From being manipulated to smuggle drugs to turning her life around by starting her own business, Emily O’Brien’s story will spark inspiration in just about anyone that comes across it. While still in incarceration, the idea for a business that combines “prison and purpose” struck her. And that’s how Comeback Snacks was born. Emily’s Comeback Snacks expands far beyond just gourmet popcorn, it is more so about second chances and equal opportunities. In this story, Emily takes us through the myriad hurdles she has had to cross in her fight for ex-inmates and their rights.
To start off, I would love to know a little bit about you. Not just your story, but what you love to do, what you think your purpose in life is… that sort of thing.
I guess I would describe myself as perpetually curious, and always seeking to explore. My favorite destination is uncharted territory. Growing up, I was always at the library. An avid lover of non-fiction, my mom would constantly see me pulling home a wagon full of books on just about every subject: animals, computers, planets, crime (LOL), you name it. This love of learning led me to want to explore the world as soon as possible and, as soon as I turned 18, I was on a flight to Costa Rica to go volunteer for a month. Exploring while helping others really helps build perspective and it also helped me appreciate how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to embark on such journeys.
It also brought me a sense of calm. I was never nervous traveling, and although sometimes I almost gave my mom a heart attack (I may or may not have taken an overnight bus with chickens to Cuzco in Peru), I was more excited than scared. That being said, my purpose is to always be exploring in a meaningful way and to be helping others when I can. Exploring doesn’t have to be international however, it can be within your community, your city, or backyard. Again, it’s all about perspective. There’s always somewhere to go, and there’s always something to learn.
Could you give a glimpse into your backstory?
You mean the one where I went on a trip to the Caribbean with my then-partner and arrived back home at Pearson International Airport with two kilograms of cocaine strapped to my body which landed me a 4-year prison sentence?
Yep, that was an absolute nightmare, but the good thing is, nightmares don’t last forever. They scare us enough to wake up though.
Many, especially myself, look at my upbringing and are shocked that I ended up in that situation. Great family, a good education, good values, what could go wrong? The thing is because I was pretty introverted as a kid (the results of a bowl-cut and bullying), I didn’t really know how to socialize when I got to high school. Combined with pressures to fit in, I discovered alcohol. This became a pretty regular part of my high school weekend routine, which then became a part of my university routine, and eventually my adulthood routine.
But I never drank because I was sad—until I did. We went through a very challenging time as a family in 2013 and I didn’t know how to cope, so I drank and used drugs under the illusion that it was making me stronger. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, and when I met Mark in 2015 through work, I thought he was going to help me get sober. He was so kind and told me that he wanted to help me get through it, without the substances. He was so different than anyone I’d ever met. But unfortunately, his intentions were faker than a $200.00 Rolex.
He invited me on a trip with him, an all-inclusive vacation to St Lucia. Traveling with others was nothing new to me; after all, I embraced spontaneity and exploring. That was my M.O. His M.O., however, was for me to be his drug mule to help him cover some alleged debts he had incurred. Bait and switch. A week in the sun turned into a week in hell when he told me that I would be bringing drugs back into Canada with him. Oh boy. I did not have the qualifications for that, and after a mind-numbing plane ride home, I was sent into secondary screening and arrested. After being on house arrest for 2.5 years, I was sentenced to 4 years in prison.
However, this turned out to be my route to freedom. Instead of seeing it as the end, I took it as a challenge. This was my new beginning. If I did nothing good with this situation, I would truly lose. And I wasn’t about to lose because I knew I was capable of so much more. I had so much to offer the world and so much life ahead of me. So, I created a new life and a new direction—and it all started with popcorn.
Was there a specific moment when the idea for Comeback Snacks came to you, out of the blue?
I had been in prison for a few months, adjusting to my new “home”, with my new family. I went in with an open mind and took every minute as a learning experience. After hearing the stories of others, I began to realize that we had all gotten there not because we wanted to harm people, but because we all had gotten caught up in less-than-ideal circumstances that forced us to make an illegal decision. I also saw so much kindness and goodness in others, and so much potential all around.
I wanted to create something that could help shed light on this. We were having a Super Bowl viewing party and people had made various dishes. Food brought people together, it brought laughter, and it brought healing. Popcorn was also a popular prison snack, and I liked it because it was reasonably healthy. That’s when I knew I could combine popcorn and prison to create purpose.
Also, love the name! How did you come to choose it?
Originally, we were called Cons and Kernels, after I did a survey and found that it was the name of choice within the prison. But as we grew, we thought the name was a tad alienating. One of our messages is that we are all human and we all make mistakes, but we are also capable of making a comeback. After being out of prison for a year, that was exactly what we had done. We weren’t just cons—we had made a comeback—so, we changed the name to reflect the positive growth. Plus, it’s way catchier!
How did you use your business to turn your life around?
I used the business to create not just employment for myself but also to help spread a message and help others. Not only do we sell popcorn, but I also do speaking engagements with a variety of different audiences. Once you have positive momentum, you just keep going. It fuels itself. Having a busy schedule isn’t stressful, it’s what keeps me going. There is no turning back, but I think it’s important to look back to see the progress you’ve made.
How has this journey been for you? Could you comment on some of the ups and downs? What are some of the obstacles that you continue to face?
This journey has been full of excitement, frustration, fatigue, but overall, been incredibly fulfilling. I don’t see obstacles as obstacles, I see them as hills, and conquering hills is good. They might leave you out of breath, but they make you more mentally and physically fit.
The biggest hill I’ve had to climb is fighting for my mandate with the correctional system. When I came out, they didn’t want me hiring others that had criminal records. After a year of back-and-forth (and me being reallllly persistent), I was granted the “privilege” of being able to hire those that needed work. It was the best boxing match I’d ever won. Aside from that, there are industry-related obstacles, like figuring out pricing and distribution, product delivery, and much more, but again, I like to learn. I call it my “lived experience MBA.”
How has the reaction to your business been?
Overall, it’s been great! In the beginning, there are always nay-sayers, no matter what business you have, but that was motivating to me. The best way to silence stigma is through proof. And when you can make your mission relatable—like centering it around the fact that we ALL make mistakes and we ALL struggle and we ALL have made poor choices at some point in our lives—it actually brings people together rather than pushes them away. Also, it helps to have a good product to go with your mission. We made sure ours was top-notch, with a variety of unique flavors.
I would love to know how you wish to use your voice to change your community. What is the message you are trying to send with your and Comeback Snacks’ story?
The message we are trying to send is that no one is immune to struggle, and no one is immune to making mistakes. We have all had to ask for forgiveness, and if we want to receive it, we need to be willing to give it as well. Second chances can really save individuals, families, communities, and the world.