SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. - Catherine Rohr was already making $200,000 a year on Wall Street when she was 25 years old. She and her husband Steve lived in luxurious apartment and had a good amount of money in their savings.
But she would eventually quit her job, empty herself of all her money, and move to Texas, surrounding herself with formal gang leaders, ex-murders, and drug dealers.
What changed Rohr was the shocking experience she had while visiting a prison in Texas.
"When I got to the prison, I saw human beings," Rohr said during an interview broadcasted at The Leadership Summit in South Barrington, Ill., on Friday. "I was so inspired by their potential."
After seeing what was going on there, Rohr began flying back and forth between New York and Texas to teach business classes at the prison, but she realized it wasn't enough.
"I felt like I had to do more – to build a solution that left them with no excuse to fail after they got out," she recalled.
According to statistics, 1 out of 15 Americans go to prison at least once in their lifetime, and over 50 percent of released prisoners get right back into prison within three years. Rohr admitted that, at first, she thought perhaps the problems lied within the criminals themselves.
"Then I started to realize that maybe society has to contribute to this problem," said Rohr. "These men are released from the prison with $100 … and all they know is their old gang homeboys. And they try getting a job and at the very top of the application is the felony check box."
Rohr argued that society's attitude toward them contributes to the problem. And she realized that teaching classes on a monthly basis would only get the inmates' hopes high but could not provide practical help after they were released from the prison.
This led Rohr to establish the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a one-of-a-kind program that turns formal criminals into legit business men.
And so far, the results of her program have been astonishing. PEP graduates have a 98 percent employment rate and a less-than-5 percent return-to-prison rate. People who have been convicted for deadly crimes are now in the business world, serving the society.
"But one of the statistics that I'm most proud of is that these guys have been takers," the 30-year-old PEP CEO continued. "Now 70 percent of our graduates are donors back to PEP."
During the interview, Rohr on several occasions brought up the importance of obedience to God.
"One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that God doesn't really need me. He just needs me to follow instructions. When I get out of the way, He can work and He can open doors," she affirmed.
When asked how she was able to give up her career for the program, Rohr said God has better plans for her than she does. "So I take a 'chill-out' and let Him be in control," she said.
Regarding the future of the program, Rohr said she hasn't considered expanding PEP just yet. But she hoped to find leaders to come to Houston, where PEP is currently based, to be trained and open similar program at different locations.
Over the last four years, PEP had 380 people graduate from the program. Some of the graduates – one of them just released four hours before the interview – were present at some of the locations where the Leadership Summit was broadcast live to share their brief testimonies about how God has turned their life around and how they are living the new lives that God has given them.
Rohr concluded her interview by urging leaders to remember their callings.
"Here at the conference, we say [words] like 'I'm going to give you my everything, Jesus.' How come that doesn't happen more often?" she posed.
If Rohr had not followed God's will, she said she would probably be in New York making some 100 million dollar deals.
"And how lame would that be compared to what I do now?" she asked.
"I just want to encourage you to reconnect with the vision," Rohr concluded.
Catherine Rohr was one of the speakers at this year's highly prominent Willow Creek Leadership Summit, which featured a world-class line-up of guests and speakers, including Chuck Colson, chairman and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; Craig Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv; Brad Anderson, vice-chairman and CEO of Best Buy, Inc.; and Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, where the Aug. 7-8 summit was being broadcast live over the course of two days to more than 140 locations across America.
The annual gathering, now in its 13th year, is one of the world's most premier leadership training events.