These women were in prison. Thanks to an extraordinary program, they're now entrepreneurs.
True
Capital One Future Edge

When she decided she wanted to start her own business, Rebecca 'Cafe' Brown was in the unlikeliest place — prison.

She was partway through a five-year sentence for domestic violence-related charges when she realized that something had to change in her life.

Due to a particularly traumatic childhood, Brown found herself in abusive relationships, and those abusive relationships led to incarceration. Though prison wasn't pleasant, she credits it with helping her come to terms with her history.


It's also where she made an important decision: “I didn't want to come out the same way I went in," she says. “This was a wake-up call."

Two years before she was released, Brown heard about a program called Ladies Empowerment & Action Program (LEAP) which teaches incarcerated women the skills they'll need to succeed once they're out of prison.

She believed it would help her get on the right path.

Women apply for LEAP when they are at other facilities in Florida, and if they are accepted, are transferred to Homestead, a multi-security facility.

At Homestead, the women in the program take part in classes like “Thinking for Change," where they learn how to process complex emotions in healthy ways. They're also partnered with mentors who help them learn time management, how to create business plans, and how to balance wants and needs once they're living on their own.

But the program offered Brown something even more important than that. For the first time in a long time, she felt hopeful.

LEAP helped Brown become part of a community, and that community has helped her achieve a level of success she never imagined possible.

“Now, I care about people," she says. That's why she's always promoting the program to people around her.

She's even joined LEAP's board and spends a great deal of time at Dragonfly Thrift Boutique, LEAP's storefront.

Dragonfly provides formerly incarcerated women a launching pad to a new career. It gives them a chance to share their stories, learn valuable skills, and work in an environment that's safe and supportive — often for the first time in their lives.

“We've got a lady," Brown says, "that just got out of prison and she's an amazing young lady. And she said to us recently, 'Nobody has ever told me that I can do something.' Everybody has always told her what she couldn't do."

Essentially, LEAP allows women to grow more confident and empowered in the business world before going out on their own.

As a result, the business Brown dreamed up in prison is now becoming a reality.

Brown now works as a chef at Camillus House, a homeless shelter. She's also recently saved up enough to start her own business — Liberty Soaps, which are sold at Dragonfly.

“The theme is to liberate your soul," Brown says, “Liberate your skin and you liberate your soul. We also liberate the women coming out of prison by donating proceeds from the sale of the soap. So it's a cause."

“It's like the Dragonfly Thrift. You're not just buying a bar of soap. You're not just buying a pair of pants. You're actually helping another person and that's powerful."

If there's any other business that Brown would give some credit for helping her get on her feet, it's Capital One. LEAP does a lot of events at the Capital Oné Cafe in Coral Gables, which is near LEAP's offices.

At the Café, Brown participates in workshops that enable her to network with other people in the area, allowing her to expand her business and get creative with her ideas. Brown says the workshops help her make sure that no ideas fall by the wayside.

Brown's not the only one on the road to success. After being incarcerated in almost every prison in Florida, Rebecca McLemore is also turning her life around.

Before McLemore joined LEAP, she had 14 felonies on her record, and spent years in prison. "I had a problem with pain pills," she says. "That's my addiction."

She didn't know if she'd ever get another chance at a better life.

But in December 2016, McLemore learned about LEAP from a woman who'd completed it. In her journal, McLemore remembers writing, "God, whatever the LEAP program is, I want it."

McLemore says being chosen for LEAP "was the second time God had ever answered one of my prayers."

In the six months that McLemore has been out of prison, she's been working at Dragonfly Thrift Boutique, and recently saved up enough money to buy a car.

Recently, she became Dragonfly's permanent assistant manager. "That's supposed to be a temporary position," she laughs, "but the board members are saying, 'we don't want to lose you.' I decided this is where my heart is."

LEAP has made McLemore more confident. She's trying new things and learning more about herself. She's starting her own business as well.

When McLemore was incarcerated in 2011, she was chosen to be part of a dog-training program in prison. Since then, she's discovered that she's a natural, able to work with dogs that even pros have problems with. So aside from her work with LEAP and her position at Dragonfly, McLemore has also started offering dog obedience training.

"My first client actually is a police officer," notes McLemore. "For a police officer to trust me is amazing."

"From going where I was to this right here, it's been life-changing."

Currently, McLemore is looking to expand her business — LEAP even helped her with business cards — and loving herself more. For someone who's experienced a lifetime of trauma, it's hard for McLemore to believe that she deserves the love and respect she now has. But as she becomes more and more successful, her opinion of herself is changing.

This personalized support is one of the reasons that LEAP is so successful. It's no surprise the program's lowering recidivism rates with every graduating class.

And LEAP is only growing. However, it's retaining its original mission: women who have been incarcerated deserve more, can do more, and can achieve great success.

"We really want more for our graduates than to just not go back to prison," says Mahlia Lindquist, LEAP's Executive Director. "There's more to life than that. We want them to be able to support their families and to be part of the community."

Lindquist, a former prosecutor who spends her time between Miami and Boulder, CO, is grateful for Capital One, whose support was a result of unexpected events.

One day, she'd stopped in at a Capital One Café in Boulder for coffee, started asking a Capital One Ambassador questions, and just a few weeks later, the financial organization was designing a partnership with and providing a grant to support LEAP's mission.

"Since then, they've supported us financially but they're also very hands on," explains Lindquist. "They have some of their [South Florida] Ambassadors come every single Thursday. They have hosted events for us at the store. We've gotten two or three of [their Ambassadors in Miami] recently cleared to actually go into the prison to teach financial literacy."

"We were moved by the mission of LEAP and its alignment with Capital One's Future Edge initiative, focused on equipping people with skills to succeed in today's economy," says Nancy Lambert, Community Engagement lead at Capital One. "Listening to Mahlia's passion for helping these women, and building connections with our associates in South Florida has been gratifying."

The work that LEAP does, Lindquist says, is invaluable.

What's even more priceless, however, is the hope that LEAP has brought to so many of its participants.

"You have to put in the work," Rebecca McLemore says. "You have to put in the sweat. You have to put in the effort and have to throw all your fears away and just say, 'I'm all in.' If you do that, the results will be life-changing."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
True

When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

Keep Reading Show less
Courtesy of Nextdoor

Jayden, Jayson, Jordan, Jeffery and Jared received an outpouring of support from neighbors after they came home from the NICU at almost a year old.

True

When the children's hospital called Aileen's pediatric occupational therapy clinic in July of 2020, the clinic was closed due to pandemic lockdowns. The hospital informed her that a set of quintuplet baby brothers had been born in November of 2019 and would be in need of her services once they were released. Would she be able to help?

Aileen often gets direct referrals from the hospital for families with special conditions, and premature quintuplets who spent their first year of life receiving oxygen and feeding through tubes certainly fit that bill. She decided to open her clinic specifically for the babies and their mother, Jackie. As the babies were released, they came to Aileen for ongoing occupational therapy, and by November 2020, all five boys were being cared for at the clinic.

The quintuplets stayed in the NICU for nearly a year after they were born.Courtesy of Nextdoor

Jackie is a single mom who moved to the U.S. from Ghana a couple of years ago. She lives with her mom and aunt in the Atlanta area and also has another son, Daniel, who was 3 years old when the boys came home from the hospital. With a preschooler and five babies needing medical care, Jackie definitely needed more help than her family and church could provide, but she was too shy to ask for it. Eventually, she confided in Aileen that she could use help with diapers. Even with one baby, diapers are expensive; keeping up with five at once would be overwhelming.

Aileen contacted local aid organizations who normally have diapers to offer, but they were all in short supply due to the pandemic. So she decided to reach out to her neighbors instead.

Keep Reading Show less
True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!