After earning an economics degree from Columbia and a master’s in business from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Niki Okuk could have worked anywhere in the world. She chose a tire recycling plant in Compton, California.
“Why would I do this type of work anywhere but my hood?” Okuk said in a recent interview near the factory floor, recalling the moment she decided to take what she had learned about sustainable development and bring it back home. Okuk grew up in the Los Angeles neighborhood, which has been known for gang warfare, racial tensions, and an unemployment rate roughly twice the national average.
Now she’s an emblem of its resilience. Okuk founded RCO Tires in 2012. It’s since grown into a multimillion-dollar operation with 16 employees, making it one of Southern California’s largest sustainability plants.
RCO creates alternative uses for trash tires, which are typically burned for fuel or thrown in landfills, like retreading them or turning them into new products. And because of Okuk’s progressive hiring and management practices, it provides stable jobs for local black and Latino residents who struggle to find employment because of past criminal convictions or legal status.
Getting started wasn’t easy. Okuk had trouble finding investors at first, even with the millions of dollars in public and private resources currently being funneled to sustainable entrepreneurship. She attributed the struggle to her race and gender.
“Banks and lending services rarely believe in the vision of young black female entrepreneurs,” she said over the sound of clashing high-octane machinery. “Even organizations that say they are designed to lend to people of color and green businesses weren’t trying to give us money. When I walked into one bank, they laughed me right out of there.”
Now she’s a standout CEO. “I don’t ever fit in with the men at our business meetings,” Okuk said back in her office as she rearranged her free-flowing Afro-textured hairstyle while sporting a short skirt, black blazer, and colorful Chuck Taylor shoes. “There are never women in the meetings or people of color, and the men in the meetings always comment about the way I look and what I wear. But once they find out I graduated from Columbia and MIT, things change quickly.”
The work environment that Okuk has cultivated at RCO is understanding of her employees’ unique needs as parolees and convicted felons, which may include indiscriminate search warrants and appointments with probation officers. Outside of their jobs, she believes local law enforcement continues to make it challenging for her employees to integrate back into society.
“I didn’t want them to think that they were being reformed here—it’s the system that we need to reform,” she said.
“When one of our workers doesn’t show up to our morning meetings, one of us will go on the sheriff’s website to see if the cops kidnapped them. Because we know that’s the most likely thing. People don’t show up to work because they’re hung over—people don’t show up to work because they got kidnapped by the prison industrial complex.”
For most RCO employees, nearly all of whom declined to be interviewed because of pending legal proceedings, RCO provides a rare stable income and a chance to reintegrate back into society.
For employees like, Naz, for example, a 25-five-year old first-generation immigrant from Bangladesh, RCO is a place that gave him a second chance when he was forced to drop out of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) because of financial hardship.
Like his coworkers, Naz understands that his boss has a mission bigger than tires.
“Niki gets the sense of community,” he said while watching his fellow coworkers during a short work break. “She opened up a place in Compton that only hires local people and she’s showing people that you can work within the framework of capitalism and have a positive contribution on the environment.”
Radically, Okuk’s future goals align with a vision that ultimately places her workers’ needs and her community above anything else.
“I want us to get to a place where the workers here can make enough to live a lifestyle that is dignified and worthy as humans,” she said.
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.