Business program prepares prison inmates to defy the odds

Training and placement efforts help graduates make better lives for themselves and their families.

After he and his parents left the Soviet Union in the late ’80s with dreams of eventually immigrating to America, 12-year-old Leo Novsky sold Russian trinkets on the streets of Rome to help the family survive and to save up for the next leg of their journey.

That’s where he developed his personal mantra to, as he says, “hustle harder and defy the odds.”

On their last day in Rome, his father was arrested for operating without a business license. “Luckily, he was released two hours before our flight left for America,” says Novsky. The family eventually settled in the United States and Novsky went on to earn an MBA and become a serial entrepreneur, coach and business catalyst.

A chance to volunteer at a business-plan competition sponsored by Defy Ventures at a Southern California prison a few years ago jogged difficult memories of that last day in Rome when he saw his dad hauled off by police.

“What I saw in that prison were not inmates and criminals, but men with the hustle, grit and skills to succeed — all facing a challenging transition back into mainstream America, hungry to defy the odds and make better lives for themselves, their families, their communities,” he explains. “It inspired me to bring Defy Ventures to Washington.”

Novsky is now executive director of Defy Ventures Washington and operates a program at the Monroe Correctional Facility.

The program combines teaching critical skills in employment, accountability and entrepreneurship to a select group of highly motivated students while creating opportunities for mentorship from local business leaders. It has been taught in five other states, has more than 1,700 graduates, boasts a 65 percent employment placement rate and, so far, is marking a remarkably low (less than 5 percent) recidivism rate.

In search of local business partners to help with employment placement and housing challenges upon release, Novsky reached out to Coast Property Management and offered to fill open maintenance and repair positions with his graduates.

“A lot of our graduates have repair and maintenance skills, but they also need housing.” he explains. “As an apartment property manager who can pair up both housing and a job, Coast is a perfect partner.”

Lynette Jacobson, VP of human resources at Coast, is excited about the partnership as well.

“Our industry is challenged to pay the wages that most of the construction trades offer, so we are actively looking for talent all the time,” she said. “Partnering with Defy Washington helps us not only keep up with maintenance and repair needs at our properties, but we can be part of reuniting families and building communities which are things consistent with our mission to favorably impact the lives of people through our work.”

Coast is expecting to place its first Defy graduate this spring out of the Monroe program. “There’s a transition period, though, where we restrict their access to apartments, subject them to random drug tests and put other limits around them until they prove themselves,” explains Jacobson.

Novsky sees Defy’s partnership with Coast as just the beginning. “The people at Coast are leaders in the industry. As they help us prove hiring Defy graduates is good for their business, other businesses from other industries will take notice.”

Novsky is proud of his graduates if not nostalgic, reflecting back on his youth hustling and selling trinkets in the streets of Rome. “Defy students constantly remind me of how to hustle harder and to defy the odds. They are ready to prove themselves to be the best employees and contractors if given a chance.”

Tom Hoban is chairman and co-founder of the Hoban Family Office, a real estate investment and services enterprise in Everett.

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