It was 10AM and I was in prison

It was 10 AM and I was in prison. Less than 10 inches from my face was the tattoo-covered face of a very tall inmate, and his eyes were staring right at me. Along with the other 90 inmates in the room, he shouted the following sentences while clinching his fists. “I am committed to creating a safe place for you today,” “I will be honest and allow myself to be vulnerable” and after a few other commitment sentences they all shouted “welcome to my house.”

Now it was our turn. 30 members of the Tech community, circled and surrounded by 90 inmates. We made our commitments to them, shouting our sentences while staring them in the eyes. We committed to be honest, to make the best of the time, to be vulnerable (and boy we didn’t know what we were signing up for, but more about that later).

From this sentence on throughout this story, I won’t call them “inmates” or “criminals.” As was explained to us by the folks from Defy Ventures, these men are not criminals – they are men who committed criminal acts. Under the Defy program (which by the way accepts anyone), these men commit to a 5-month rigorous schedule of 3hr a day MBA-like program, accredited by Baylor University. During that program, Defy gives these men a new title; they are called EITs or “Entrepreneurs in Training”.

Now back to the room…

I don’t remember what exactly caused me to volunteer for the program, but I think it was one of Mark Suster’s blog posts. Once they put my name on the list of Tech entrepreneurs, the emails started pouring into my mailbox from the Defy Ventures team.

The emails said little about the program (but their website does), and focused mostly on what you can and can’t wear in prison. No blue shirts, no blue pants, no jeans or denim, white yellow or pink is fine – just DON’T WEAR BLUE. In addition, no cell phones or wallets and many other restrictions.

I woke up early and drove 2 hours from Los Angeles to the California City Correctional Facility. The prison is located on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in an isolated location. Barbwire fences, watch towers and gates surround tall white concrete buildings with narrow vertical windows.

“Welcome to prison, ” said a member of the Defy venture staff as I checked in, we can escort you in right now. Vivek, another young entrepreneur and I arrived a few minutes before the rest of the entrepreneurs (who took a bus from LA), and the thought of the two of us entering prison made me very nervous.

Two guards escorted us in, first through double gates outside, and then into the building and through several other heavy metal doors and gates. We walked past cells and concrete corridors that were marked with lines on the floor, and we entered a large room where 90 EITs, all dressed in blue uniforms were walking around and talking. Guards protected the doors and the perimeters of the rooms, and some of the other staff members were there (prison staff and Defy staff).

The first thing that crossed my mind was my escape plan. What do I do if they start a fight? Take one of us hostage? Where do I back up to? What can I use in the room to protect myself? Each one of the EITs seemed like a possible threat – untrusted person, who is in prison, sentenced to long terms, who I don’t know, and who may want to inflict harm on me.

We all had name tags on, and “Erik” approached us and introduced himself. He graduated the EIT program a few months ago and was not released yet; he shared that he now helps run the program in prison as a facilitator. He was kind and welcoming, and we exchanged some words.

A few minutes later the bus of technology entrepreneurs (now called the volunteers) arrived, and we went out to join them in the corridor. In the room, the EITs formed two lines, the Defy mc played some loud music and we, the volunteers, run in. Walking between the lines the EITs and volunteers high-fives and then immediately approached us.

As part of their training, EITs learn communication skills that are common in the business word. They learn how to introduce themselves and how to conduct themselves when others do so. I found them all to be polite, professional and very welcoming. Some were nervous, some were more outgoing – but they all represented themselves with humility and grace. We put our egos and fears aside and did the same.

The day we visited was monumental for the EITs. After five months of study, they each came up with an idea for a business and presented it to us. They had 45 seconds to introduce themselves, 3 minutes to pitch in front of a panel (like Shark Tank), 1 minute of Q&A, and then 2 minutes of feedback time where they just listened.

90 EITs presented ideas to 15 panels in the quarter-finals. The winner of each panel got to compete in the semi-finals, where 3 EITs presented in front of 5 panels. Next, the five winners of the semi-finals got to compete in the finals. In between the pitches, we had trust and confidence building exercises with the EITs.

D pitched us in the first round. He is a 23-year-old African American, who won state champion in 100m. If I disclose his time, you will likely know his name – so I won’t. But suffice to say that he was very close to the world record for 100m. A pure athlete who could certainly win medals and scholarships, and yet here he was, in prison.

His idea was for the “Black Gazelles,” a running group that he will train and lead, which will share the winning money and sponsorship money and will mostly recruit underprivileged youth. D walked through his presentation, listing the revenue and expenses, the marketing and the investment needs. He was nervous, but he did great.

D was followed by other presenters, each with good ideas for small/mid-sized businesses that require minimum investments and can break-even in under six months. The EITs were resourceful, since they couldn’t have access to computers – they got data from business magazines. Since they can’t present with PowerPoint, they used hand-drawn paintings on cardboard pieces and flipped them. Each EIT showed passion and talent, and some of the EITs presented at a level that was equal to the 10% of entrepreneurs that I know.

In between the quarter-finals and the semi-finals, the volunteers and EITs engage in trust building exercises. These exercises left me humbled and in awe.

During one exercise, the volunteers formed an inner circle, and the EITs formed the outer circle. Each volunteer was a handshake away from the EIT when a moderator asked a question. EITs and volunteers would take a turn answering the question quietly to each other, and then the circles would turn one step to the left – presenting a new pair for each EIT and volunteer.

The first questions were easy and included “what did you learn today that you didn’t expect?” Then the questions got deeper and deeper. One question was “what made you lose your innocence?” The EIT in front of me opened up and spoke about how he fell into drug abuse, and then it was my turn. In the face of complete strangers, I had to be honest and open up. In just seconds I had to provide honest answers and share some of the toughest parts of my life. And at the end of each question, we offered each other a handshake and a supporting look.

Israeli men never cry (or so they are brought up), but by the middle of the circle, I had tears. We confided in each other, total strangers, and opened up to hardship that was bottled up for years. Here we were, a group of EITs that outside the program is typically divided into age, gang affiliation, race and color groups; and a group of tech executives and leaders – and for a few moments we shared a connection, and we entrusted each other. We showed our vulnerability to total strangers, and they showed us support and kindness.

In another exercise, the EITs and volunteers stood on both sides of the room, with a line running between them. The moderator would ask a question, and we would step into the line if the answer for us was a yes. At the line, you were to remain silent, but you could offer a handshake to a person to support him.

Again, we started with the simple questions like “step to the line if you were known as the class clown” and soon the questions got deeper and deeper. “step to the line if you were ever arrested”, “if you were raised by a single mother”, “if you regret hurting a person”, “if you lost a family member to violence”. On the question “step to the line if you committed a violence act that took the life of another man” one person stepped in. He was a young with curly hair, more than 6ft tall with broad shoulders, and yet he cried and couldn’t stop the tears. You could see the regret in his eyes; you could see him internalizing and admitting his actions, and doing it in front of a room with 120 people. The EITs on his sides silently offered a handshake, not as a form of support for his actions but as a form of support for his pain and regret.

The room reflected the stark divide between those who have and those who don’t. Those who made one too many bad decisions in their life, and those who didn’t (or just didn’t get caught). But the EITs didn’t they let their frustration show. The EITs were after one thing – hope. They wanted hope in the form of building a business that can allow them to live an honest and productive life.

According to a 2012 survey, the recidivism rate in California is 62%. But from the 1,500 Defy Ventures graduate, the rate is less than 3%. Defy have helped fund and form more than 250 businesses, and they are just getting started.

The day ended with the graduation ceremony, and words can’t describe that ceremony. For hours we were on our feet, clapping and cheering for the EITs as their name was called and (some for the first time in their life) were getting on the stage, wearing a blue graduation gown and cap to receive their diploma, take pictures and shine.

And then came a moment that I will never forget.

With more than 90 graduates, less than 20 families came to celebrate with their graduate. And out of these families, only one dad attended. The rest were moms, and some were very young.

Every EIT got a rose and was asked to give it to a family member. But since many EITss families didn’t attend, they offered their roses to the volunteers. I got two roses and was emotional and thankful for each one that I received.

And then D came over and offered me his rose. I thanked him and spoke to him about his pitch and his idea for the Black Gazelles. I told him he did a great job presenting him, and you can see his passion in his presentation. I encouraged him to continue to plan the idea, improve and research it.

“Be proud of yourself; you did a great job” I said, when a big tear started running down from his right eye. If hugs were allowed, I would have offered him one, so I offered the next best thing – my handshake.

And one more thing

Before the ceremony, we set with Cat, the Defy CEO. She told us that the Defy program in California City just lost its funding from the state of California. The 5-month scholarship for each EIT is $500, and the state couldn’t fund the upcoming program. Cat’s goal was to find funding for 80-90 EITs, and she asked for our help.

I am proud to say that with around 20 volunteers, we collectively committed to funding 118 scholarships!!! We pledged $59,000 in less than an hour!!!

We left the prison around 8:30 PM. We felt humbled by the talent and tenacity of these men and hopeful that they will know to make better decisions in the future.

I was emotionally drained but thankful.

Shuki Lehavi is the CEO of Amiggi, a tech startup that builds Mobile and Cloud applications for Enterprise customers. Shuki previously founded Gumiyo.com which was acquired in 2014, and since did several M&A deals in the mobile space.

(This article was originally published on LinkedIn and is reproduced here with author’s permission.)