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Defying the Odds: How Justice-Impacted and People of Color Are Overcoming Barriers to Economic Mobility

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Build inclusive economies and empower financial independence through entrepreneurship training and personal development.

Discover what University of Illinois Extension and Wisconsin Extension have learned through research studies with business owners of color in rural Wisconsin. We will also explore how Defy Ventures' evidence-based approach to business and personal development education addresses many barriers experienced by people with criminal records, equipping them to contribute to local economic development in their communities.

Participants will also learn how to use business and personal development training to build inclusive economies for people impacted by the legal system, most of whom are people of color. We will discuss the research that contributed to the need to develop solutions like Defy Ventures that empower people to build pathways to financial independence.

Learning Objectives:

1) Understand how to utilize entrepreneurship and personal development education to build inclusive economies by focusing on the often-untapped potential of currently and formerly incarcerated Illinoisians.

2) Understand more about economic disparities, limited economic mobility, and barriers to starting businesses encountered by people of color and justice-impacted individuals. 

3) Learn about the power of a prosocial community that believes in fair chances to combat the effects of negative social stigma and the prevalent economic marginalization that accompanies those with criminal convictions. 

Defy Ventures is actively engaged in an uplifting initiative aimed at empowering individuals of color and those impacted by the legal system who face obstacles in entrepreneurship, economic advancement, and personal development. Through this project, they provide comprehensive training for aspiring entrepreneurs, fostering personal growth and resilience and defying challenges within and beyond the prison system.


Melissa O’Dell is the executive director of Defy Ventures Illinois. Before her position as executive director, Melissa was the vice president of programs on the national team.

Diana Hammer is a community and economic development educator at Wisconsin Extension. She also holds the academic position of associate professor with tenure in the Division of Extension at UW-Madison.

Joseph Malual is a regional extension specialist in community and economic development at Illinois Extension. He collaborates with communities, businesses, organizations, and local governments to identify critical issues and delivers practical educational programs to help communities make decisions and solve problems.

If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate, please contact