Interview: Catherine Hoke

Catherine Hoke is the Founder & CEO of Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment, and leadership training program that serves people with criminal histories. She fights for underdogs, believes in loving hard, and is comfortable with confrontation.

How do you describe yourself?

Very intense. Driven. I can come off as a hardass, but I have a very soft heart underneath that. Injustice makes me really crazy, which is why I do what I do. When I’m in, I go all in. I’m really big on commitment and keeping commitments.

I’m someone who rises up to challenge. Challenge really motivates me. I have a need for a strong, ambitious vision. I would die without it. And I love underdogs.

How do you describe your work?

Hard. Awesome. Always a challenge. Invigorating. I think of it like a game of whack–a-mole because Defy is growing so fast and there is always something that’s going to go wrong with that. Fast problem solving is built into Defy’s DNA.

We don’t let the fear of failure stop us. We’re okay with calling something a failure. When we create something that fails, we call it what it is and then fix it, and that’s okay. Our culture is very entrepreneurial, always innovating and always learning and always growing.

How do you handle doubt?

First, I acknowledge the doubt to myself and to others who might be experiencing the same doubt. Then I start to explore why I’m having the doubt and where it comes from. I’ve seen how doubt can paralyze and stop me from decisions and action. I don’t like that. So, I’ll definitely investigate the doubt. Then I’ll get advice from others, depending on how significant the doubt is.

I usually set goals with my doubt. Like, ‘Alright, I cannot make a decision for X amount of time while I figure out what I’m going to do.’ If it’s over something really big, then I talk to my best mentors. They give me wisdom, real talk (not just what I want to hear), and sometimes a pep talk, and then I commit to deadlines and deliverables that will get me to the other side of doubt. So, I’ll say, ‘Okay, by this date, I will have done this. And by that date, I will have done this.’ And I get accountability for that, too.

With most of the decisions I make, I still move forward while having unresolved doubt, but I guess that’s what an entrepreneur’s job is: making good decisions in the absence of information.

How do you define kindness? How does that come to play in this work?

Instead of ‘kindness,’ how about I talk about love? One of our corporate values at Defy is Love Hard. It’s like tough love but a little different. I believe in the power of love. I believe in the power of telling people that I love them, and we love it when our EITs [Entrepreneurs-In-Training, the formerly imprisoned men and women Defy works with] express their love for each other.

I think that love is kind, even when it’s not nice. Love can be tough or hard, like in correcting people and setting them on the right path. [But] to me, love is serving them in their best interests.

A lot of people don’t want to do those things because it often involves confrontation. And confrontation can feel unkind and it can feel unloving. I think it’s actually kind to be real and to be sincere. (Of course there are some ways that you can be direct that are not kind and not loving.)

Speak love and truth, that’s what we work on doing at Defy. We kick the butts of our EITs as we love them back to life.

Does comfort with confrontation come naturally to you or is that something you’ve learned?

It comes very naturally to me. In my family, we spoke the truth. We spoke our minds. Integrity was a very high value—and the need to look good or save face was not a high value.

I think that the need to look good often opposes integrity. Because deception is the only way to always look good. Because the truth reveals and the truth can make us look ugly and human and imperfect.

I was raised to be willing to show my ugly sides, if needed, to preserve integrity. Preserving integrity is more important than looking good.

When things are falling apart, how do you begin the process of rebuilding?

The best example that I have of this is when I rebuilt my life six years ago [after publicly resigning from another organization she founded]. I actually made a crisis plan that basically says, ‘When I am in crisis, here are the things I will do and here are the things that I will never do.’ So there’s an action plan before I get into crisis.

Whatever the stupid temptations that we might have in times of crisis, those go on the Do Not Do list. Then have a plan [like], ‘I’m going to reach out to this person or that person for advice,’ or ‘I will take two hours to myself and I will not make a decision [in that time].’

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in rebuilding is that I will not make a decision while acting emotionally. When things start to fall apart, I usually get all up in my emotions. And my emotions can cause me to overreact or blow it out of proportion.

For me, taking that time to breathe, and then talking to somebody who is not caught up in my emotion and might see it totally differently is really, really helpful. Then I make a thoughtful action plan for what I’m going to do from here.

I’m really good at making fast decisions and sticking by my decisions. But I’ve had to train myself to not make those fast decisions when I’m in the heat of the moment and feeling emotional, and this has benefitted me a lot—I’ve become a wiser decision maker because of this.

What’s the best kept secret of adulthood?

No one has it figured out. As little kids, we think that adults must have it figured out. When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that when I grew up, I’d have it figured out.

I’ve realized that, amazingly, even the top thought leaders in certain sectors don’t even have it figured out for their own life. They might be experts in the sector and they can share that wisdom, but it doesn’t mean that they know how to do it for themselves.

Where does your courage come from?

Most of my courage probably comes from my empathy. When I feel someone else’s pain, I’m so deeply empathetic that the pain will spur me to action even if I’m scared or doubting. Most of my courage at Defy comes from staying close, knowing the stories of our EITs and their lives and their families. Staying closer to pain leads to more empathy, which leads to more courage. That’s my formula.

Does that make it hard to take care of yourself?

Yeah. I’ve learned a healthier balance, but I don’t have this figured out. I used to see someone’s pain and then I had to go fix it myself immediately. Now I’m learning that when I do that, I’m not serving the world as well as I could.

Solving a problem by myself can lead to more instant gratification for me. It can make me feel better. But seeing a problem and then not necessarily solving it, but taking more of a long-haul approach is good for me. The unsolved pain eats me alive. And it gives me more courage to create sustainable solutions.

I like to keep myself in the midst of the pain and the suffering and understanding the human need. Because the more outrageous it is, the more outrageous of a fire that it lights under my butt to really make things happen.

How did you come to that insight about unsolved pain?

One of our faculty members at Defy is a guy named Henry Cloud. He has a book called Necessary Endings. And he said that a lot of times, if we don’t feel the pain, [we] don’t feel the need to do anything about it.

If I have a rotting tooth in my mouth – is one example that he uses – but it doesn’t really hurt, then I’m not very likely to go see the dentist. But if my rotting tooth wakes me up at three in the morning in deep pain, then I’m going to go to the dentist the next morning. Sometimes staying closer to the pain is a really healthy thing for us. I don’t think I learned this just from his book, but I thought that was such a good example.

I do this work to serve people who need these opportunities. So, it wouldn’t give me very much courage if I just hung around rich people all day and fundraised without really knowing and caring and loving and suffering with the people that we serve.

I can raise money courageously when I need money for somebody that I care about. And I care about thousands of people that nobody else cares about right now.

How do you think about failures and mistakes?

I think failures and mistakes are an inevitable part of human growth. What we say to our EITs is, ‘It’s not if you fail, it’s when you fail. So, what are we going to do about it when you fail?’

Many people work so hard to avoid failure. The reality is that I don’t think any of us can really avoid failure. We can sometimes use deception to pretend that we didn’t fail or to cover up how much we’ve failed.

But I have seen in my life that when I respond well to failure, it has often led me to beautiful silver linings. That’s where I have learned and grown and gotten to something so good on the other side of it. If I had never actually failed, I hate to think where I’d be now.

But I hate failing. It’s uncomfortable and temporarily defeating. But it’s rarely permanently debilitating, even when I fear that it will be.

I try to force myself to admit failure as quickly as I can. The alternative is to let my ego control me because my ego doesn’t want to admit failure, and it leads me to want to resuscitate the thing I’m failing at. That’s usually a waste of time.

So I’ve become a lot better at failing fast and getting back up quickly too—and learning from it. That saves me a lot of time and heartache.

When you’re used to getting straight A’s in life, the thought of even getting a B+ is so terrifying that you’ll never take a risk. I find those people stifle their lives more than anyone I know.

If you’re ever going to achieve greatness, greatness is not straight A’s. I don’t know a single person who’s achieved something really great who hasn’t taken a risk or a lot of risks and failed some along the way. So, if you want to achieve that greatness, you have to fail.

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