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 of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.