“Today was a really important day for me,” my wife told me one evening over dinner. “And I really think you need to have the experience that I just did.” A few weeks later, a heavy door in a maximum security prison shut behind me.
I believe strongly in the importance of lifelong learning. It’s a value shared by Remote-Learner and one of things that attracted me to the company. I’ve spent my career working in education and have worked on projects for everyone from preschool-aged children to working professionals. And at every turn, I’ve felt that the purpose of this work is ultimately about helping people to better themselves, whoever they are and whatever they want for their life. Incarcerated men and women, however, are rarely the subjects of such optimism. They are removed from society and with that goes many opportunities to improve the trajectory of their lives.
Defy Ventures Colorado is an organization aiming to change this by using entrepreneurship as a tool to transform legacies and potential. They are an employment, entrepreneurship, and personal development training program that supports the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in becoming successful entrepreneurs and employees. In two local prisons, Defy has launched a nine month business plan development course that culminates in a pitch competition and graduation ceremony. I have a business and entrepreneurship background and my wife, who spent a day at a Defy program through her own work in the criminal justice system, thought I could help.
I wasn’t so sure. I’d never been in a prison before and when I passed through the front gate, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t as imposing as I’d imagined it. I emptied my pockets at the front desk and a guard took me to a small, empty gymnasium to wait for the program participants to arrive. I had never met people who are incarcerated before and I worried about how I would connect with them. I hadn’t been asked to prepare anything either, only to be ready ask and answer questions, so I felt very unsure of myself in such an unfamiliar environment.
When the Program Manager, Stacey, arrived, 17 men were escorted into the gym. Whatever uncertainty I felt was diminished one EIT (Entrepreneur-In-Training) at a time, as virtually every man there greeted me with a handshake, a smile, and some expression of gratitude. The men participating in this program were there either at the recommendation of prison staff or as part of a incentive initiative. And from the start, it was clear how seriously every one of them takes this opportunity.
After introductions, we broke into rotating small groups where everyone shared their business ideas and the progress they’d made on their plans since the last class. There were some practical matters to discuss, such as reviewing notes on the curriculum or soliciting some advice on the pitch structure. But the anchor point for many of my conversations, the idea that the men kept finding their way back to, was the idea of transformation.
In describing what that meant to them, the men often leaned on their story of personal transformation, which came with shades of happiness, regret, uncertainty, and pride. This emphasis on transformation found its way into their business ideas, too: car detailing, demolition, reclaimed leather. As I listened to each business pitch and each question asked of me, it was abundantly clear how sincerely they had studied the curriculum and how closely they were paying attention to what I was saying. I came to understand that this program is both a vehicle for continuing their transformation and a concrete demonstration of how far they have come.
This gave me a tremendous sense of responsibility to the EITs. My time with them was limited and their opportunities to engage with people from outside of the prison are few so I wanted to make it count. I still find myself wishing I’d said something else, or something slightly differently, or elevated some concepts I touched on over others. I just hope that something I said made a positive contribution. I know that I took many positives away from the experience. It was an incredibly unique and interesting opportunity to learn a lesson in empathy and understanding.
Many of the EITs were nervous about delivering the pitch itself. Just as I experienced entering the prison that morning, the pitch event will be putting them in unfamiliar circumstances doing an unfamiliar thing. After spending the day there, it was easy for me to respond by saying that they had earned the right to deliver their pitch. They were the authority on their businesses and they were in control. All it would take is a little practice and they’d be fine.
Easier said than done, I know, but I do believe that to be the distillation of what makes lifelong learning such an important tool for all of our personal transformations – education is an opportunity to challenge ourselves, to get out of our comfort zones, and to accomplish new goals.
I’m grateful to Remote-Learner for their R-L Giving program, which allowed me to accept this unique offer. I’m grateful for the opportunity provided by Defy Ventures Colorado to see how a group of people I wouldn’t normally get to work with are using education to better themselves. And I’m grateful to my wife, for all the good work she’s doing for those in the criminal justice system, and for telling me about the great day she’d had over dinner.