Emily O’Brien: Popping Corn — For The Greater Good
When you’re in prison, you have a lot of time to think. That’s what happened to Emily O’Brien, who started with a kernel of an idea and hatched a plan — a business plan, that is — from behind bars. Her business? Popcorn. The company is called Comeback Snacks, and paying it forward is a big part of its mission and its success.
When you’re in prison, you have a lot of time to think. That’s what happened to Emily O’Brien, who started with a The next time you’re in the snacks aisle at the grocery store, check out Comeback Snacks popcorn, which comes in fun flavours like Lemon Meringue Caramel and Peanut Butter & Jelly. Then, maybe take a minute to read the story on the back of the package. With a tagline of “Popcorn so good, it’s criminal,” you’ll feel pretty good about munching on this snack.
It’s not as if Emily O’Brien, the founder and CEO, grew up thinking she’d end up behind bars one day. Far from it: she grew up in Hamilton, in a middle-class family. They went to church every Sunday. Her mom packed healthy lunches for the kids. She was an introvert, but sporty, too. “Growing up, my childhood was great and full of love, for sure,” she says. But, she was also bullied and she wasn’t really confident talking to boys until high school, when alcohol helped with that. Even still, it wasn’t really a problem — she graduated with honours and spent her time volunteering and working.
She moved to Toronto in her twenties, working on her social media business, and found it hard to make close friends, eventually meeting a guy she became close with. He asked if she wanted to go on a trip with him, disclosing the purpose was to bring back drugs. She was not interested, but then he said, “Fine, let’s just go on the trip, anyway.” Says O’Brien: “I believed him, as we tend to do, when no one has really harmed us yet at all, and you have no reason to not really trust them.” Of course, she adds, that’s an obvious red flag now.
Even when she found out the truth, that he did want her to bring back drugs, O’Brien was afraid to sabotage the operation. “So I thought the smartest thing to do is just keep going and keep trying,” she says. She was arrested at Toronto Pearson International Airport, carrying more than two kilograms of cocaine. Then, she was released on bail for two and half years and she used that time to quit using drugs and alcohol. In the end, she entered a guilty plea. “I knew that that was the first step into actually healing and moving forward,” she says. She was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Believe it or not, though, even when O’Brien was headed for prison, she knew she could make something good out of the situation. And because she had always volunteered and liked helping others, she wanted to lend a hand to other people in the same situation. O’Brien knew she was lucky because she had a supportive family and she also realized how unfair the system is to people who don’t have those resources. The stars aligned for O’Brien about a month into serving her sentence, when she noticed some of the women making their own popcorn recipes. She thought it was pretty smart — enjoying a cheap, healthy snack that was healthier than most of the junk food in the canteen. She nurtured the idea of starting a popcorn company with exclusive flavours, some inspired by the actual ones they made in prison — and that is how Comeback Snacks got off the ground.
O’Brien started her company when she started her parole, hiring former inmates as employees. Now Comeback Snacks are sold across Ontario and shipped across North America. Part of O’Brien’s mission includes lobbying the government for prison reform, and she donates part of the profits to organizations, such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, which helps women with counselling or finding a place to live; the Yonge Street Mission; and the Renascent Toronto Addiction Treatment Centre.
“Everyone Makes Mistakes — If We Want Others To Forgive Us, Then We Have To Be Willing To Forgive Others, As Well”
What’s coming down the pipeline? Comeback Snacks is working on holiday flavours now, like Candy Cane Caramel and Nutcracker Crunch, with two savoury flavours coming out in the new year. A documentary series, called Sleepers, which is about O’Brien’s story, has already started streaming on Bell Fibe on TV1. And, on her bucket list, she’d like to go back to Indonesia, where she spent her first internship abroad, to volunteer and work with people in prison there. “I want to go around the world and do talks in prisons and eventually design an entrepreneurship course and then maybe have a grant fund, so that I can support other people’s businesses,” she adds, because it’s not easy to get loans and grants from institutions if you have a prison record.
For O’Brien, success is not just about the business. “Popcorn is the vector,” she says. But, for her, it’s also about getting a grateful message from a parent with a child in prison or someone with an addiction thanking her for helping them just by telling her story. “It’s crazy the different ways that you can help people when you’re truly transparent and honest, and willing to share your story,” she adds.
“Everyone makes mistakes. If we want others to forgive us, then we have to be willing to forgive others, as well,” says O’Brien. A more thorough understanding and a willingness to forgive are what can make our society better, she adds. “Because people who have actually been incarcerated and struggled the most are the ones who can really, really shine when they’re out of it.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL