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Cat Hoke

The Art of the Comeback

Hoke, the founder of three rehabilitation programs for prisoners, has had to overcome her own battles to find her “generous hustle.”


Today's episode is about redemption.

All of us are imperfect, striving to be better, and often failing despite our best intentions. It's what we do in the wake of those failures — the lessons we learn, and how we respond, that define who we are.

Meet Cat Hoke

Our guest, Cat Hoke, literally wrote the book on the topic, called "A Second Chance."

But sometimes "a" second chance isn't enough. Very few people make only one mistake in their lives.

During this conversation you will travel along Hoke's saw-toothed path to success. You'll hear about the crazy good turn that led her from a life on Wall Street to one spent volunteering in some of the most dangerous prisons across America.

She pioneered a model for helping prisoners transform their lives. First with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas, and later with Defy Ventures. Each program earned praise for its effectiveness in helping the incarcerated escape a life of crime, but Hoke's time with each ended in scandal.

But she's emerged from each, and returned to the work she says she's meant to do with her life.

FRANK BLAKE: Cat, welcome to Crazy Good Turns.

CAT HOKE: Thank you, Frank. I love your show and I'm honored to be your guest.

FRANK BLAKE: Well, thank you. Before we get into the work you're doing, I'd like to ask a random biographical question. I will preface it by saying I have a particular interest in this question because over my time in business, I've noticed that some of the very best leaders were wrestlers. I'd like to go back to the point in your life when you decided to become a high school wrestler, and by the way, the only girl on the team. What prompted that?

It was an accident, more of a fluke than anything else. I was hanging out with one of my girlfriends the night before. She had a crush on a boy on the wrestling team. She managed to talk to me into showing up at wrestling practice. It was at 7:00 in the morning and I wasn't too thrilled to be there. The first thing that the coach said to the boys was, "Go warm up by running a mile around the track." I was like, "Well, I am not going to sit here and just be a spectator. I might as well make the most of my time." I got my butt up and ran around the track with them. I'm not particularly fast, but I'm a decent runner. I probably came in halfway through the pack.

The coach said, "Why don't you come in and stretch with us?" I did. I was really weak at the time. It was my junior year of high school. I wish I had started my freshman year. Anyway, I ended up staying through practice My first year wrestling is when I learned a whole lot about resilience. Because in that entire first year, I only scored two points one time …


CAT HOKE: … in one match against the boy and the rest of the time I got my butt whooped and would go back to the girl's locker room where I'd be the only person in there and cry like a girl. I wanted to quit all the time, but I've learned that there's a big difference between wanting to quit and actually quitting. I would just come back for more. I'm glad that I did because I did a lot better in my second year.

FRANK BLAKE: What kept you coming back? How did you decide that it was worthwhile and stick with it?

CAT HOKE: That's a good question. I think it was just I knew I could do better.

I was getting humiliated, stacked. I don't know what made me think that I could beat the boys. I somehow deep down believe that if I wanted it, that I could actually achieve it. Although it was a very painful, physically painful and emotionally painful year, I believe that I had it in me. That's something that my father instilled in me. It was that if I wanted it, I could go get it. I guess I was just pathologically optimistic enough to believe that I could. My second year, I did in fact come back and I had a winning track record with the boys. I had all of the off-season to work out and to do pushups. I was doing 1,000 pushups a day.


CAT HOKE: I was training a lot harder than any of the boys were. I was still less strong than they were, but I learned how to become a more technical fighter. The lessons that I learned of scraping myself off the mat and when I thought I was done coming back for more has served me so well for the rest of my career. I really credit my wrestling coach and my wrestling experiences with teaching me a great deal about resilience. Then, in the work that I do now, also every day, I'm coming alongside underdogs who have been totally defeated. My job now is to shine them up and put them back in the fight. Even when they feel like they can't do it, I'm there to tell them that they can. I lead the way by example.

FRANK BLAKE: It is interesting because it is a trait and whatever wrestling instills in you, as I say, I've seen it in any number of leaders in the business community when you get into their background that a lot of them were dedicated wrestlers. Now, I want to jump ahead a decade or so and you're now 25, 26 years old, living in New York. You got a great job in venture capital. You're also doing some side work to help incarcerated people in Texas. Tell us what was going on that time in your life what you're doing, what was your day job, what was this other work, and how did that lead to a change in your life?

CAT HOKE: Sure. I graduated UC Berkeley and then I started working in venture capital, then moved up to from working in private equity. The partners that I was working for were making so much money. I am a big picture thinker and I always like to know if I'm going to play in this venture capital or private equity game, I could see I was really good at sourcing deals and sales. I was making more money than I ever needed at that young age. I could see that I would be really successful in that field. Then, I could also see that many of the very wealthy CEOs that I worked with and some of the partners that I worked with, although they had more money than anybody needed, many of them seemed dissatisfied with their wealth.

In fact, the wealthier that they got, some of them became just greedier and more fearful of losing their possessions. I could see that those who did seem fulfilled in their lives, it was because when the money that they were making was not just so that they could get a bigger house, or a better yacht, or a younger wife, or another escape for this or that. It's because they were living a purposeful filled life and they were using their wealth very intentionally to create good in the world. I was on a journey. In my book, I call this the journey of finding my generous hustle, how we can do good in the world. Make money but use our hustling skills to make a better contribution to the world. I was looking for that. I got invited to prison.

I never in a million years thought I would say yes to that. I was 26 years old. I was about as naïve as could be you when it comes to the world that I work in now in prisons. My first reaction was, "No, thank you." Because when I was 12 years old, a good friend of mine was brutally murdered and I thought that anyone who is incarcerated was the scum of the earth and they could just rot and die in that place. I, myself, have been a victim of crimes. I didn't think my life would take that turn.

FRANK BLAKE: What was it that pushed that turn? What did you see? What did you experience?

CAT HOKE: I was in Manhattan having dinner with a JPMorgan executive, a woman who looked like me but older, and she asked me, she said, "Haven't you had a second chance before? Haven't I been the beneficiary of so many mentors and great people who have walked with me through difficulties in life?" I was like, "Yes, of course, I have." I've been so blessed with many opportunities and many second chances. Without judging me, she helped me to see the log in my own eye of how I could write-off other people. Really, I didn't see people who are in prison as humans. I saw them as like wild caged animals. She challenged me.

She invited me to fly out to Texas and this was in 2004 for a weekend in prison. I turned my no into a yes. That first weekend there, when I walked in, I was so fearful, terrified, and not expecting humans.

When I walked in and started speaking with incarcerated men and women, I felt so ashamed of my own heart and the way that I could completely write people off because of an experience of one that I had had. The first person that I met in prison, his name is Johnnie Taylor. Johnnie was 18 when he went to prison. When I started to ask him about his back story, something clicked in my mind since he was the first one that I met. Johnnie's grandfather shot his father right in front of him when I think he was 8 or 10 years old. Then, around 11 or 12, he started selling drugs, got into a gang. By 18, he was incarcerated. I wish I could tell you that Johnnie's story is an outlier.

About 90% of the people that I work with and the programs I've started have worked and served more than 6,000 people, probably 90% of them had a family member murdered or killed before they were 18 years old, nearly all of them. 98% of them, I would say, grew up with gunshots going off in their neighborhood every single day, nearly every single one of them experienced violence in their homes. Most of them were abused physically, emotionally, many of them sexually. None of this ever takes away or makes okay the crimes that they ended up committing. I tell people, "Prison is important.

If you want to hurt people, there's a place for you and it's called prison. You get taken away from society." What I started to realize even in that first visit at the age of 26, is that the way that we sentence in this country in what is called the land of the free and the land of liberty and justice for all, when we are rich and White, the things that we can get away with or the sentencing disparities between White people and people who don't have economic resources or people who have a different skin color, it angers me. We are the only country in the world that issues life sentences to children on a routine basis. So many of the men and women that I work with were issued life sentences when they were 15 or 16 years old. I was just on prison two weeks ago with a guy who was first incarcerated at the age of four …


CAT HOKE: … for his mother's crime, but he was put in handcuffs. He was thrown in a jail cell alone at the age of four. His father handed him a smoking gun after he committed a murder, this guy's name is Freddie, when Freddie was five years old. Many of the people that I serve, they never had a first chance. I want them to have that chance. They are paying their debt to society and I believe that all of us should get second chances. We pay the consequences and the prices for our actions, we do. They do, they pay their debt by serving time. 95% of people who are incarcerated end up getting released. Even for people who are tough on crime.

I definitely considered myself to be tough on crime. I'd rather now think of myself as being smart on crime because, yes, people should go to prison if they want to hurt other people. 95% of them are coming home. They should be rehabilitated. It's called the field of corrections. There's so little that we do to correct them. Anyway, a lot of things clicked in my mind on that first visit when I was 26 years old and I saw things for the very first time through a different lens, through a humanizing lens. The other thing that I realized about the people that I served is that not all of them are entrepreneurial.

Many, many people who are selling drugs or leading gangs share a whole lot in common with successful CEOs and entrepreneurs. They were just using their hustling skills illegally. Major gangs are run by boards of directors. They have accountants and bookkeepers. They have margins that are way nicer than most of the businesses that you've run.

FRANK BLAKE: There's some interesting business studies on that, yeah.

CAT HOKE: Yeah, exactly. I asked the question, what would happen if these guys were able to transform their hustle from illegal into legal hustling. At the age of 26, I was naïve enough to believe that all things were possible. I think I'm still probably naïve enough to believe that. I was even more naïve then. I jump ship from my fancy private equity job in New York and I moved to Texas and started that first program, prison entrepreneurship, where again that 15 years later is still going.

FRANK BLAKE: Pause a bit on that because I think a lot of people … I speak for myself, out of college, I did some work trying to help in prisons. That's an important thing to do and I can do that on the side, but I'm going to keep kind of middle of the path and do more mainstream things. You went all in. You took your own money, and quit your job, and went down and did this full time, correct?

CAT HOKE: Yes. That's another good question, because the way I tell my story sounds like just overnight. I was like, boom! Leaving New York and, boom! Putting all my money into this. I went through a process. For two years, before I even got invited to prison, I was intentionally trying to find my generous hustle. I wasn't sitting on my hands trying to find it. I talked to and interviewed everyone that I could who was unfulfilled and then people who had found their calling. I was reading autobiographies of people who really inspired me. I read the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. and I believe he started his movement when he was 27.

I was 26 when I was reading this stuff and I was like, "Whoa, this guy's already changing the world. He's only one year older. What am I doing?" With everything that I had, I was looking for my next steps. I started saying no to a lot of things. For example, I started saving money like never before because I had a sense that maybe God was calling me to something greater. I didn't know what it was but I just wanted to be prepared to jump ship if and when that actually happened.

CAT HOKE: I had no idea what that meant. Because I had been on a two-year exploratory journey, for example, I went and worked in a Romanian orphanage with HIV positive kids. I was saying yes to all kinds of things that were outside of my comfort zone. For people who are trying to find their calling, one of my best pieces of advice is start saying yes to things that you would never normally say yes to.

FRANK BLAKE: That's great.

CAT HOKE: Because if you keep doing the same old, same old, you're never going to figured it out. If you're not doing what you think you should be doing right now, then guess what? You need to change your patterns and you need to get uncomfortable or you won't find it. Because so many people say, "Oh, I want to get there." Well, wanting to get there is really different than being committed to it. I was committed. I was journaling, praying, reading books for an hour every single day on the side of my private equity job. After my first prison visit, it still took me nine months to move to Texas. I started out at first commuting. I'm going to prison on a monthly basis.

CAT HOKE: The first thing I ever raised money for was 400 bucks from the guys at my private equity firm to buy doughnuts for guys in prison. I was so excited about that. I didn't know how to fundraise. I didn't know how to start a nonprofit. I started taking nonprofit classes. It was a journey. Yes, I went all in. I had $50,000 in my savings account when I was 26 years old. I put every last dollar into starting what I did.


CAT HOKE: When I moved to Texas to start this thing, everyone, parents, friends, everyone thought I had lost my mind. I had such a strong sense of conviction over the nine months that this consumed my heart. I actually tried to pan off the work to other people because other people were telling me that I was wasting my time with people in prison. I try to hire somebody because I was really good at raising capital. I was like, I could raise money to hire somebody else to do this work that people are saying is beneath me. I'm glad I didn't.

FRANK BLAKE: Wow. As you're talking, I'm reminded there's a phrase … I don't know who said it, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." What do you think it is about you that allowed you to make this big step … I mean, I understand that it was well thought out in gradual but it's still a big risk, and a big step, and a big commitment to helping others.

CAT HOKE: The way that I'll describe this is, for your listeners who believe in heaven or a higher power and if you don't, sorry, but I do. I believe that if my soul is going to live on for another billion years of whatever and that life is but a breath on earth and it's just 80 years, I want to live the most intentional life possible. I don't see my time on this earth as being about me and my things and my pleasure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not Mother Teresa. I do a lot of things that I really enjoy that are for me.

I was seeking a way to use my talents, and my skills, and my money, and my connections to make a greater difference in the lives of others. I get so much fulfillment out of that. Now that I've been doing it for 15 years, even with the extreme pain that has come from it, I would do it all over again because it's just what I believe is the right thing to do. It's a life that I want to live. I don't really care to live a life that is centered around my own enjoyment or happiness.

FRANK BLAKE: That is so brilliant. That one description is so terrific. Talk a little bit about generous hustle, because you've used that term a couple of times. Your new venture is called Hustle 2 data. What does that term mean to you, generous hustle?

CAT HOKE: Well, I'm a natural born hustler as are so many of the people that I serve. Hustlers don't sit on their hands. Hustlers don't wait for things to happen to them. Nearly, everybody that I meet in the world wants to live a fulfilling life. They want to know what the point of their life is. They want to live more meaningfully. If you don't hustle to find that calling, it's probably not going to land in your lap. It's going to take some uncomfortable exploration. It's going to say you have to stop saying yes to some things like if you're spending two hours a day watching TV, you could cut that out and instead make a list of the intentional leaders or role models that you want to be just like when you grow up and start reading their stories or listening to their stories. Listening to this podcast with the all the inspiring people that you have on here, Frank, is a great step for people if they want to become …

FRANK BLAKE: Thank you.

CAT HOKE: … more like them. Don't just listen, don't just be a spectator. Just like when I went out for the wrestling team, I could have sat there and watched other people because …

FRANK BLAKE: Watched, yup.

CAT HOKE: … wrestlers but I got up and I just started running. I guess I have always been willing to make a fool of myself. Being the first girl … When I was running laps around with the wrestlers, the football players were out there jeering at me and making so much fun of me. If you want to try something new, you're going to fail. Most people are so uncomfortable with the concept of failure that they're not willing to take that risk. Maybe you could start by taking small risks. I never tell people, "Okay, just go jump ship from your job and stop providing for your family and go to some other county or whatever." It doesn't work that way.

CAT HOKE: Intentionally, daily, maybe if you're a single mom working a job or two, you don't have two hours a day probably to spare. You know what? You could have 15 minutes every day that you can take to listen to something or to read something and then most importantly, to take what you heard or read and turn that into action that takes you one step closer to whatever that purpose could be

FRANK BLAKE: Wow. That is phenomenal. PEP has been a huge success, continues to be a success.

CAT HOKE: Yeah, that's a Texas organization 15 years later. I'm really proud of it.

FRANK BLAKE: Then, Defy Ventures continues to be a success, correct?

CAT HOKE: Correct, yup.

FRANK BLAKE: Yeah. In each case, you get this started. As often happens in the business world and also in the charitable world, you get conflict, disagreements, you move on. What's the resilience after the first successful launch to start again after the second successful venture to start again? What's that fuel?

CAT HOKE: Oh boy. Well, to cut to the chase, I have started these three organizations. I've been through two divorces and now I've been through two public scandals but it had been very difficult for me to work through.

After both scandals, the one that I had in Texas and the one that I went through a year ago after my exit from Defy Ventures, I didn't know that I would make it. I actually, I didn't want to be on the Earth anymore. I nearly took my life. I'm not proud of that but I've been through bouts of deep depression especially because I'm a very purpose-driven person.

When I thought that my ability to live my purpose was over, I didn't want to stick around anymore. I'm grateful that people still saw value in me when I didn't see value in myself and they loved me back to life.

One of the things that I would say, by the time I got to my second scandal after Defy, I had already written my book that had just launched. Part of it is about how to get through crisis and how to come out the other side.

I was allegedly an expert in crisis management and something really different that I did that helped me with my resilience to start Hustle 2.0 is after my first divorce and scandal, I felt so ashamed that I hid my head in the sand. I didn't reach out to people who could have loved me back to life. I ended up doing that but later and I wish I had reached out earlier and seen that people would have loved me just for me.

I used to think that people love me because of my ability to generate great results and to be a strong leader. I didn't know that people would love me just as a human being.

Through my second scandal, I reached out to people every single step of the way and I cried and I shared my challenges and I shared my hopelessness with people who were right there with me and people who believed in me and people who painted a vision for my future.

This is the same thing that I do for people in prison. The number one reason that I think people don't go back to prison with us is because we're able to help them to paint a picture for a vision of success.

In my lowest points of my life, I was able to surround myself with some great people, some of the most influential, most respected business leaders who walked with me, not caring about their own reputations as they walked with me and they said, "Cat, you don't see it right now. You can't see above the clouds and through the darkness right now, but you're not done. You have a lot more to offer the world."

When really smart people still were investing time and resources in me thinking that I had a future, it made me think that maybe I did.

A year ago, I was falsely accused of extraordinarily painful things ranging from embezzlement to misappropriation of funds and lying about results to every sexual allegation under the sun and I couldn't believe the things that I was being falsely accused of but I had a choice and I realized that right there that I could suck my thumb and feel sorry for myself or be angry or try to right the record but one week after my resignation, I went back to Pelican Bay State Prison, which is a supermax that I work in and the warden welcomed me into his office and he said, "Welcome to the club. Do you want to know how many allegations I've had against me this week?"

Then, I went into the gym and there were more than 100 men there and I was sobbing because I felt like I had nothing to offer. One of them stood up and he said, "Cat, we believe in you and please get it together and find your happiness because our happiness depends on your happiness."

What I realized in that moment is that as bad as I thought I had it, last year, many of the people that I worked with were convicted as children, will never get out of prison and they're still choosing to be positive and optimistic and hopeful and they're doing everything they can to make a positive difference.

Some of my guys who are never getting out, raised money for breast cancer walks and they raised money foster children. They find a way to live their generous hustle even though they've been dealt a bad rap. Seeing their resilience, inspired me to get through to the other side so that I could continue with this work.

I had a choice there. Do I want to drown and self-pity or anger? One of my greatest mentors, a guy named Seth Godin, who got me to write my book, Seth said to me, "Cat, you have a choice right now." Because I was so angry and he said, a lot of my book is about forgiveness actually and he said, "You can choose forgiveness right now and just move on with your life so that you can live a life of love and service or your heart can be occupied by your anger for every day of your life but you probably can't do both."

I chose to do that and I chose to just move on and instead of fighting for my rights, I'm spending every day now. I'm honored by the awesome work that I get to do with Hustle 2.0.

FRANK BLAKE: Describe what Hustle 2.0 does.

CAT HOKE: I actually moved out to Pelican Bay for the first six months of this year and Hustle 2.0 was born at Pelican Bay. The guys there named it. I work with some of the top gang leaders there and the reason is that just like the business world has influenced by top CEOs, the prison world is run by gang leaders and I have been blessed to have the buy-in and the trust of people who have been known as the most notorious gang leaders across groups.

They agreed to come together and it looks like a United Nations meeting there where people who may not have always gotten along, understatement, have chosen to come together to write extremely powerful curriculum and it's not my voice. It's their voices and they're writing the most positive messages on transforming your hustle.

For example, we have a course that mirrors a Freakonomics study about why drug dealers over their mamas and in their own voices top gang leaders are telling their communities to stop engaging in this work because the average drug dealer on the streets makes $3.30 an hour. It's the stupidest, most dangerous job out there and those are not my words. Those are their words.

For example, we have gang leaders writing courses now about depression and about healing from abuse. Typically, in prison, you never talk about depression or abuse because that's showing weakness. People get stabbed for talking about, for showing weakness.

Now, these top leaders, they're changing the narrative. The curriculum is funny, hilarious, in their language. It has, like our own mad libs are called H20 libs. It's filled with jokes because our intention for the curriculum is to get the people who are least interested in programming to want to program and we've succeeded in doing that.


CAT HOKE: We target the most violent institutions, the most violent yards and we see that hope is a cure for violence. I've never been prouder of anything that I've ever done. This curriculum is so freaking cool and meaningful and deep and it's holistic in nature.

CAT HOKE: It's not just entrepreneurship, it's employment-related, it's how to talk to your kids and be a better father from behind bars, how to prepare for the parole board, reentry planning. It goes in depth and they get about 300 pages a month of curriculum and training.

FRANK BLAKE: For listeners who want to learn more about this and what you're doing, where should they go? What are the best sources?

CAT HOKE: They could email. If you want to come to prison, we'd love to have you and you can …

FRANK BLAKE: I definitely got that on my something I got to do.

CAT HOKE: All right, now that we have a recording of you saying that, Frank, I'm going to count on you.

FRANK BLAKE: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

CAT HOKE: Maybe you can announce to your listeners when you're coming to prison and we can plan for that in advance.

FRANK BLAKE: That's a good idea. Yup.

CAT HOKE: Then, people could sign up to come with you and me and I promise I'll keep you safe. The programs that I have started have brought more than 7,000 CEOs, investors and you don't have to be a CEO or an investor to come and it will not only transform the hustle and the lives of other people, it will transform some of your hustle as well.

You'll see, this is not like some down and out poor guys in prison, like hug-a-thug type of trip. You're going to come in and you're going to serve as a business coach, as a mentor. You're going to look at resumes. You're going to get feedback. It's really intense. It's actually really, really fun too. You're going to leave energized.

If you want to be a part of that, you can go to our website,, H-U-S-T-L-E 2 0 dot com or you can email or stay tuned on when we have another upcoming trip.

Right now, we're serving predominantly in California prisons but we're starting to speak with other prison systems as well because they're interested in the curriculum. We're just a startup but my goal is first to get to offer our curriculum in every prison in America to anybody who wants to access the curriculum.

FRANK BLAKE: That's phenomenal. I've got one last this very general question but I read this you were describing a choice or making a decision is a choice between a feeling of safety and the magic of fulfillment. I wanted to ask, what does that feel like to you? What does that fulfillment feel like?

CAT HOKE: I feel alive when I see other people coming alive. It's impossible for me to put in words at our graduation ceremonies. We have family reunification programs and when I see the way that our fathers love their children, because yes, our fathers made grave mistakes, terrible decisions and they chose to leave their children when they got incarcerated but they want to show their children that they love them.

Then, when we have these graduation ceremonies, our dads are in their caps and gowns for the first time in their lives and then I've always negotiated with the wardens in advance to get these little teddy bears approved and the dads that create teddy bear t-shirts for their kids and then they get up on the stage with their teddy in hand and then they call the kids up to the stage and the father gives a teddy bear, which is more symbolic than anything but it's also a physical representation when they say, "I love you and I will never leave you again."

When I see the opportunities that we are creating for good fathers, good mothers, when I see families reconnect, when I see that for these children or these mothers who have been praying for their sons for all their lives, when I see that magic, it's everything worthwhile.

FRANK BLAKE: That's so, so amazing. It has been an incredible privilege to talk with you, Cat. Thank you and thanks for sharing. Boy, that's a lot of wisdom, a lot of wisdom and passion and learning and resilience. Thanks very much.

CAT HOKE: Thank you, Frank for using your hustle and voice to create so many crazy good turns, so much goodness in the world. I really appreciate it.

The Art of the Comeback

Hoke says she'd have never made it back if it weren't the support she received from others — those who believed in her when she didn't believe in herself.

"In my lowest points of my life, I was able to surround myself with some great people," Hoke said. "When really smart people still were investing time and resources in me thinking that I had a future, it made me think that maybe I did."

Today she works within the walls of California's SuperMax Pelican Bay State Prison to build her third entity helping prisoners, Hustle 2.0. In a way, she's trying to pass on the gift of forgiveness she's received.

"In the work that I do, I'm coming alongside underdogs who have been totally defeated," Hoke says. "My job is to shine them up and put them back in the game. When they feel like they can't do it, I'm there to tell them that they can."

In addition to being an author and founder of three rehabilitation programs, Hoke has been named one of Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People, Forbes "40 Women to Watch Over 40," and a "Change Agent" by WIRED magazine.

Her insights in this conversation can help you find your "generous hustle."

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