funded a virtual reality film by Brazilian producer Ricardo Laganaro, Step to the Line, which profiled Defy as part of its first VR for Good program. [36] The film was shot at California State Prison – LA County, a maximum-security facility, and California State Prison – Solano, a medium-security facility. In the same year, the 12-minute film was accepted to and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.[39][40]

A Second Chance: For You, For Me, and For the Rest of Us

Catherine released her best-selling book, A Second Chance: For You, For Me and For the Rest of Us in early 2018. The book follows Cat's personal journey and tells the story about how she came to dedicate her life to serving incarcerated people. The book also serves as a reflection on the struggles and triumphs of her graduates’ journeys. She provides profound insights into the methods she uses with men, women, and youth in prisons, as well as outlines how others can use these concepts to transform their own lives.[41]

The book was published by Hoke's mentor, Seth Godin, and includes a foreword by Sheryl Sandberg. A Second Chance received many positive reviews from people in various fields of expertise. The book's featured testimonials include reviews from Senator Cory Booker, Reid Hoffman, Van Jones, Valerie Jarrett, Adam Grant, Brad Feld, Charles Koch, John Hickenlooper, Bill Hybels, and other wardens and high-ranking correctional officials.

Daily Beast Allegations

In January 2018, after less than a month in his role, Defy's former president made allegations, and got some of them printed in The Daily Beast, within weeks of Hoke's book launch. The allegations included misleading donors, as well as exaggerating the success of the program and not accurately tracking outcomes of former program participants. In the same Daily Beast article, Hoke was also accused by unnamed former employees of sexual harassment. The Daily Beast also printed an accusation that Ms. Hoke had a sexual relationship with an EIT.[42]


On May 8, 2018 the Defy Ventures Board released their findings after an investigation was conducted by the third party law firm WilmerHale. WilmerHale is an international law firm with over 1,000 lawyers that has argued over 130 cases in the Supreme Court.[43]

The investigation found no evidence that Defy misused funds.

The investigation found no evidence to support the allegations of financial impropriety, including claims of possible embezzlement.

The investigation found no evidence that Defy mislead donors.

The investigation conducted by WilmerHale reaffirmed Defy's recidivism rate of less than 5%.

Regarding the sexual harassment claims, investigators from WilmerHale noted that "the facts are not certain" and found that some evidence existed through interviews that Hoke had inappropriately touched an employee in 2014.

The investigation found no evidence that Ms.Hoke engaged in any type of sexual relationship with Defy students (E.I.T).

The investigation also found no evidence that Ms.Hoke acted inappropriately towards any Defy student (E.I.T.).

In Hoke's resignation statement, she wrote:

“I have never once sexually harassed, or assaulted, a current or former staff member or current or former EIT. These false claims are categorically untrue and deceitful. Further, I have been a faithful wife to my husband, to whom I have been married since 2013.

I recently wrote a book about second chances and taking responsibility. In 2009, I announced that I had had legal, consensual relationships with men released from prison who had participated in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Texas organization I founded. My redemption story, which is on the public record, might make it easier for some to believe that I would engage in harassing behavior. I have not.

Since 2009, I’ve had a target on my back. With this latest news story, I am fully aware that the target on my back has grown exponentially.

I wish I could say attacks like this were isolated incidents. Threats, attacks, and attempts at extortion haven’t just happened to me once or twice; they have occurred far more than I care to acknowledge as a CEO who leads in challenging environments. It has been all-too-easy for any disgruntled former employee or EIT to vengefully retaliate by inventing salacious allegations against me.”[44]

Regarding the allegation that Catherine had made inappropriate comments about the “physical appearance, personal lives, and clothing of Defy employees”. Cat responded to that allegation in her resignation statement,[45]

"In the spirit of radical transparency, I am embarrassed about some things I’ve said as a brazen entrepreneur, and I take full ownership of making brash statements that I regret. I am guilty of telling former employees “no corporate [insert profanity].” I am guilty of facilitating match-making introductions between staff to people outside the organization (but only with their explicit permission). I am certainly guilty of making some truly catastrophic hiring decisions."[46]


After Defy[edit]

In Hoke's resignation letter,[48] she says:

“The fight against mass incarceration and cycles of recidivism is far from over, and until it is, you won’t stop hearing from me. I look forward to continuing to create barrier-breaking solutions for this sector. I’m devoting my life to spreading messages of second chances, forgiveness, and sacrifice. I pledge to continue doing everything in my power to bring justice and opportunity to people who are often voiceless, stigmatized, and written off.”

Hoke has continued leading prison programs and events since her resignation, serving as an advocate for justice for incarcerated people.

She is a keynote speaker globally at business, corrections, and philanthropic conferences and events. [43] She is committed to serving the world's incarcerated population and continues to serve in prisons across the country and even globally.


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