I recently joined the Defy Ventures board. If you aren’t familiar with Defy Ventures, here’s a post that I wrote after my first prison trip with them at the end of last year.
Early this morning, on my run in Melbourne as I tried to shrug off jet lag, I listened to a Reboot podcast that Jerry Colonna did with me and Cat Hoke, the CEO of Defy Ventures, a few weeks ago.
I had tears in my eyes while running, and I don’t think it was from my pace. Among other things, I’ve committed to bring Defy Ventures to Colorado in 2017. If this is something that is interesting to you either reach out to me or keep your eyes open for a broader fundraising initiative coming up (we’ve already raised 40% of the money needed to do this.)
And – enjoy the podcast. I think it’s one of the most powerful (at least to me) that I’ve participated in.
I’m doing a Lunch & Learn with Defy Ventures on Friday 12/16 from 11:30am – 1:30pm. I’ve just joined the board of Defy Ventures and think it’s an extraordinary organization. If you are interested and around Boulder on Friday, please join us.
I just finished the near-final draft of Cat Hoke’s upcoming book Second Chance. It is incredibly powerful on multiple levels.
I’ve gotten to know Cat reasonably well over the past year. I first heard of her through the Techstars Foundation, where we gave her organization – Defy Ventures – one of our very first grants. I first met her a few months later in my office. After hearing her pitch for 15 minutes, I said “Cat – I’m all in – no need to sell me. What can I do to help?”
Cat, in her inimitable style, said, “The first thing you should do is to come to prison with me.”
A few months later I spent the day at California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster with Cat, 50 EITs (Entrepreneurs-in-training), and 75 volunteers. I wrote about it as one of my top ten life experiences in my post Understanding Privilege – My Experience in Prison. Amy and I made a significant gift from our foundation (the Anchor Point Foundation) immediately after the trip and I joined the Defy Ventures board two months later.
Since then I’ve gotten to know Cat, her husband Charles, and the Defy Ventures organization. While I’ve learned a lot about prison, the criminal justice system, and the concept and experience of privilege, I’ve learned even more about myself. And I have Cat, Defy Ventures, and all of the people around Defy (both inside and outside of prison) to thank for that.
But, as Cat so eloquently says, she doesn’t scale. When I first heard of Defy, it was about 20 employees. Today it’s over 50 going to 100. Like many fast-growing startups, the CEO (Cat) has to evolve in her role. While it’s hard, Cat is doing a magnificent job of it. It was logical that she’d write a book about herself, her own second chance, Defy, the work that it does, and how/why it matters and impacts people and society.
Writing this book must have been incredibly challenging. Cat is an extremely hard worker. She travels constantly. Her work is emotionally intense and she puts 100% of herself into it. So, when I was on about page 80 of Second Chance, I thought to myself, “This is incredible. I can’t imagine how much extra energy of Cat’s went into this.”
She had one of the best guides in the world – Seth Godin. I’ve been friends with Seth since the mid-1990s when I met him doing diligence for SoftBank in conjunction with Fred Wilson on the investment that SoftBank and Flatiron Partners (Fred and Jerry Colonna’s new VC firm at the time) made in Seth’s company Yoyodyne (later acquired by Yahoo!). I felt a deep connection to Seth from day 1 and even though we don’t spend much time together, ever interaction with him is treasured by me.
I can see Seth’s fingerprints all over this book. As an enormous fan of Cat’s, I’m so glad Seth took this project on. I expect their collaboration will have an important and lasting impact on the world.
You’ll get more specifics, and a full review, once Cat’s book is published. Until then, if you are interested in learning more about Defy Ventures or getting involved in any way, just email me and I’ll connect you.
Defy Colorado is growing nicely after some overall challenges with the national organization in 2018. Defy Colorado is now a separate 501c(3) and my partner Jason Mendelson and his wife Jenn Mendelson have been playing a huge leadership role with the Defy Colorado team.
Defy is in the business of building restorative communities and that community begins with us. On Wednesday, April 24th at noon at the Dairy Center they are celebrating the graduation of two special EITs who were released before they had the chance to officially graduate from the CEO of Your New Life Program. The afternoon will feature a primer on Defy Colorado and its work in Colorado prisons, a panel discussing transformative change, and the opportunity to hear energizing pitches from our graduates. Don’t miss it – register now.
Defy Colorado also has a business coaching session coming up on May 16th at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, Colorado. There will be up to 40 volunteers and 40 Entrepreneurs-in-Training at the event for the day. If you are interested in joining, reach out by email to Stacey Putka.
As we start spinning up Defy Ventures in Colorado, we are doing a Business Coaching Day at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in Ordway, Colorado. It’s one of our first Defy Colorado events and Governor Hickenlooper will be joining us for the day.
There will be around 80 Entrepreneurs-in-Training. While we were planning on having spaces for 50 volunteers, we’ve already filled over 40 of them before even talking about the program so there are only a few spaces left.
If you are interested, the event is happening on February 8th, 2018 from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm. Contact Melissa O’Dell to sign up or get on the list for the next Defy Colorado event.
For a taste of what the experience is like, watch the video above or go to my post Understanding Privilege – My Experience in Prison.
Union Square Ventures just announced their new $156m fund – Union Square Ventures 2008.
My relationship with USV goes back to the mid-1990’s – well before USV was created. I vividly remember the first time I met Fred at Seth Godin’s Yoyodyne office somewhere near Waltham, MA. We hit it off immediately and I ended up making a number of investments with Fred and Jerry Colonna – Fred’s partner at the time in Flatiron Partners. Through this I got to know Fred and Gotham Gal – as did my wife Amy.
At some point around 2002 Fred introduced me to Brad Burnham. I had an affinity for Brad because of his magnificent first name. While we never did anything directly, we had a meal or two together. Eventually Fred told me that he and Brad were raising a new fund together called Union Square Ventures. I committed to being a (small) investor early on in the process.
Fred and Brad have done an incredible job with Union Square Ventures. When my partners and I were putting together Foundry Group, we talked often about what USV has done right. I’ve also had a great (and financially rewarding) time co-investing with USV and Fred through FeedBurner (acquired by Google), WallStrip (acquired by CBS), AdaptiveBlue, BugLabs, and most recently Zynga.
Along the way, I’ve gotten to know Brad much better, am really enjoying Albert, think Andrew is dynamite, and try to remember to send Dorsey flowers or chocolate after every visit to the USV office where she always makes me feel at home when I’m camping out in NY. Of all the VCs I’ve ever worked with, the team at USV ranks up at the very top.
Congrats Fred, Brad, Albert, Andrew, and Dorsey!
Last week, I wrote a post talking about why Canada Is Going To Be The Next, Great, Entrepreneurial Tech Country.
Yesterday, we announced our investment in Golden Ventures III, a Toronto-based early stage fund.
I first met Matt Golden through Matthew Bellows, the CEO of Yesware (which we are co-investors in with Golden Ventures). I immediately liked him and we’ve worked together very effectively.
I’ve watched Matt and team build a strong portfolio of companies in Canada and in parts of the US. Every time I’ve gone to Toronto, Matt has hosted me for something and introduced me to a bunch of founders. While I get tired of big dinners, meals with Matt are always a joy, and some of the conversations I’ve had over the years with him and his friends have been extremely memorable.
We are excited to add our first Canadian fund to our roster of Partner Funds.
Welcome, Matt, Ameet, Bert, Jamie, and Marianne.
A month ago Mark Suster (Upfront) and I hosted 75 colleagues for a full day at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County – also known as Lancaster. We did this as part of Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth. It was a top 10 peak life experience for me – easily one of the most profound things I’ve experienced to date.
Mark wrote an incredibly detailed post about the experience. Rather than repeat it, I’m going to point you to his post How I Promise You One of the Most Meaningful Days of Your Life. In order to understand this post, you have to start there. So – go read it now – I’ll be here when you get back.
If you want more views of the day, read Ali Berman’s (Techstars) The Day I spent in Prison, Kerri Shea Beers’ (Techstars) White Privilege, Prison, and a Shot at Redemption, Ben Casnocha’s Visiting Prison Again — With Defy Ventures, Caroline Fairchild’s (Linked) I spent 12 hours in prison with 75 venture capitalists and founders. Here’s what happened, Rick Klau’s (GV) Last month, I went to prison. Next month, I’ll return, Jason Wang’s Going back to prison as the founder of my own startup, Kobie Fuller’s (Upfront) How a day in prison could give you a lesson on judgement, and Kara Nortman’s (Upfront) Spending a day in prison lead me on a path of radical self-improvement. Everyone wrote about the same day (we were all together) if you want to triangulate on the experience.
I’m going to focus on the part of the day where I finally began to understand the notion of privilege. It’s worth starting with one of the definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.”
The exercise lasted about an hour and was just before lunch. We’d had a lot of interaction with the EITs (we are volunteers, they are entrepreneurs in training or EITs) and were feeling as comfortable as one can feel in a level four maximum security prison. Catherine Hoke, the founder and CEO of Defy who ran the event, told us it was time to shift gears. As she described what we were going to do, she told us that it was imperative that we respond honestly. This wasn’t going to be a legalistic exercise, but it was going to be uncomfortable. We then got the rules.
The exercise was called Walk the Line. There were two strips of tape running diagonally across the gymnasium we were in. They were a yard apart. The EITs lined up on one side. The volunteers lined up on the other. We then all took five steps back from the line. As Cat called out questions, if our answer was yes we walked to the line. If our answer was no, we retreated to our position five steps behind the line. We were instructed to look around and connect visually with empathy across the line. We were not to look at the ground or at Cat. We were allowed to shake hands across the line and hug on our side of the line. Cat ended by reminding us that the dominant emotion we should be carrying is empathy.
She then started asking us questions. I’m going to list them all below along with comments in italics on how I felt in response to some of them. I encourage you to read them out loud – it’s the only way you will go slowly enough to really understand what was going on. Each question consumed about a minute as people walked to and back from the line, shook hands, looked at each other, hugged, and cried.
- I like hip-hop.
- I work out 3 or more days per week.
- I’m older than 20 years old. 25. 30. 40. 50. 60. 70.
- I dropped out of high school.
- I’ve earned a four-year college degree. Suddenly, I had a feeling about what was to come. Every EIT was away from the line. Almost every volunteer was on the line. This was an almost complete reversal from the previous question.
- I’m a natural-born hustler. There were lots of smiles as both sides were generally on the line.
- I’ve been self-employed or started my own business, legal or illegal. The smiles continued, with some chuckles interspersed, as a lot of people on both sides were on the line.
- I’m committed to starting my own business. 100% of the EITs were now on the line.
- This is my first trip to prison. Very few EITs were on the line at this point, meaning many had been in prison before.
- I felt at least a little nervous about coming to this event today. 100% of the volunteers were on the line. 100% of the EITs were on the line.
- I regularly feel judged by others … for skin color or economic status. The volunteers take a step back, the EITs stay on the line.
- I regularly judge others.
- I regularly judge myself.
- I came here to give of myself.
- I came here to take or to receive for myself.
- I can already feel myself comparing myself to others, or judging myself or others, right now. 100% of the people on both sides are on the line. Cat reminds us that we are answering honestly and thanks us for doing this.
Even if I don’t know all of you at this line …
- I will to do my best to set aside my judgments and comparisons so I can connect with you.
- If you become vulnerable in this exercise, I will show you respect and will do my part in creating a safe and reassuring environment for you.
- If I see or sense pain or vulnerability, I will offer a hug to reassure you. Both sides of the line are full. I feel anxious all over – I’m sweating and staring ahead across the line, making eye contact in a way that I think is empathetic with the person directly across from me. He looks uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable.
- I grew up in poverty. Boom.
- My parents paid for braces to straighten out my teeth. All the EITs are off the line.
- I heard gunshots in my neighborhood. (wave for “a lot”) All the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers who I know are on the line.
- I was suspended or expelled from school. Almost all the EITs are on the line. Several volunteers are on the line.
- Violence took place in my home. Again, all the EITs are on the line.
- Think of the age when you lost your innocence: I lost my innocence after age 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6. As the count down begins the EITs are on the line while the volunteers quickly back off the line. By age 6 there are still a startling number of EITs on the line. I have tears in my eyes as a wave of emotion comes over me. I don’t feel like I lost my innocence until sometime in my early 20s. I can’t imagine self-identifying with losing it younger than age 6.
- For most of my childhood, I was raised with both of my biological parents in the same house.
- At least one of my parents wasn’t exactly a positive role model for me – or wasn’t even around.
- I was born out of wedlock. I was born to a teenage mother.
- At least one of my parents abused drugs or alcohol.
- I suffered through the loss of an immediate family member before the age of 18.
- My mother or father has been to jail or prison. At this point, the patterns are clear. The EIT directly across me stays on the line through all these questions but the first one. I’ve been off the line since the first one. Now he has tears in his eyes. I keep his gaze while thinking how fortunate I am to have had my childhood and not his.
My beliefs and values before the age of 18
- I learned that I couldn’t trust anyone. It continues. Now I have tears again. He smiles at me. He breaks my gaze and looks at the person next to me. I use this moment to look up and down the line on my side. Very few volunteers are on the line. One who I know is on the line and is crying openly. But we continue.
- I learned that it’s better to keep my mouth shut and my feelings to myself.
- The way I was living, I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it to age 21. There are hugs on our side of the line as we process what is going on. At this point the word privilege isn’t being used (nor does it get used openly throughout the day), but the idea of privilege and how it impacts one’s belief system and values is what is front of mind for me.
Past Criminal life – Cat reminds us that Defy doesn’t work with criminals, but with people who have committed crimes in their past.
- I’ve been arrested.
- I’ve done criminal things for which I could’ve been arrested, but didn’t. (drunk driving, weed) A series of experiences run through my mind as I think of how different things could be for me if I hadn’t grown up white and middle-class in the suburbs of North Dallas.
- I’ve committed a violent offense (even if I wasn’t convicted). Cat stays on this for a while. As all the EITs are on the line, a few volunteers join them. Cat isn’t satisfied and calls out “a bar fight is a violent offense” and a dozen volunteers sheepishly walk to the line. Then a few more do. And we sit with this one for a while.
- I’ve been convicted of murder.
- I was sentenced before 18 years of age. I’m ready for this experience to end. Between 25% and 50% of the EITs are on the line. All of them are black. Another switch just flipped in my brain.
- I’ve spent more than two years of my life in behind bars. 4. 6. 8. 10. 12 (go all the way up). Guys that look like they are in their 30s are hanging on the line through 20 years. We keep going. 30 years. 40 years.
- I’m a lifer. Yup – there are a bunch of EITs on the line.
- I’ve actually been shot or stabbed.
- I’ve lost someone I loved to gang violence.
- I’ve lost someone I’ve loved to AIDS. I was one of the few volunteers on the line for this one. I didn’t expect this question at all and it sent me back to my late 20s when my fraternity big brother died of AIDS. I remembered the dream I had on an airplane just before he died but about a week after he called me to say goodbye. I kept looking ahead at the EITs on the line.
- I’ve lost one or both of my parents.
- I’ve lost a child.
- I haven’t properly grieved some of my losses.
- I have suffered, or currently suffer, from depression. A lot of volunteers are on the line along with me. I feel a sense of relief that the stigma associated with depression might be lifting, but then I remember the context I’m in.
- I could use a hug right now. Everyone walks to both sides of the line. Hugs ensue.
- I’m a father (or mother).
- My lifestyle caused me to miss out on valuable years in my child’s life.
If you could see inside my brain …
- If you knew every one of my dirty secrets, and knew the real me, you wouldn’t love me.
- I feel ashamed of my past.
- I feel inadequate, at least in some ways.
- Sometimes my feelings of inadequacy lead me to overcompensate in some areas, or act out.
- There are some things I haven’t forgiven myself for, and may never forgive myself. A number of volunteers walk to the line, including me. I thinking of a specific thing that has happened to me as an adult. It’s something I don’t talk publicly about because I haven’t yet resolved it myself. Or, more honestly, I haven’t forgiven myself for letting it happen to me. I feel ashamed against the backdrop of everything else.
- There are some people I haven’t forgiven for hurting me.
- Not forgiving others or myself is hurting me to this day.
- I am kind to myself; I do a great job of nurturing myself and taking care of my own needs.
- I’m on a journey of personal transformation. Almost all of the EITs are on the line. People are starting to smile again.
- Others look at me as a role model. I’m aware of the importance of my influence.
- I might not be able to explain it, but even though I’ve been revealing difficult things and have made myself vulnerable in this exercise, right here, right now, I feel safe, accepted and loved.
- I already love Defy!! Everyone on both sides is on the line.
I know that words above doesn’t do the experience justice, but at the end of the hour I was emotionally exhausted. There were at least 25 of the EITs who I had made eye contact with that I wanted to go talk to. There were an equal number of volunteers who I wanted to talk to. Instead, I tried to relax a little. I grabbed on to one word – privilege – that I knew represented a fundamental difference between most of the people on either side of the line.
While it’s easy to talk about privilege it’s hard to really understand it. It’s even harder to experience it if you are the one with privilege. I thought I understood it, but I didn’t. As I let the next five minutes quietly unfold in my mind, I decided that I was no longer going to assume I really understood privilege. Instead, I was going to engage with society in a way to help those without privilege have a better opportunity. Through that, I’d understand it better, have empathy for others who didn’t have privilege, and channel my actions as a human into making the world better from that frame of reference.
I’ve committed to go to prison with Defy four times in 2017. If you want to join me as a volunteer on one of the trips, just reach out. I can promise you a life changing day.
Cat Hoke’s book A Second Chance: For You, For Me, And For The Rest Of Us is out.
I wrote a long post about it in October when I read a draft of it. Cat is remarkable and she lucked out by partnering with the amazing Seth Godin on this book (Seth is the publisher).
I’m sending a copy to every CEO in our portfolio. We’ve got a pretty regular Foundry Group book club thing going at this point, as I know Rajat Bhargava and Will Herman’s book The Startup Playbook is also going out to a bunch of the CEOs. And each of my partners is getting a copy of Lee McIntyre’s Post-Truth this week.
I read a lot and encourage everyone around me to join in on the good stuff. Cat’s book is definitely good stuff. She mixes her own life journey with the mission of Defy Ventures along with the impact that Defy has had on so many people – both “entrepreneurs-in-training” and the volunteers who work with the EITs.
I’ve talked about Defy Ventures a lot on this blog and Amy and I have become significant supporters through both The Anchor Point Foundation and my volunteer engagement. I’m particularly proud, however, of my partner Jason and his wife Jenn who have picked up the mantle as co-chairs of Defy Ventures Colorado and launched the Colorado program. I was in prison with them, 50 volunteers, 50 EITs, ten people from the Defy team (including Cat), and Governor Hickenlooper two weeks ago.
All of this has been inspired, and led, by Cat. I didn’t know much about the US prison system prior to meeting Cat several years ago. My own journey with this has been incredibly powerful. Being able to experience it with other entrepreneurs and investors, including Jason and Jenn, a number of the Techstars team, and many others who I know has been wonderful.
If you want a pre-book taste, the Reboot podcast that I did with Jerry Colonna and Cat is a good start.
But, do yourself a favor. Buy Cat’s book A Second Chance. Read it, let it into your life, and ponder what a second chance really means.
P.S. I have several people in my life who I need to give a second chance to. I’m not ready yet, but I hope I will be at some point. And yes, the book will help you go deep on what this means for you.
Phin Barnes (First Round Capital), Alex Blum (KickApps), Matt Blumberg (Return Path), Brad Burnham (USV), Jeff Clavier, Dennis Crowley (FourSquare), Chris Dixon (Founder Collective), Roger Ehrenberg, Darren Herman (The Media Kitchen), Jennifer Hyman (Rent The Runway), Alex Iskold (Adaptive Blue), David Karp (Tumblr), Zach Klein (Boxee, Vimeo), Evan Korth (NYU/HackNY), Mike Lazerow (Buddy Media), Ben Lerer (ThrillList), Sam Lessin (Drop.io), Joey Levin (MindSpark, IAC), Howard Lindzon (StockTwits), Eric Litman (Medialets), John Maloney (Tumblr), Dave McClure, Hilary Mason (Bit.ly/HackNY), Jeremie Miller (Telehash), Howard Morgan (First Round Capital), Charlie O’Donnell (First Round Capital), Eric Paley (Founder Collective), Raphael Poplock (ESPN), Alex Rainert (FourSquare), Avner Ronen (Boxee), Naveen Selvadurai (FourSquare), Justin Shaffer (HotPotato), Tim Shey (NextNewNetworks), Andy Smith (Daily Burn), Rex Sorgatz (Kinda Sorta Media), Jon Steinberg (BuzzFeed), Vinicius Vacanti (YipIt), Albert Wenger (USV), Fred Wilson (USV)
David Cohen, who is relocating to NY for January to March of next year, and David Tisch (I’m encouraging him to change his name to just Tisch to save me the brain damage of “which David”) will be running the program. When we went about setting up the NY program, we evolved our funding model to be as inclusive of the local VC / angel community as we could. We’ve created a long term funding model, which I expect David Cohen will write about at some point, that we implemented in TechStars Seattle and will be rolling out to Boulder and Boston this year. As a result, the investors in TechStars NY include many local financial investors such as:
AOL Ventures, DFJ Gotham Ventures, FirstMark Capital, First Round Capital, Foundry Group, IA Ventures, Jove Ventures, Lerer Ventures, RRE Ventures, Social Leverage, Village Ventures, Zelkova Ventures, Peter Hershberg, Josh Stylman, David Tisch, Nate Westheimer, and Kal Vepuri.
When David first talked to me about his idea for TechStars in 2006, if you had asked me if we’d have Boulder, Boston, Seattle, and NY programs up and running by 2010 I would have chuckled (a real chuckle, not my evil laugh chuckle.) The Seattle program is crushing it already and I’m excited to go spend time up there. And I can’t wait to see the NY program start cranking.
We’ve got a few other interesting pieces of TechStars news coming over the next month – look out for them! And, if you are an entrepreneur interested in the TechStars NY program, apply now so you can come to TechStars for a Day on 11/20/10.