Q&A with Kabira Stokes, MPP ’11
After graduating with a Master of Public Policy from the USC Price School in 2011, Kabira Stokes is the founder and CEO of Isidore Electronics Recycling. The LA-based company provides electronics recycling services, while also functioning as an on-the-job training and employment program for previously incarcerated individuals who face barriers to employment.
This is a very innovative approach that blends “green” business, community engagement and public service. How did the idea for your company come about?
While I was studying at USC, I was working with an organization called Green For All in Oakland, Calif. Green For All was started by former Obama staffer Van Jones and is dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Part of my work was to help convene a community of practitioners all involved in green job training for previously incarcerated people (which was what I happened to be writing my practicum on). One of the practitioners was Gregg Keesling, President of the non-profit, RecyleForce. It was Gregg who first told me that electronics are the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and that there is real value to be mined out of our old devices. Gregg and his Indianapolis-based crew recycle millions of pounds of electronics each year, and train hundreds of people through their e-waste recycling prison reentry program. Upon graduation, I couldn’t stop thinking about what RecycleForce was doing in Indianapolis, and in the fall of 2011, I teamed up with a graduate of the Marshall School of Business next door, and we started Isidore.
What sparked your desire for helping LA’s incarcerated population transition back into society?
The very first sparks began when I worked for then-LA City Council President Eric Garcetti as a field deputy and saw the need for employment opportunities for young people of color in low-income neighborhoods. I became deeply interested in gang prevention and intervention and in the situation in the California prisons, and decided to go back to school to really understand these issues and the policies around them. At the time, California correctional facilities were at 200 percent capacity and being ordered by the federal government to reduce their population. But, with a 70 percent recidivism rate, where was the plan to keep people from returning to prison once they left? When you look at this issue for any amount of time, you realize that one of the main barriers to successful re-entry from prison is the almost complete lack of employment opportunities for people with records. I decided to try and create some opportunities myself, and hopefully create a model that could scale and provide some real training and jobs for the population.
I think it is also worth noting that the ultimate spark for me is my belief that the mass incarceration that occurs in this country is a civil rights issue. I am not satisfied with one-in-nine young black men being incarcerated at any one time, or with one-in-100 citizens overall being behind bars. So that’s the spark that keeps me going.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?
It’s been a pretty amazing experience, to watch something move from being a wacky idea to a business plan to a warehouse full of e-waste and a staff of eight. But, in general, I think this story sums it up:
Stephen came to us after being incarcerated 12 separate times. He is now sober, lives in a halfway house, and is one of our best employees, working in our de-manufacturing department (the department where we take things apart, mining for what’s precious). One day, he was taking apart some cash registers and he started to find… cash. Some ones, some fives, one twenty — he gave them to us and we said, “whatever you find, we will give you a cut of at the end of the day.” He continued on, found another five, and then found a $100 bill. He handed it over too, and at the end of the day went to our office manager to get his cut. She gave it to him and he looked at her and said, “You know, I think that’s the first time in my life that I have ever actually been honest.”
That was a pretty rewarding day.
What do you find the most challenging?
We are going through our greatest challenge yet, as we had a very severe and very unfortunate electrical fire in our warehouse in mid-May. No one was hurt, thank goodness, but our warehouse is unusable and we are operating out of a temporary space that offers a whole new set of challenges around logistics and space. The good news is that we had a tremendous amount of momentum going into the fire, and even with the disaster in the middle of the month, May was our best month yet, poundage-wise. So the real challenge right now is to maintain that momentum and to rebuild while operating in a limited capacity out of a temporary space. (And to keep the faith!)
Looking forward, what is your vision for the company? What do you hope your company will ultimately achieve?
I would like to create a company that is perfectly primed for public-private partnerships. When it comes to job creation on a large scale, it seems clear to me that you need both sectors to be involved, so I’m working to create a company that has the capacity to meet all of the e-waste processing needs for our region (instead of shipping it away from our communities as we currently do) and to then be a model for other regions. Ultimately, I want to develop a robust e-waste recycling and reuse industry here in Southern California that doubles as job training and employment program for the previously incarcerated.
While you were in graduate school at USC Price, you published an article in the school’s student-run academic journal titled “Green Pathways Home,” which advocated vocational training (for green jobs especially) for those in the state’s correctional facilities — with the two-fold goal of helping reduce recidivism and also helping spur economic growth. Through your company, do you feel that you’re now turning these ideas into action?
That is certainly the goal of Isidore, yes.
What skills and knowledge did you acquire as a graduate student at USC Price that you find beneficial in your work as CEO of Isidore Electronics?
Aside from more raw data and analysis than I every could have dreamed of regarding the California prison system and re-entry/workforce development policy, I am very grateful for the quantitative requirements of the MPP, particularly Modeling and Operations and Multivariate Statistical Analysis. Those two courses helped shaped my thinking in a whole new way, one that was very grounding and that I hope will affect my work in a positive way for the rest of my career.
Was there any course or faculty member at USC Price you found particularly inspirational?
Hands down, Dan Mazmanian was one of the best professors that I have ever had. When not studying all that I could about the justice system at USC, I had the pleasure of taking two classes with Professor Mazmanian — PPD 555 (Policy Formulation & Implementation) and PPD 568 (Environmental Governance & Sustainability). He has a reputation for being tough, and I appreciated that very very much. The policy issues that face us, especially around environmental issues, demand great minds and rigorous thought and dedication in order to be addressed correctly and effectively. That is what Prof. Mazmanian is up to — he is teaching real academic rigor and how to be a great thinker and a great implementer. I really can’t say enough about him and his approach to teaching policy. I found him, and continue to find him to be very inspiring, particularly with regard to rising to meet great challenges.
What was your favorite part of your student experience at USC Price?
For me, it was returning to school as an adult and being able to be around a bunch of wonks like me. I really appreciated the caliber of many of the minds around me, their passion for the specific issues that drove them into public policy in the first place, and their willingness to wade through all of those problems sets. For the most part, I was very inspired by my fellow students.
Do you have any other long-term professional goals?
Utilizing what I am learning in the private sector, I would like to eventually return to the public sector and help move effective and smart policy around prison re-entry and workforce development for at risk populations.