These women were in prison. Thanks to an extraordinary program, they're now entrepreneurs.

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."

Future Edge
True
Capital One Future Edge
Gillette

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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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