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Entrepreneurs in Training

Entrepreneurs in Training celebrate with their certificates after completing the Defy Ventures program at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. 

For most Nebraska inmates, prison isn’t the end of the line.

Certainly it’s punishment, but it’s also a stop – and it’s supposed to be a corrective one – on a path to another, better life.

I saw one path recently when I had the privilege of participating in one of the most exhausting, inspiring and rewarding things I’ve done in a very long time.

I spent a day at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, serving as a volunteer with Defy Ventures Nebraska. Defy Ventures is an entrepreneurship, employment and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women and youth.

Participants in the program are not called inmates. They are Entrepreneurs in Training. Defy Ventures’ mission is to transform the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through a collaboration along an entrepreneurial journey.

Back in November, I was invited to a “mix and mingle” to learn about the program. I met some incredible people from the Defy Ventures staff including Jeremy Bouman, executive director for Nebraska, and Erica Pieper, volunteer relations manager, along with volunteers who spoke about the life-changing work they’re doing within prisons.

I knew instantly I wanted to be part of this program.

On Jan. 30, I participated in the Business Pitch Competition and Graduation Ceremony in Tecumseh. That day, 33 EITs presented their business ideas in a "Shark Tank"-style competition to panels of business leaders and investors. At the end of the day, EITs graduated from the program in a cap-and-gown ceremony in front of their family members and loved ones. This was the largest class graduation in the state of Nebraska thus far.

The men I met that day had been working very hard for the past six months on character development, job-readiness skills and a business plan.

Running from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., it’s a long day, but it’s well organized and infused with high energy music and fun ice-breakers. One of the volunteers, Willy Theisen, who founded Godfather’s Pizza, helped get hundreds of pizzas to Tecumseh. I’m still not sure how. Willy’s passion for the program is infectious, but that was true about all the volunteers I met that day.

There’s time set aside for volunteers to participate in activities designed to build relationships with EITs, as well as other volunteers. These activities address sensitive topics such as personal loss, relationships, violence and other difficult life experiences.

While I enjoyed judging the Business Pitch Competition, I was moved most by the relationship-building exercises and being able to celebrate graduation day with these men and their families. This touched me deeply.

Currently, 180 EITs are enrolled in Defy programming throughout the state of Nebraska – both in correctional facilities and after release. Tecumseh kicked off its second class on Jan. 29 with 45 new EITs. In addition, nearly 50 women started the program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women on Feb. 15. Defy Ventures programming will also begin at the Lincoln Correctional Center in August.

Nebraska has the second-most-overcrowded prison system in the country. The majority of men and women who enter our prisons will be released. Defy Ventures and other rehabilitation programs are vital to reducing recidivism and creating safer communities.

Among dozens of other key issues, the Nebraska Legislature is wrestling with an underfunded and over-capacity state prison system. There are immediate needs for staff and beds. But we can’t forget that prison is rehabilitative in nature. Without the programming – both state-funded and charitably-funded like Defy Ventures – the Department of Correctional Services isn’t correcting anything.

Efforts such as these pay dividends to society by reducing crime and recidivism. And even more importantly, they make a difference in the lives of individuals and families.

To find out more about Defy Ventures go to: https://defyventures.org/.

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Ava Thomas is president and publisher of the Lincoln Journal Star.

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