How it started
Emily O’Brien of Comeback Snacks said she started her business at the worst time! “I was incarcerated in federal prison. I had smuggled narcotics into Canada,” she said. “I knew I could do better, and I wanted to create fair chances while putting a light on the negative impacts on society and the incarcerated person.”
O’Brien said that while she was in prison, food brought people together and connected them. Since they cooked their own food relying on supplies and food bank donations, during Superbowl they all made their favourite snacks and dishes. O’Brien always liked popcorn and she found some lemon pepper dill spice, and adding it to the popcorn liked the results! Wondering if there were companies making healthy, tasty popcorn out there, she thought it could be a viable business, a vehicle for making change within society and a means for employment.
“I was someone who never expected to be in prison. No one is immune to addiction and/or prison and are probably only a few degrees from it,” she said, adding, “No one I met in prison is a bad person. We all wanted a second chance.”
O’Brien said the story that’s perpetuated by the media and movies is the worst scenarios. She met kind, caring and creative people in prison and said they had all been in bad situations.
“Hasn’t everyone experienced the desire to start over and be forgiven? For incarceration to work, people need a chance and job opportunities,” she said.
She said it’s easy to judge others and to think addiction or issues with law enforcement could never happen – until it does happen to you or someone you know. It’s about proximity, purpose and connectivity, she explained. “It’s like a ticking time capsule that adds perspective through experience when the story is about someone you know and love.”
With her lived experience, she said she knows the pain – even though every person and their story is unique. She has seen how tough it can be seeking employment when you have a criminal record. O’Brien said she hires people with records and she encourages others to as well. “I scale my mission by working with other employers and organizations and educating policy makers.”
You’ll never please everyone and that’s okay, she said. Her mission and any challenges she faces is an incentive that keeps her motivated. “Negativity is okay because I receive the balance of positivity too. Eventually I find people who can relate and I’m building a community that is open to equity and inclusion,” she said.
At Comeback Snacks, there’s a family environment with personal touches, where it’s safe to chat and share open dialogue without judgement. She said other companies can do the same by offering trustworthy resources and partners without the threat of losing a job if people disclose struggles. She said, “Everyone should feel comfortable with a level playing field socially.”
Perceived Risk of Implementing EDI
Existing stigmas are so firmly indented into belief systems, O’Brien said. Comeback Snacks works with the John Howard society addressing stigmas and misconceptions and the confusion that is created around employing people who have been incarcerated. She said that outdated HR policies may prevent hiring but things can change by hiring just one previously incarcerated employee.
“When you come out of prison you may not have a home, so resources may be another barrier and employers could be more flexible around things like requiring a permanent address,” she said. She also said that companies require business insurance and the rates increase significantly when hiring someone with a record which impacts those trying to start over. She didn’t let that dissuade her though. “I am so determined and gung-ho – it has a positive return. I’m relentless in my pursuit of this mission and because of that, I find people are excited to learn about my mission.”
When it comes to EDI, O’Brien advises, “Tread empathetically, continue learning and understanding in order to achieve sustained growth.”