The Power of Second Chances with Cheri Garcia at Cornbread Hustle
Checkr chats with the founder of Cornbread Hustle, a staffing agency dedicated to creating second chances, on her journey to entrepreneurship and the future of fair chance hiring.
Cheri Garcia is the formidable founder and leader of Cornbread Hustle, a staffing agency dedicated to opening doors and creating opportunities for second chances. Cornbread Hustle was recently named the 2021 Social Innovator of the Year award by United Way, and has placed over 1,000 candidates in jobs over the last year.
Cheri went through her own transformation and recovery battling addiction. Through faith and a sober lifestyle, Cheri’s entrepreneurial spirit empowers her to help returning citizens rebrand themselves to become their best selves and secure employment. Before founding the staffing agency, Cheri’s career spanned inventing a tanning bed, starting a career in the TV news industry, and working in marketing and PR. Cornbread Hustle is the manifestation of her passion to help people with criminal backgrounds and individuals in recovery transform their lives through employment and entrepreneurship.
We got to chat with Cheri from her post in Texas about:
- Tackling the biggest challenges faced by previously incarcerated individuals and people in recovery
- The role of rebranding oneself in the job search
- What employers need to know about implementing fair chance hiring
Hi Cheri! Please introduce yourself and tell us more about your company, Cornbread Hustle.
Cheri Garcia: My name is Cheri Garcia and I am the CEO of Cornbread Hustle. Cornbread Hustle is a staffing agency for second chances meaning we help people in recovery and people coming out of prison find meaningful employment. I decided to start this company six years ago because I previously battled addiction. Right after my senior year of high school and a few years following I had a methamphetamine addiction.
I was able to conquer that addiction and pour myself into entrepreneurship and find a career I was passionate about. However, I ended up dealing with alcoholism as well. After learning new coping skills and really looking inward to become a better person and entrepreneur, I felt that this company could help others do the same.
You’re helping previously incarcerated individuals as well as recovering individuals secure jobs. What are some of the biggest challenges your candidates face during the job search?
Cheri Garcia: The biggest challenge for our job seekers who have a criminal record isn’t the fact that they have a criminal record—because I’m seeing a lot more employers open to that.
A big issue that we are seeing is a lack of transportation or location. Sometimes the people we serve have to live in sober homes or transitional housing, or they have a GPS monitor on their ankle which doesn’t allow them to work certain days and has a certain curfew which can conflict with work schedules.
In the same vein, people often have to take different classes for parole. For instance, we can’t hire a candidate that is ready to work right now, because every Tuesday and Thursday morning he has a mandatory parole class.
Not many employers are willing to make special exceptions for one person because he has parole twice a week. While employers are increasingly willing to hire people with criminal records, we have to remember that an employer has to operate within certain work hours and sometimes the parole restrictions can really hold someone back.
“Sometimes someone who has a convicted murder charge or a person who has three charges for assault with a deadly weapon ultimately makes the best employee.”
Then, there’s also the myth that violent charges are the ones to stay away from. Many times we’ll have employers tell us that they’ll only hire non-violent drug offenders.
The problem there is that approximately nine times out of ten, if not more, drug charges come with another charge—whether it be theft or a violent charge associated with that drug charge. It’s not just the non-violent drug charges that make for a great employee. Sometimes someone who has a convicted murder charge or a person who has three charges for assault with a deadly weapon ultimately makes the best employee.
I have many of those types of individuals that work for us and they are great employees. Conversely, we have candidates with a single non-violent drug offense who didn’t make great employees.
The biggest barrier people face, in addition to the things I mentioned earlier, is the fact that organizations often use a broad stroke to paint over the type of offenses they’re willing to hire. They may say we’re not going to hire anybody with first degree felonies—which not only narrows their talent pool, but it also creates a lack of space for people who need employment.
You have a background in marketing and PR, and I know part of Cornbread Hustle is to prepare people for the interview process. Could you talk us through the importance of creating a personal brand for your candidates as they seek employment?
Cheri Garcia: Absolutely. I’ve learned that it’s really important to not just focus on becoming successful in your career. Career success won’t fix you. What we have to do is work on fixing ourselves and finding out what we really want and need in life. To tackle this, I created a 12 week Starting Over program. The first two months are dedicated to self awareness exercises to get people back in touch with their inner child. Rebranding really starts with reconnecting to that inner child and understanding what your authentic self looks like.
Oftentimes, during the first two months of the program, people will change their mind about what they want. Through the work, they realize, “Oh! I wasn’t being my true authentic self. That was a mask I was wearing when I said I wanted to be in this profession. I wanted that job to prove my dad wrong and show I’m not a failure.” Now that they’ve connected with their inner child, they have a much clearer picture of what they want and who they want to be.
It’s such an important process so we dedicate the first two months to digging deep to uncover those truths. The last month of the program, we do a lot of exercises around reverse engineering goals.
“Rebranding really starts with reconnecting to that inner child and understanding what your authentic self looks like.”
I ask the candidates to define five things they want to accomplish by the end of the year. I encourage them to shoot for the moon because—you know the adage—no matter what, they’ll land amongst the stars. Then, month by month, we break down the larger goal into smaller goals that they can accomplish over time.
When we talk about rebranding yourself for the job search, it requires self empowerment. And this is where we empower people because when they start to meet those smaller goals, they are constantly checking in on their progress and they start to feel excited and realize that they are within reach of the larger goals.
Just about everyone has social media these days, and one thing that I’ve seen really help people progress and stay empowered is when they’re able to share their wins on social media.
“I share my pain, my struggles, and how I dealt with them in order to inspire others to confront their own.”
It’s a powerful way to rebrand, starting to share with the world what they’ve accomplished. Part of that involves helping them walk in the shoes of an employer to understand their worth, what they can contribute, and their value as an employee.
Let’s say a candidate’s goal is to become an auto body paint technician, but I placed them in a job at a restaurant being a busboy. The empowerment isn’t there, they’re not going to feel excited or feel like they’re getting closer to their goal. Even if that busboy position pays $12 an hour—they are going to be so much more excited to have an entry level job at an auto body shop as a paint technician for $10 an hour. Because now, they are pursuing their dreams and learning by doing, taking small steps to make the larger dream a reality.
We’ve hired over 1,000 employees in the last year—so I can’t have these 1:1 conversations with every candidate. I created the 12 week Starting Over program to help candidates find self empowerment. It’s me in front of the camera walking candidates through the steps, and I’m very vulnerable through it all because I want them to have their guard down and to find their own path to healing. I share my pain, my struggles, and how I dealt with them in order to inspire others to confront their own.
“Regularly checking in and celebrating the small wins is critical.”
As participants start to remember things that have happened to them or things they may feel shameful about, the recurring message is to not beat yourself up. The program is there to nurture the inner child.
Then, as they start to accomplish little wins, they can post it to social media, text me or somebody at Cornbread Hustle, or talk with a mentor about their milestones. Regularly checking in and celebrating the small wins is critical. We’ve been doing it since we were children—we got gold stars for doing a good job and our parents knew if we had a “green day” or “red day” or “yellow day”. We still need those moments as adults. When we reconnect with our inner child we realize that we still need that little pat on the back to feel like we’re on the right track.
When it comes to fair hiring, what would success look like in 10-15 years? What improvements do employers need to make?
Cheri Garcia: Most of the companies I work with are billion dollar publicly traded companies, and this is what I tell every single client that I work with in our first meeting. First and foremost—you need to get empathy training for supervisors. Organizations spend a lot of money on leadership and empathy training for the human resources department and the people making hiring decisions—but what about the managers and people leaders?
It’s not enough to have your HR team go to trainings and conferences and decide to implement fair chance hiring.
What I’ve seen happen is a company will make the big decision to start hiring people with criminal records, but not get buy-in from the folks who actually work with and manage fair chance hires day in and day out—and because they’re not prepared, resentment starts to seep in. Particularly if folks have a skewed image of what it looks like to be somebody who has a felony on their record.
“Organizations spend a lot of money on leadership and empathy training for the human resources department and the people making hiring decisions—but what about the managers and people leaders?”
If the leaders and the managers aren’t bought in, it can create a disgruntled workplace which can manifest in an unhealthy environment. You need their buy-in.
Many times we’ll go into a company and we’ll talk to the supervisors and leaders. Remember, these are people who may have started with entry level pay in the warehouse maybe just a year or two ago. Even if they don’t have a criminal record, they have their struggles, just like the rest of us. They may not have had access to education, or an opportunity, and had to work their way up. I come in to educate and build empathy and both dispel misconceptions as well as address any concerns.
I tell them that I have a criminal record, that I was a meth dealer and an alcoholic. I have employees raise their hand if they know anybody who has been an addict before, or if they know anybody who has been arrested, in an effort to humanize the situation.
“I have employees raise their hand if they know anybody who has been an addict before, or if they know anybody who has been arrested, in an effort to humanize the situation.”
I also need to educate them, for example, that fair chance hiring isn’t implemented because the company is desperate and they need to bring in people from prison, but rather, this is a step your organization is taking to be more inclusive and this is how you can make a difference in people’s lives every single day. This opportunity that your company is giving you by bringing in people who need a second chance is allowing you to develop your skills as a leader and to have a real impact.
I want to highlight the importance of getting team leads, managers, and supervisors on board with fair chance hiring to ensure success. What’s more, you also want to get the peers and fellow employees that are going to be working with second chance individuals, on board with your fair hiring program as well.
You won’t be successful if you send out a company-wide announcement that says, “We’re hiring felons now.” No. In that example, the 1,000 people in your warehouse are going to start talking and rumors start spreading, creating that unhealthy work environment. You need internal PR. Not only to garner people’s buy-in, but also to get everyone excited that they’re going to make a huge difference in people’s lives.
“You need internal PR. Not only to garner people’s buy-in, but also to get everyone excited that they’re going to make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
When you can effectively communicate the impact and importance of fair chance hiring, not only have you opened your hiring pools and opened the door to many who are kept out of the workforce, but you also create a newfound purpose for employees to come to work every single day with excitement and passion because they know they can make a difference. When done right, implementing fair chance hiring can transform an organization.
Thank you so much for sharing these insights with us, Cheri!
Cheri Garcia: Thank you!
Interested in learning more about Cornbread Hustle? Find information for both job seekers and employers here. Learn more about Cheri Garcia, and be sure to check out Cornbread Hustle on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.