Photo courtesy of Emily O’Brien. Her current favourite Comeback Snack right now? The Peanut Butter and Chocolate Caramel popcorn!  

Covergalls reached out to talk to one of our favourite female-led Canadian companies, who inspires us with the work they do: Emily O'Brien.

Emily is the founder of Comeback Snacks, which develops a wide range of fun and delicious snacks and hires people with criminal backgrounds who are trying to make a comeback in their lives.

We chatted with Emily about her story, how far she's have come, and just how far she has yet to go. Thanks Emily!

Note that interview have been edited for clarity and length.


I'd love to start with an introduction of yourself and your preferred title. Sort of learn a little bit about you!

My name is Emily O'Brien and I was formerly incarcerated in 2018. I had a 4 year prison sentence. I grew up in Hamilton and I'm 33 - turning 34 in November - and I conceptualised the idea of a business that intertwined with social enterprise so I could help the formerly incarcerated, including myself, restart their lives after incarceration. It’s called Comeback Snacks. 

When you were starting your business, what comes to mind as a challenge you overcame? Like selling your first bag or becoming incorporated. How did that lead to Comeback Snacks? 

I would say it was starting my life, which then turned into my business. It was starting to believe that everyone, including myself, who was in prison at the time, had so many more capabilities and skills and potential than the world seemed to think we did. So I guess it started with that and then, you know, alongside that there was an event in prison where we were watching TV and it was the Super Bowl. Everyone would make their own dishes: their favourite dish from their country or where they were from. We would tell stories and just really open up and talk about things like, ‘Oh my god, what the heck are we gonna do when this is over?’ And I realised that I wasn’t the only one that knew that it was gonna be difficult. It wasn’t just me. So I wanted to build something that could fight the stigma that people that are incarcerated aren't worthy of employment and aren't skilled, or don't have tenacity or love or character…cause it’s not true. And popcorn was a popular prison snack. It was also one of my favourite foods growing up, watching movies with my family, and a safe food because I struggled with a crippling eating disorder for almost a decade. All this helped me to create a healthy popcorn recipe, which then became my business idea.  

What is something that helped motivate you to start your business?

Look back on the past. We always hear, ‘Don't look back, don't look back,’ but you have to look back because looking back is really all the truth that you have about yourself. You don't have the truth about the future and… I think knowing that truth, and knowing that the bad things we do don’t define us in our entirety, can help you to invest in your comeback. And investing in restarting your life is the best investment you can ever make.

What would you say your favourite part of running your own business is?

My most favourite thing is being able to reach out and help so many different communities, individuals, and families by actually being who I am. Being the person that went through all of this and, instead of just playing a victim, own my own story. Because you have to own your life. And if you don't own it, someone else is going to own it for you.

I've heard this quote before that I really like - and sorry I'm going to butcher it - but it's something along the lines of ‘The only person you're going to be with your entire life is yourself, so you really have to love yourself and value yourself.’ Which I feel is similar to what you're saying, I think? Which is really cool.

Yeah. And I think recently - and don't take this the wrong way - but I think recently people have become so dependent on others and they think they can't survive without other people. But you can! You really can. I realised that being by myself I actually grew stronger. You have to find a synergy between being alone and with others; when reaching out to others will benefit you, and how to reach out to the right people. Community support is so important. Not neglecting the fact that so many people have contributed to your mission. But I think sometimes it scares people to be by themselves. A lot. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me because… you have to feel the pain, you have to feel all these things and there's no band aid solutions. Well - there are band-aid solutions, but we all know what band-aids are: they don't last long, they come off and then they just wither away. 

So it sounds like authenticity is really important to you as a value. What other values do you think are important when you're running your own business and doing your work?

I think the number one value in running your own business is never think it's your own. Because if you have this notion that's like, ‘Oh, it's MY business,’ or ‘I am my own boss,’ then that's a misguided belief in some ways because no business has ever been truly built by one person. You can control certain elements, but so many people have contributed to its success and you have to recognize that. So many people want to work with you because they believe in what you do. They see a part of them in what you are doing. I think that’s how you truly grow, including people. I think another thing you also have to value is boundaries and space. And I'm not just talking about your own, I'm talking about yours and everyone else's. For example, don’t send a message after 6pm if you don’t want to respond to it. And that goes both ways. If you have an understanding with someone you work with, because a lot of people do, that’s fine, but you can’t demand people’s time unless you give your own. And I think just being thoughtful and actually thinking about other people without yourself in mind as well. Those are the values I think that you need to have. 

Emily is wearing our Recycled High-Vis LS Shirt. It's made with recycled plastic and employs blockchain technology in a bid to reduce waste and enhance sustainability. 

And what traits make you a good business leader? Or maybe - it doesn't even have to be you yourself per se, but what are some of the traits that you think make you succeed in business? 

Woah I don’t know if I can be thought of as a ‘good business leader yet!’ But I can tell you what has worked so far in this journey. It’s going to sound a bit cliche but be yourself. The best, the most, progressive growth that I've had has come about because I've just gone into meetings as myself. I've worn sneakers with a blazer and I've laughed and I haven't, you know, tried to use advanced lexicon and fancy words. I’ve used the right lexicon, yes, you have to know what you are talking about, but you also have to admit when you don’t know the answer. I've said things like, ‘I don't know what you mean’ in meetings. Saying what you're actually feeling, and finding something in common with others? That’s important, because there is something in common with everyone. You don’t want to fabricate anything - once you start to pretend what you know and confidently claim as the right answer, it can be a slippery slope. Everyone benefits from honesty and it prepares you for the future. Admitting you don’t know the answer benefits everyone really - which brings up other values that are important, like transparency and honesty. 

And what would you say is the most valuable lesson you've learned throughout your career so far?

Oh, there's so many! I would say that the most valuable lesson I've learned is learning what an apology is. I think we all need to learn that sometimes things are our fault and….actually making an effort like reparations is the hardest thing ever. I used to say sorry for no reason, but I didn’t know how to say sorry. I used to say sorry and think a word would fix things. That saying sorry was all people wanted to hear. But it wasn’t true - it was a shortcut. I wanted to use one word, whether in person or text or email or instagram and make it all forgiven. I was cheating myself and cheating the people I was saying it to. Saying sorry is a word and being sorry is an action. I had to apologise to a number of different people who love me and that wasn’t a word it was a process. And it actually demonstrates remorse when you are sorry, and you realise that there are people that you’ve hurt. Apologies can be long. They require work. You have no control over when the people you’ve hurt will be ready to accept your apology but if people see you put in the work and actually change, I think that’s an apology itself. You have to be committed to that. People can tell when you are genuinely sorry. The people I loved put in work to support me, so they deserved the work that I put into an apology. 

Do you find you take lessons you've had in life and bring them into your work? Like, do you think it has helped you with your business?

Absolutely. I actually wrote an article last night, or part of one, about how we always hear this word: ‘stay.” It's like, ‘Oh, can you stay?’ or, ‘will you stay?’ or ‘you gotta stay.’ And at first we think that these people care about us and want us to stay but actually it's about them right? Whether it’s wanting to stay in a relationship or stay at a certain level of growth in your business. We can sometimes feel guilty for change. It’s like, ‘oh, I feel bad for changing,’ but the people that actually care about you and are invested in you and love you will know that change, or leaving or moving on, that is actually growth. It's not staying.

And it's not something to be scared of either. Like, change isn't necessarily negative, even though I feel like sometimes we tend to be scared of the idea of change because it can mean something different.

Yeah for everyone. It’s subjective. 

What's next for Emily?

The most exciting thing I think is potential legislation being put into motion to help reduce mandatory minimums in the House of Commons. This was something that I studied in prison and I was obsessed with it. I wondered, ‘Why are there so many people in prison for such long terms and they can't get out, they can't get jobs, and stuff like that?’ To me it’s kind of the most important thing. We're also really excited to be working with like a bunch of different companies doing gift boxes and care packages.

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