This 'unconventional, yet authentic' entrepreneur found a kernel of hope in prison — and turned it into a booming business

This 'unconventional, yet authentic' entrepreneur found a kernel of hope in prison — and turned it into a booming business
This 'unconventional, yet authentic' entrepreneur found a kernel of hope in prison — and turned it into a booming business

Starting a business isn’t easy. There will always be challenges and obstacles, but with determination and perseverance, you can make it a reality.

Take the case of Comeback Snacks.

Emily O’Brien had the added challenge of starting her company while in a federal prison.

O’Brien’s unlikely journey into the popcorn business began in 2018, while serving time at Grand Valley Institution for Women for drug smuggling. Despite being behind bars, she produced a product and networked effectively, generating good word of mouth and building a successful business.

Networking and mentorship are critical to O’Brien’s business success, and she hopes that others can learn from her entrepreneurial journey, no matter where they are starting from.

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Mind over matter

O’Brien’s million-dollar idea came to her in 2018 while watching the Super Bowl with her fellow inmates.

Munching on the uniquely flavored popcorn her fellow prisoners had cooked up, she was inspired how they treated the kernels like a “blank canvas” to explore different spice and flavor combinations with the limited ingredients available to them.

So she called on her network of friends outside of prison to do some market research on the popcorn industry.

Ryan Hall — a friend and now a business partner — sent her information on competitors and helped analyze the viability of building a business around interesting-flavored snacks.

She launched her business that July under the name Cons & Kernels. With approval from Correctional Service Canada, operating Cons & Kernels became part of O’Brien’s prison release plan.

By September, O’Brien held her first out-of-prison business event, getting a day-pass to attend. When she was released from custody in December 2018, O’Brien was ready to push her business forward.

What started as a small enterprise that cost less than $100 is now a line of snacks available in about 700 stores across Canada.

The art of starting over

For O’Brien, her incarceration was an opportunity.

“After I got arrested so much of what I heard was ‘Well, your life is over’ and ‘How's it feel to have hit rock bottom?’” says O’Brien. But she used comments like that to fuel her “motivation to prove them wrong.”

While in prison, she turned to phone calls and letter writing to form a network of business connections. Through the process, she was open and honest about her story and circumstance.

“If you want your business to provide you with meaning and personal satisfaction, it has to connect your past; to your future,” says O’Brien. “No matter how difficult your past might be.”

She also spent her time reading voraciously and reaching out to idols via snail mail. O’Brien felt the personal touch of reaching out through handwritten notes helped her to stand out more, as someone who is “unconventional, yet authentic.”

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Author Lawrence Hill responded to her letters and offered to meet upon O’Brien’s release.

So did “Dragons’ Den” panelist and The Wealthy Barber author David Chilton. After reading Chilton’s book, O’Brien wrote her own spin on it, called The Relatively Wealthy Inmate. Chilton’s assistant read the piece, and Chilton reached out to O’Brien. Since then, he’s transformed into a business mentor for O’Brien.

Instead of hiding behind her past, getting people talking about her story helped generate interest in her product, which translated into sales. And since she funnels all she makes back into her business, O’Brien still owns 100% of Comeback Snacks. She even says she’s been able to fund her company without having to take out any loans.

Paying it forward

Having full control of Comeback Snacks allows O’Brien and Hall to work with partners and employees of their choosing. This means that she’s able to actively help those in difficult situations.

O’Brien recognizes there’s some risk involved in hiring former inmates. Some people come with trauma or specific struggles they’re still working to overcome. But sympathizing with their background and their needs not only creates a positive space for them to re-integrate, it also helps them on a personal level.

“There's a number of places that I've been able to send people, especially small restaurants and cafes. And even just connecting them to education as well has been super important.”

O’Brien’s company creates a space where the team is able to be open and honest about their personal struggles.

“That actually creates [not] just a sense of healing, but belonging,” says O’Brien.

For O’Brien, regaining your footing after facing a setback comes down to the concept of “emotional profit.”

“That’s a real sense of satisfaction and meaning that our business helps others contribute to the world, and helps us grow and succeed as [people] just as much as we help it succeed in the marketplace,” she says.

And while success in the marketplace is the goal, it’s not the only way O’Brien measures Comeback Snacks’s profits.

“Start with what you have and help others do the same. That's emotional profit and that's how you can be truly rich — without income taxes.”

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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.