We had the opportunity to chat with and style Kabira Stokes, founder of Isidore Electronics Recycling, on her recent trip to New York City. With spring finally here, we dressed her in a loose knit ivory tank knit in Peru and ivory culotte pants with handwoven panels on the sides (necklace by Soko). Kabira is truly inspiring in her mission to create employment and a successful sustainable business. Her resilience and ability to inspire change has allowed her to build an innovative and impactful company, despite setbacks and obstacles she faced along the way.
Who did you look up to when you were a child?
Early on, it was Jem (the cartoon rocker) and then Joan Jet and then Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. And my aunt Roz, who lived in NYC and always had impeccable long nails and an amazing suffragette poster hanging on her wall.
Where is home for you? How has it shaped you?
Los Angeles is my home and has been integral in shaping who I am as a human being, without question. I moved here in 2000, fresh out of college, with dreams of being in the arts. After 9/11 though, my world changed, and I got pulled towards activism and social justice. I started organizing my friends to be more involved in local government, and I eventually ended up working for the City of LA itself. My city is a powerful place, filled with possibility and innovation, mountain trails and dance parties… I can’t imagine a better place to call home. There is still a sense here that we as a city can shape our future into a better one, and it’s an awesome thing to be a part of.
Generally, I’m going for Warehouse Sophisticate. But, if I'm really honest about it, I just want to dress like Dianne Wiest in "Bullets Over Broadway" everyday.
What inspired you to start Isidore Electronics Recycling? What motivated you to help people with a criminal record find employment? What have you learned from this process?
I will just say this: America incarcerates more people than any other place in the world and it’s not working. We’re incredibly good at incarcerating people, and absolutely failing at rehabilitating them. I wanted to be part of the solution, and knew that the solution includes making sure people can get quality employment when they exit the prison gates. And, if I was going to create employment, it was going to be through a sustainable enterprise. Around that time, I met a man from Indiana who had an e-waste recycling company that existed to hire people coming out of the prison system— and something just clicked. After graduating from Grad School, I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do.
I have learned that it’s amazingly satisfying to be able to give employment to people who really want it and really need it and who just need a chance to do well. There is a tremendous power in forgiveness, and in not judging people for the worst thing that they have ever done, but rather giving them a chance to remake their lives and succeed. Also, I've learned that it's absolutely worth it to have a good accountant, lawyer and insurance broker. :)
What has been your biggest challenge in starting your business? How has this shaped you as a leader?
Well, in May of 2013, the 5,500 square foot warehouse that Isidore was renting suffered a severe electrical fire. The structure still stood but, basically, my business burned down. Two months later, my "co-founder" quit. So...that was really hard.
But actually, it was an incredible experience, and one of the most challenging, yet amazing things I have ever been through. I had to hunker down and really ask myself, it is worth it to fight to continue to do this thing, and I was as amazed as anyone to find that the answer was "heck yes." I had to truly learn the meaning of perseverance, and eventually, bolstered by a lot of physical exercise, meditation, a few stiff drinks, and a ton of reaching out to my advisors and friends, we made it through. In addition, the sheer dedication of the Isidore team that remained behind was amazing and inspiring, we came together to get through it, and I will remain ever grateful to them. The cool thing is, once you do get through something like that and decide to double down on your commitment, it's almost like you have nothing left to lose. So each day, even though more troubles come, you are bolstered by the knowledge of how strong you are and that you can keep going through crazy hard times. It's a daunting thing, trying to employ an "unemployable" population, but that experience has given me the chops and the deepened commitment that keeps me going. It really is true—what doesn't kill you does make you stronger.
What excites you about the future of sustainability?
I'm excited to see the day when sustainability isn't a niche or special thing, it's just the way that things are done, because why would you do it any other way? I firmly believe that the future of business IS social and/or sustainable enterprise. There is no room in this day in age, knowing what we know about the problems that we face, to start a business that makes money but shits on the environment or our communities. I'm excited about sustainability becoming the norm. Also, mushrooms as packaging material. Nothing gets me going quite like that.
VOZ Ojos Jacket, Culottes in Ivory, and Loose Knit Tank
Photography by Arturo Stanig