LINCOLN, Neb. — A program being tested in Nebraska seeks to teach convicts how to become entrepreneurs and wage-earners after their release from prison.

The Defy Ventures program, which also has trained about 1,600 inmates in California and New York, assists inmates before their release and provides coaching, mentoring and opportunities for employment or business startups when they get out.

To get into the program, inmates must fill out a 15-page application and a five-page essay. The program is 15 to 20 hours a week, with homework, and the topics range from personal and business finance to technology.

Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., said charitable foundations will cover the $2.5 million cost of the program’s three-year trial run in Nebraska.

Nearly 80 Nebraska State Penitentiary inmates participated in the program Thursday, ranging from nonviolent offenders serving short terms to violent ones sentenced to life behind bars. Even for lifers, the program organizers hope the program helps inmates build character.

“I may never get out of prison, but I’ve still made those changes,” said Todd Cook, an inmate serving life. “And that’s still important.”

About 40 volunteers led the program, including business executives and charitable foundation representatives, a state senator and a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature.

“Men, your sentence does not define you,” prisons director Scott Frakes told the inmates. “It’s what you do today, tomorrow and moving forward. That’s how you’re going to define who you are and what you accomplish.”

Cook said public opinion of inmates is based on their crime, and that anything positive they do after that seems lost behind the bars and locked doors.

“I may never get out of prison, but I’ve still made those changes,” Cook said. “And that’s still important.”

Defy Ventures founder and CEO Catherine Hoke said only about 5 percent of its graduates returned to prison within three years after their release. About 30 percent of convicts return to prison within the same period in Nebraska.