HERStory | Emily O’Brien
Meet Emily - Founder and CEO of Comeback Snacks
Emily O’Brien wanted to start a company that she was proud of. Comeback Snacks, a popcorn manufacturer, uses quality ingredients and offers unique flavours, while having a mission to remove the stigma associated with having a prior conviction.
Comeback Snacks endorses several organizations (such as the John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry Society, and Yonge Street Mission) focused on reintegration and prison reform. Emily’s bold message is raising awareness globally.
How did you enter the manufacturing industry? What do you enjoy the most?
I started Comeback Snacks in the most unlikely of places, and that was federal prison. Incarcerated because of importing cocaine to Canada, I was in a situation that I never thought I would be in. Yet, I was immersed in a culture where food brought people together, as did the insecurities of employment. I knew I wanted to do something with this experience – something that didn’t make me afraid. I turned something that most people would think of as embarrassing or shameful into something I was proud of.
Popcorn was a popular prison snack, and despite the restrictions on spices, lemon pepper and dill were not only delicious but a community favourite. I decided then that I wanted to start a popcorn company.
My now business partner and I would chat over the phone, create logos and send them back and forth via snail mail. The first bag was sold when I got out of prison. I would go to my mom’s house during the day, and we would pop all these bags of popcorn with a little popcorn machine. It would take us eight hours to pop maybe 25 bags.
We scaled by getting into a kitchen, going to events, and then finding a co-packer. Now we’re in 700 stores. What I enjoy the most is building a company that is a representation of who I am, while empowering myself and others.
Who is the most influential woman in your life?
My mom, Heidi. As the middle child of three, I can’t even describe the love that I have for her and the love that she has for me. I would not be where I was if it wasn’t for her. It just makes me value and appreciate the love that a mother can give. She’s a relentless supporter and a holder of unconditional love.
What has been one of the biggest hurdles in your career, and how did you overcome it?
One of my biggest hurdles was challenging myself and believing in myself because I felt so horrible about what happened. There was a feeling of worthlessness, and I had to overcome that by working on myself. There’s no band-aid solution for any of these things but knowing who you are and accepting all parts of yourself are key. I own who I am, I can laugh at myself, I don’t allow myself to get too stressed, and I’m able to set boundaries. I didn’t always know how to do that, and for too long, I felt like a doormat.
After I shared my story publicly, I knew there was a risk – you’re never going to be liked by everyone. It’s a scary kind of way to present yourself, but once I did that, I realized that everyone has been through struggles in life. There is relatability in every story, including my own.
What advice would you give young women interested in manufacturing?
Mistakes are universal, but so are comebacks. Find the humour in everything. It doesn’t mean that life is a joke, but when you can laugh at something, it means you own it, you accept it and you’ve moved on. You can’t always prevent bad things from happening, but what we can teach each other, is how to build from those things.
Business-wise – I think it’s all about impact. Making people happy is not something you can measure or quantify. As much as I want Comeback Snacks to be all over the world, the message behind the popcorn must be committed to before the popcorn is popped.