Kabira Stokes thinks society is too quick to dispose of things it doesn’t want. Not just things, but people, too. In 2011, Stokes launched Isidore Electronics Recycling (named for the patron saint of computers and the Internet) to collect companies’ old electronics and either break them down for environmentally safe disposal or refurbish them for resale. For every 50,000 pounds of waste it collects, the company hires another employee: a former inmate seeking steady work as an alternative to crime. Stokes, 36, currently employs 11 people--six of them formerly incarcerated. She would like to expand that to 75 in her Los Angeles warehouse and to see the model replicated around the country. Stokes related Isidore’s story to Inc. Editor-at-Large Leigh Buchanan at the recent Social Venture Network conference in Connecticut.
I was just 22 when 9/11happened. I thought, “This will give us an opportunity as a country to pause and reflect on why someone would do this to us.” Then when I saw what our reaction was, I became incensed. I started marching against the war. Just lost my marbles really. I needed to channel all that anger and all that youth. I doubted that anything I did was going to affect the federal government. So I started thinking, “What is going on in my own city? How can I effect change here?”
I was living in Los Angeles, and I met Eric Garcetti, who is now the mayor. At the time he was on the city council, representing the third poorest district in LA. He said: “Oh, you’re so mad at the government! You want to come see how it works?” And I was like, “Fine!” He hired me as a field deputy. I went to community meetings. I would fight for a local bakery that the Bureau of Sanitation was trying to make put in an expensive grease trap. I went to the neighborhood watch meetings. I realized that the nitty-gritty local level is where government meets the road.
I was seeing the effects of gangs and people jumping in and out of the prison system. When these people come out they are not not going to come home, and they need to make an honest living. But there’s this insanity: People commit crimes. They serve their punishment. They come out. But we never, ever forgive them. No one will employ them. They have no place to live. There is mental instability. People haven’t been given proper drug and alcohol treatment. It’s a public safety issue. What do we think is going to happen?
I went back to school and got a master’s in public policy from the University of Southern California. My focus was on the California prison system and how we can put this population to work. I was looking at all these amazing social service agencies getting people job-ready. But they are totally at a bottleneck because there is no way to put people out into the workforce. It seemed to me there is a gap to be filled by just regular old companies that will give these folks a chance.
In 2009, the whole green jobs discussion was happening. I met a man from Indiana who was running a large nonprofit that did reentry work through electronics recycling. They were taking guys and women three days out of prison and putting them to work tearing apart old TVs and computers. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. I decided I wanted to create jobs directly instead of trying to do it through legislation. I’m a pretty scrappy gal. I figured I could convince people to give me some e-waste.
In 2011, I raised $500,000 from friends and family. For a while in the past I had wanted to be a fashion designer, and years earlier I had worked for American Apparel. So I called [founder and former CEO] Dov Charney and asked if they had any warehouse space. He said, “Yeah, put it in the corner of the Seventh Street warehouse.” I was there for a year. They ended up having about 20,000 pounds of our e-waste in their basement.
We have two sets of customers. Upstream are the businesses we get the e-waste from: companies that have environmental and social goals or just need a legal way to dispose of their old electronics. Downstream are the end-of-life processors and people that sell refurbished goods. We also have a small revenue stream from renting vintage electronics to film and television companies. We believe the highest form of recycling is reuse, so we are trying to cull as much as possible out of the waste stream that can be refurbished. It also requires a higher skill level, so our guys can make more money learning how to fix a screen or a computer.
When we bring people in for an interview there’s a question that everyone is dreading, which is “Do you have a record?” We never ask it. We know they have a record. And when people realize that we're not going to ask, they relax into being just human. The ones we hire do things like drive trucks, do general warehouse work, operate forklifts, and repair and refurbish products. We won’t hire anyone who has a background in identity theft or fraud because we deal with people’s data. Yes, there are inefficiencies. For example, sometimes my guys can’t show up because they need to meet their parole officers. But for the most part when they are job-ready, they are job-ready. And this is one of the most loyal, amazingly hardworking workforces.
One of our guys has been in and out of prison 12 times. When he got out this time he called us. We didn’t have anything open. But he kept showing up. We were like, “All right. Help us at a collection event.” He did a great job. We hired him part time. Today he is our assistant warehouse manager. He has bought a car and sees his son and has paid down his debts. The other day he opened my office door and poked his head in and said, “Hey boss. I thought you might like to know that I’ve been out two years today. I have not done heroin. I have not done crystal meth. Thanks.” I said, “You got it, buddy.” He said, “I’m going back to work now.” It was pretty awesome.
My real dream is doing business with the county and the state. Because those are the entities that have correctional facilities. You have folks coming out of county jails. You have 2,000 county facilities with all that e-waste. Why don’t we put them together? One county official said to me, “What an elegant solution.” And it is!