LIFEPRENEURS

How making popcorn in prison turned Emily O’Brien’s life around

Jackie Gill - August 21, 2019 Emily O'Brien went to prison for smuggling drugs into Canada. Since then, she's launched a company, appeared on Dragon's Den and speaks out about criminal justice
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Emily O’Brien is the founder of Cons & Kernels, where she sells snacks inspired by recipes she picked up while serving 10 months of a four-year sentence at Grand Valley Women’s Institution for smuggling drugs into Canada.

Since being released on parole on Dec. 3, 2018, she has pitched on Dragon’s Den, is launching a podcast called Criminally Acclaimed and pushes for change in our criminal justice system. Here is her story.

I had two great parents. I was always in sports. I did acting class and I did drawing class. I spent a lot of time at the library reading books and taking out music – I would rent out 40 CDs at one time.

In high school, I knew I was shy, so I wanted to try alcohol. Once I discovered that I liked it, I ditched my good hobbies and found bad hobbies. I tried cocaine but didn’t do a lot of it. I still managed to get good grades, and I graduated with honors.

“Once I discovered that I liked [alcohol], I ditched my good hobbies and found bad hobbies.”

– Emily O’Brien

And then I went to the University of Guelph where I did a degree in international development. I had lots of fun there – I drank a lot, but I still managed to have a job, I still managed to get good grades and I was always part of extra-curricular organizations.

I got my first corporate gig working as an outside sales rep for Pitney Bowes. That’s when I realized I was really good at marketing.

Then I met Tim. I was trying to start my own business and he was at this workshop in Toronto. He had a business that worked with Google. We actually started dating, but he lived in North Carolina. He helped me start my own business in social media.

But the life she built started falling apart.

I really liked Tim, but I didn’t love him. It’s really hard to pretend you love someone when you don’t. Even on my trips that I’d take with him, I hated everything. I drank a lot of the time when I was away. I actually ended up ending things with him.

My partying just felt out of control. And when my family split up, it got even more out of control. It was my first real loss – no one died, but when you have a cohesive unit that isn’t cohesive anymore and you see people in pain, it’s just hard.

Then I met this other guy through my work. I thought he was being genuinely nice. He helped me walk my dog, he helped me move, he kept buying me all these presents that I didn’t even want.

My partying just felt out of control. And when my family split up, it got even more out of control.”

– Emily O’Brien

And he was like, “Let’s go on a trip. There’s some work I have to do when I’m down there. I have to bring drugs back, but don’t worry – you don’t have to do anything.” I didn’t think that was a good idea, but I’d been with this guy for six months. I trusted him.

When we got [to St. Lucia], he was like, “Oh, by the way, you are bringing drugs back with you.” He got me drugs, got me alcohol to try to make me calm down because I knew that what I was doing was not a good thing. I honestly didn’t know what to do.

On the last day, we got dropped off [at the airport] with drugs strapped to my body. I was not okay, but I pretended like I was okay. At the end of the day, my safest option for getting out of the country was just doing it. I would just deal with the repercussions.

We flew into Canada and then we got pulled into secondary [customs screening] at Pearson. Of all the 16 countries that I’ve been to, I’ve never been called into secondary once. They must have read it on my body.

At least I knew I was home safe.

Her arrest was an opportunity to get help.

My bail was set at $50,000. I had to give up my condo in Toronto, give up my dog and move back in with my mom at 26.

Emily O'Brien, founder of Cons & Kernels, got inspiration for popcorn flavours from her fellow inmates who made delicious snacks with very little
Emily O’Brien, founder of Cons & Kernels, got inspiration for popcorn flavours from her fellow inmates who made delicious snacks with very little.

All of this was on the cusp of my company growing exponentially. I was put on house arrest, but I still ran my business. I ran it well and pretended like nothing was going on.

I was struggling with alcohol and drugs still. I couldn’t quit the drinking on my own, even though I went to groups to get a lesser charge. It was hard when you’re not completely taken away from the scenario.

I knew that I was guilty, so I was like, you know what? Prison might be good for me. I turned prison into my own rehab.

I took a four-year plea agreement and then I went in. 

The creativity of her fellow inmates inspired her to start a new business.

Because I was in medium security and then minimum, we cooked all of our own food. We had a weekly allowance to spend and had about 400 items to choose from.

We’d buy kernels in the canteen and then season the popcorn with our own spices. The first one – I call it the prison OG flavour – was slices of dill and a lemon pepper mix. I made jailhouse cheese, which is Kraft Dinner powder, and BeaverTail, so cinnamon, stevia and brown sugar.

Then I began to think about it from a business standpoint. There were no healthy popcorn companies in Canada that have unique flavors, have a unique story and do something more than just provide a snack.

I turned prison into my own rehab.”

– Emily O’Brien

I started developing my PR marketing plan by reading newspapers and writing down names of reporters, and even sources in the back of books. I wrote a lot of letters and even called people.

I worked with my business partner over the phone. And then I had my friend Google stuff, print it out for me and mail it in, like articles and popcorn recipe ideas, and what makes the best popcorn. 

Her experience also inspired her to speak out about the drug trade.

I knew ahead of time that there was something going down on my trip. A lot of times, girls don’t know. They’ll just be going on a trip with their boyfriend, and it’ll be sprung on them.

There are guys out there who are experts at making girls feel special and making them fall in love. Vulnerable girls. That’s how it all starts.

“I was going to find a way to share my story in a way that could help people understand why people go to prison.”

– Emily O’Brien

Or they owe money and that’s the only way they can pay it back. Maybe their husband took all their money and now they’re in debt. Maybe their husband abused them and they left. I met so many people in prison who have all these different stories of abuse and hardship.

I knew I was going to find a way to share my story in a way that could help people understand why people go to prison, so that people my age can see the signs before it’s too late. 

And she’s giving newly released convicts a second chance.

Emily O'Brien wants to improve how ex-prisoners integrate back into society - and she's leading the charge by hiring them in her popcorn business
Emily wants to improve how ex-prisoners integrate back into society – and she’s leading the charge by hiring them in her popcorn business

I think a lot of the time crime is perceived as evil. It’s actually people in pain. The more people understand that, I think people coming out of prison will have an easier time.

The first part of what I’m doing is basically understanding what people want when they leave prison. A lot of people want to work, a lot of people just want to see their families, a lot of people are still struggling with addictions.

I’m talking to employers, I’m talking to different awareness groups, I eventually want to make some changes in the senate. But I’m starting change right away by hiring people.


Today, Emily’s sober and happy.

I don’t care about partying anymore, because I realized it puts you in a really vulnerable state, and it’s crazy how easily people can fuck with you.

I’m still alive, so I’m thankful for that.

Photo credit: @encyimages

Interview edited for brevity.

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