Former Grand Valley inmate reveals how making popcorn in prison changed her life

A 30-year-old former Grand Valley inmate believes she’s found her calling: making and selling artisanal popcorn.

“So one day I was seeing what people were making, their snacks in prison, and they’re making popcorn and bringing unique combinations of spices to it,” said Emily O’Brien. “And I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is great.’”

In 2015, O’Brien found herself in trouble with the law, arrested at Pearson International Airport in Toronto after she was caught in the possession of narcotics returning from a St Lucia trip.

“I was always a pretty, like a really good kid, but unfortunately I dealt with some things the wrong way and was doing a lot of drugs at a point in my life and drinking a lot,” O’Brien told Global News Radio. “Then I made a bad decision to go on a trip with someone I should not have gone with to bring narcotics back into Canada.”

After her arrest, O’Brien said she spent two and a half years out on bail before being sentenced to four years in prison, leading to her stint at Grand Valley Institution for women just southeast of Kitchener.

“I knew that I was going to prison for a reason and I knew that I’ve had enough motivation and faith in me and goodwill and me to turn the whole thing around.”

LISTEN: Global News Radio’s Scott Thompson talks with a former inmate about a prison experience that led to a new business venture. 

O’Brien says she was inspired within the first few months of her incarceration by how creative other inmates were with snacks, considering the limited food resources prisoners face.

“It was only a month or so in when I noticed that some of the women were making their own popcorn recipes with the ingredients possible within the food budget,” O’Brien said.

“I was instantly struck by how really smart and creative it was. Popcorn was like this simple blank canvas for women of all backgrounds to express themselves through different mixes of spices and other flavours.”

The episode inspired O’Brien to start her own popcorn company not just to sell it and make money but to offer up employment for those who have done time.

“And I was like, I’m going to start a popcorn company and build it so that it can actually employ people eventually down the road that have done time as well because I know how hard it is to reintegrate once you’ve done time.”

O’Brien’s company Cons and Kernels, which features popcorn flavours like Peanut Butter and Jam, as well as the cinnamon dusted Beaver Tail, has been around for about six months after her release from jail in early December 2018.

Emily O’Brien says creativity from some former fellow inmates inspired her new snack business.

She says she had help from a friend on the outside who sent market research via conventional mail, analyzing potential competitors and the viability of her idea.

“And then he bought the domain ( and like I would be live blogging,” said O’Brien, “I’d write articles and post it on the blog, like I’d mail blog articles out to him and he would post it. ”

O’Brien’s potential business got a boost from Dragon’s Den alumnus David Chilton after she wrote the article “The Relatively Wealthy Inmate”, a play on Chilton’s best-selling book “The Wealthy Barber”, which offered advice on how to make the most out of the limited amount of money acquired while in prison.

“I ended up sending it to his office and I said, ‘hey, is it okay if I post this on my blog?’ And his assistant read it and was like,  ‘Dave, oh Dave, you gotta check this girl out.’”

Chilton reached out and helped O’Brien make connections with people he knew in similar industries.

When asked where her future lies, O’Brien says wants to eventually hand off her business to other inmates and direct her focus more on the PR end of the business

“I want to grow the business so that…other people can run it eventually, “said O’Brien. “There’s only so much talent that goes unnoticed that are basically people that come out of prison.

“I want to focus more on the speaking and eventually writing and doing videos and then we’ll go from there.”

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