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Catherine Rohr helps ex-cons return to society by learning to start businesses

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In 2004, after an introduction to Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship organization, Rohr was inspired to leave the private-equity field to start the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which provides business management education within Texas prisons. Today, PEP boasts more than 800 graduates, 100 percent employment within 90 days, and a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent, compared with the 40 percent average nationwide. PEP grads have launched some 85 businesses, from carpet cleaning and car detailing.

"Catherine has proven herself with PEP," says Jamyn Edis, a volunteer at Defy and a vice president at HBO. He learned about PEP nearly a decade ago while studying at Harvard Business School, which Rohr had asked for help in vetting prisoners' business ideas. "She's this whirlwind of energy and terrific focus."

Tall and slender, Rohr easily commands a room of tattooed, tough-talking ex-cons. She's used to being surrounded by men, having been the sole girl on her high school wrestling team in California and one of the few women at the private-equity firms where she worked after graduating from business school at the University of California, Berkeley.

During an initial Defy class, Rohr had the men laughing as she instructed them how to hold a microphone ("not sideways like you're a rapper") and on the importance of smiling in public speaking (she'll poke their cheeks with a pen to remind them to grin).

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