Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Catherine Rohr finds life after PEP

Inc. magazine has a profile of Catherine Rohr, the founder of Texas' Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) who left in disgrace when she revealed having had sexual affairs with program graduates following her divorce. As folks in Texas' prison milieu will surely recall:

The media, which had frequently celebrated Rohr's efforts to reform prisoners, pounced on the story of her downfall. The scandal became news as far away as China. "Prisons Ban Founder for 'Improper Relationships,'" read the headline in the Austin American-Statesman. That particular story attracted more than 60 online comments, most of them negative. "Let me guess, the greater the crime committed by the ex-convict, the dirtier the sex?" wrote one commenter. Others claimed to have knowledge of more than four affairs. "I was just bawling my eyes out," says Rohr. "They wrote untrue things—all sorts of uninformed comments. I didn't want to live anymore. I thought that I would live my whole life covered in shame."
Before the scandal, Rohr often spoke at churches and conferences about the prison program. She would always ask the crowd, "What would it be like if you were known for the worst thing that you ever did in your life?" Now, she was in that very situation.
The scandal nearly destroyed the organization. "We came very close to having the doors locked," says PEP CEO Bert Smith. "There were a number of people who were convinced that without Catherine Rohr, PEP would fail. I'm happy to say that it didn't."

Rohr is an impressive, charismatic figure who had been the subject of a number of near-hagiographic profiles for her work to turn prisoners into entrepreneurs. Grits always thought this to be a particularly smart approach. So few employers will hire an ex-con, why not start small businesses themselves if that's in any way an option? If a job doesn't exist, create one by marketing a product, service or skill. PEP gives ex-offenders tools to approach their dilemma with that kind of can-do, entrepreneurial attitude and at least a reasonable chance of success. Though I've never seen long-term success rates for PEP (and indeed, success rates aren't terrific for new startups in general), in theory, the approach makes a whole lot of sense.

As for Rohr, after a bout of moping and self pity, she regrouped, decamped, and launched another, similar program in the Empire State:
She dyed her auburn hair back to its naturally darker shade and moved back to New York City, hoping that the city's energy would help jolt her back to life. She entertained a job offer from a VC firm before finally giving in to what her heart was telling her to create: a new nonprofit. She would create a version of PEP that operated outside the prison system....

Defy Ventures has raised more than $1.5 million in donations and pledges from VC firms, hedge funds, businesses, and private foundations. Last fall, Rohr began accepting applications for the first class. After requesting referrals from the New York parole and probation departments and about 25 prisoner rehabilitation programs, Defy received more than 180 applications from former inmates interested in the free classes. Rohr looked for candidates who had high school diplomas or GEDs, who owned up to their crimes, and who were motivated to change their lives.

Today, when Rohr stands before a classroom of ex-cons and future entrepreneurs, everyone understands that the group shares a common story of failure—separated by degrees, of course. A few weeks after the program began, she told them all about what happened in Texas. "I was very hesitant to step foot in the classroom again," says Rohr. "I was concerned about how would these guys look at me. But I've never felt that. They are so respectful. I think that I'm able to be a better leader now that, in a way, we have a shared experience. I know what it feels like to let people down."
Good for her! While like everyone I was disappointed when Rohr's alleged sins wounded prospects (happily, not mortally) for a promising program, Grits personally was much more aggrieved at the two-faced media who lept onto her situation with even greater fervor than they'd heralded her accomplishments, trashing her seemingly that much harder to make up for the fact that they could find no fault in their prior reports. Before the scandal, reporters were happy to hype Rohr's program six ways from Sunday because she is young, attractive, smart, religious, well-spoken, and an unlikely prison reformer who carved out her own quirky but visionary path. Those same reporters, though, not to mention more than a few criminal-justice reformers, were as a group exceptionally eager to tear her down for the same reasons. The media frenzy she endured was vicious and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Everyone's your friend on the way up in politics and public life; if you're looking for a friend on the way down, get a dog. It's why Grits has three.


Dawniev said...

So happy to read this. I saw Catherine speak years ago and was profoundly moved by her boldness. I pray she continues on a healthy path.

Dawniev said...

Awesome story... thank you for sharing the updates. I saw Catherine Rohr speak several years ago and my life was forever changes.

Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

As a former PeP graduate in Texas...My heart goes out to her and am proud of her for not quitting...Texas is harsh...period. People are not perfect. She changed my life and touched countless lives. My question to anyone reading this...Is your life perfect?