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.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."