Cheri Garcia was an honor roll cheerleader, turned meth addict and dealer, who turned her life around. She then became a CBS reporter doing PR for Mark Cuban and an entrepreneur all before age 30. Now, she helps former criminals like her become legit bosses.
Cheri Garcia learned to hone her hustle for good and now pays it forward by helping former felons become business owners with her business, Cornbread Hustle. Here is her incredible story:
SWAAY: Tell us about the beginning of your journey from cheerleader, to addict and dealer, to CBS as well as doing PR for Mark Cuban to your new venture: Cornbread Hustle.
I grew up in a great household. played softball and I was on the cheerleading team. I was always somehow in some kind of mischief or trouble growing up because I have a rebellious personality, but things didn't get dangerous until my senior year of high school. My parents got a divorce and I started experimenting with meth. A neighbor told me that "ice" was something that made you get good grades, lose weight, and stay awake longer. I thought that sounded like a pretty good deal. The ultimate reason I decided to try it was to lose weight.
But, then I started selling it to fuel my own habit. In just three short months I went from being an honor student, to being kicked off the cheerleading team and almost didn't graduate due to truancy. Ultimately, I was arrested about eleven times but it was a miracle I was never arrested for possession. My first two arrests were for shoplifting. I also got a DWI when I was 20. That was my last arrest. I was under 21 and still was found not guilty. I never stayed in jail longer than two weeks. I always just sat out my time or got bailed out. I once stayed in a juvenile jail for Thanksgiving because my parents were trying to teach me a lesson.
SWAAY: What did you learn in jail?
I never spent long enough to really comment on that. My guys who did 20 years would laugh at me. But even if it's just 24 hours in jail you learn that freedom is not something to take for granted.
SWAAY: How did you come up with the name “Cornbread Hustle?"
In chow hall when I was volunteering in the prions, they would joke that I was eating everyone's food. The name was inspired after a scene from the movie “Life," in which Eddie Murphy's character stands up to a fellow inmate who tries to bully him into giving away his cornbread at lunch. The reference carries into a side part of the program to help participants earn extra income, selling cornbread mix.
SWAAY: How did you finally get clean?
I just quit, cold turkey. The reason though was because during my last relapse, after a month of being clean, I happened to get arrested because I had a warrant and the cops showed up to the house that I was at due to a disturbance. The people I was with were mad at a dealer in the house for not answering the door so they caused a scene by banging on the door and yelling. The cops told me while I was handcuffed in the back seat "You were the last person we thought we would arrest back there." They went on to tell me that my future would be destroyed if I kept hanging around those people. It wasn't so much the cops telling me to stop and that I listened, but more because I realized at that moment that the reality of being sober sucked, but not nearly as bad as getting arrested. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired so I just deleted my phone number when I got out of jail and made sure I stayed away from everyone that I used with or sold to. Another contributing factor is my mom invested in my first business and helped me get a car, all under the condition that I lived with her and stayed clean. She also paid for me to attend online graphic design school. Creating things and making money made me feel a high I didn't have before. This is why entrepreneurship saved my life and why “Cornbread Hustle" exists today. I wanted to show people who struggled just like me what entrepreneurship can do for them.
SWAAY: Seems like a connection between selling legally and illegally.
Selling is selling. It's all the same. Distribution, manufacturing, wholesale, retail , inventory, it's all the same. The only difference with selling drugs is that it's illegal. Former drug dealers can become great entrepreneurs. We already took risks that could ruin our lives so it's nothing to take risks that could better our lives.
SWAAY: Tell us about the businesses you started after jail up to Cornbread Hustle.
I created Cornbread Hustle because I have been volunteering in prisons for 4 years after a mentor of mine told me about it. I emailed them immediately and got involved. This entailed going into prison and teaching entrepreneurship classes and working on business plans. I ended up becoming a very active volunteer and represented them twice on the Steve Harvey show. Several of their students come through Cornbread Hustle pretty often. Both of our organizations have the same mission: To reduce recidivism.
One thing I noticed is when these guys got out, they literally were lost on what to do. I was spending so much time and energy helping these guys get jobs and back on their feet and my bank account was draining. So I decided to start this social enterprise venture to monetize my passion in a business sense.
SWAAY: How did you meet Mark Cuban?
In 2011 I emailed Mark Cuban and asked him who I should hire to make a business plan and he replied that you should always make your own. I didn't take his advice and paid $1200 to get one created. It did nothing for me and was a waste of money. It was one of my first lessons of learning that sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and learn the processes yourself before blindly giving your money away because of laziness and fear.
I asked him permission to do PR for his app DUST and set up events. That led to getting more involved with his team and collaborating with some of his companies with PR efforts. I must clarify I do not work for him or any of his companies. This is a give and take for my own growth experience. Mark loves seeing entrepreneurs succeed if they're willing to put in the work. I've seen him be helpful to many young aspiring entrepreneurs like myself.
SWAAY: What's the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur?
I would say the lack of stability and no days off. You have to really get used to being uncomfortable and okay with being broke or you won't make it. You have to be able to smile and get through your workday with a negative bank balance, knowing that you have the potential to turn that around. The roller coaster of highs and lows are intense for Entrepreneurs.
SWAAY: Ultimately, how did you learn to be an entrepreneur?
Really just trial and error. You learn very quickly why people are saying no or why people aren't buying your product when you have to survive and pay the bills.
SWAAY: Do you have a particular daily routine?
I start my days with my best friend and business partner with our trainer at 6am. We do that to give us some type of structure because we never know what the day may bring. Working with felons isn't the most predictable business. Every Thursday night we do have our Cornbread Hustle classes. Working out and Cornbread Hustle classes are the only concrete thing on our schedule.
SWAAY: Does faith play at all in your life/business?
Without faith, there'd be failure. I'm a huge believer in knowing everything is going to be alright and leaving "it in God's hands". Faith plays a major role in knowing that when a door closes another one opens or that "everything happens for a reason"
SWAAY: Do you feel like life is harder as a female entrepreneur?
I believe it's easier. Many people would disagree with me on that but in my line of work with all the ventures I've pursued, being a female didn't seem to hinder my success. There are of course cons to being a woman in business such as lack of respect but I learned a long time ago that its up to me to draw lines and demand respect. So I got pretty good at that and its become second nature.
SWAAY: Where do you get your work ethic?
I believe that I've taken the biggest risks of my life by always literally "risking my life". The struggles with entrepreneurship seem minor compared to the life I was living. Doing sales and marketing is a walk in the park these days, because I'll tell you what... You can't really do a ton of marketing and sleep well at night when you're selling and doing drugs.
SWAAY: What is the biggest business lesson you've learned so far?
Hire slow, fire fast. I have a lot of anxiety as well as a big heart, so there have been times that I've gone into business with someone because I could tell how bad they needed it, putting my needs on the back burner. This almost always resulted in an uncomfortable business break up and money lost. As females we could all work on separating emotional feelings with business dealings.
SWAAY: What are your future goals and big plans?
I plan to franchise out Cornbread Hustle nationwide. Specifically to non-profits that help inmates and people in recovery that could use a for-profit arm to help fund their ventures. We are taking it slow because we want to make sure the brand is protected by bringing in people who are in it for the right reasons.
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.