For the second time this year, I have had the privilege of seeing a Defy Ventures cohort from start to finish, from kick-off to graduation. Each time, I have been inspired to jot some thoughts down in hopes that my experience will spark others to understand something I have grown to believe.
This dark, fall Tuesday evening at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California, I discovered an experience not typically found at every Defy event.
I was fortunate to be an extra set of volunteer hands at the prep event before the pitch competition final — where contestants pitch to judges their business idea, in Shark Tank-like fashion — and graduation. Greeting the Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs), I recognized all of the women who started the program back in the spring — now clearly both proud and sad to have reached their finish line. I experienced the religious flow of emotions as Defy’s staff rehearsed for tomorrow’s activities. With practice pitches and a mock graduation, bittersweet tears that spoke to a person proud of the journey but sad to see it come to an end.
I witnessed the usual contagious energy of Cat Hoke, Defy’s inspiring leader, challenging the EITs to leave it all on the field the next day. I also witnessed the gratitude of the EITs for Cat’s dedication to the cause.
I experienced the usual flow of emotions at Defy events. Joyous highs and empathetic lows, moments with a group of human beings all enjoying good company and the love and support of others.
Shortly before the end of the evening, I witnessed a moment that opened my eyes in a new way to the true magic of Defy. During “Love Bombs,” a chance to express gratitude to others in the room, several EITs began to encourage a member of their class to head to the front of the room. Kathy hesitantly appeared, obliged, and grabbed the mic.
Kathy was an older woman, wearing a white shirt with the letters “CIW” written in pink. She had a soft, welcoming smile and, even in a moment of embarrassment, with the encouraging attention of her fellow EITs, looked comfortable in this setting. I knew nothing of what brought her here or how long she might be staying—which, at Defy, doesn’t really matter. She grabbed the mic and looked up at Cat.
“I can’t believe I am going to do this…but Defy has given me the courage to be heard.”
Then, suddenly, she began to sing, “Calling Your Name,” an absolutely stunning self-written ode to a higher power, absent in her time of need. My jaw hit the floor and my fellow volunteers and Defy staff shared in my awe. Her voice was silk with a bluesy undertone. You could hear the pain and hope in each note. It was masterful. It was a raw moment of emotion that I consider a privilege to have experienced.
While we were so overwhelmed, brought to tears by her talent, a thought dawned on me. In an environment where people are torn down to the lowest version of themselves, Defy enters and provides the means to build themselves back up. I witnessed Kathy being brought alive, swelling with confidence and expressing her talents. I was a witness to the powerful effect of self-transformation.
As the lyrics concluded, she was met by the loudest applause of the night. A smile met her face, and her momentary escape to a place of happiness seemed to be holding over. The rest of us in the room could only be thankful that Kathy shared that moment with us. Her voice is still playing in my head.
Every day, I am becoming more aware of Defy’s continual impact. I am realizing the growing real sense of empathy I have for the folks I meet, an inspired pain for them and their heartache. It’s not because they don’t deserve to be there (which some may not), and not because they were dealt a bad hand (which some certainly have been).
No, my pain is for the many men and women serving time who have lost their identity – their identity and dignity as human beings – for the mistakes of their pasts.
We have an opportunity to look at another human being and not forgive or give pity, but to embrace. We share so much in common, including a past full of missteps and mistakes, and a future of opportunity and hope. From this point forward, investing in each other’s chances to improve and progress will get much further than labeling, judging, stigmatizing, and ignoring. I firmly believe that we have all made mistakes, and we can all improve. For Defy’s EITs, their mistakes have led them somewhere different than ours, but they deserve the same chance and the same investment to get to somewhere better.
Kathy’s phenomenal voice and her dream of what she should chase when she comes home changed me. For the time being, she’ll work on her craft – and herself – through the loving arms of Defy. As for me, I will work with Defy to continue to bring the deserved investment of love and support to those who need it most.
As a director of strategic partnerships, Nick D’Antonio is responsible for sourcing, analyzing, and managing venture philanthropy investments and working alongside organizations on their path to meaningful change. Prior to joining Stand Together, Nick spent five years in workforce development with the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute and sat on the national steering committee of Manufacturing Day. Nick is a graduate of the Kogod School of Business at American University and a certified project management professional by the Project Management Institute.
*Photo Credit: Christopher Michel