Kasey O'Connel, Fif Ghobadian and Alice Larkin Cahan of Road Twenty-Tw
Kasey O’Connel, Fif Ghobadian and Alice Larkin Cahan of Road Twenty-Two (Credit: Road Twenty-Two)

Fif Ghobadian created San Francisco fashion brand Road Twenty-Two to provide jobs for women released from prison. The Iran-born entrepreneur, whose family fled the 1979 Revolution, says life in America gave her a special appreciation for second chances.

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

FIF: So there are a lot of socially responsible companies, however, not that many, that focus on the formerly incarcerated.

COLLEEN: Hi, I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: This is the Story Exchange and today...

SUE: ...we’ve got a pretty amazing story to tell you.

COLLEEN: It’s about second chances...

SUE: ...the Iranian revolution...

COLLEEN: ...and fashion.

SUE: This will all makes sense in just a little bit.

COLLEEN: So, for this “Good on the Ground” podcast, we’re headed to Northern California...

FIF: I am Fif Ghobadian, founder of Road 22.

SUE: ...to talk with an extraordinary woman...

COLLEEN: ...who’s using the power of business...

SUE: ...to tackle one of today’s most pressing social issues.

COLLEEN: Sit back, give it a listen and prepare to be inspired.

*Musical Interlude*

FIF: Road 22 is a fashion brand with a social mission to employ women who’ve been formerly incarcerated.

SUE: We’re inside Road 22’s warehouse, in San Francisco.

SOT: That burgundy looks pretty bloody good on you.
-I know, thank you. I’ve been asking Sheri can I have one. I’m going to represent Road 22.
-You already represent Road 22.

FIF: The women are part of the fabric of our company and we create great clothes that you never want to take off.

COLLEEN: Road 22 makes high-end luxury tee shirts.

SUE: I think you call it urban clothing.

COLLEEN: It’s $75 tee shirts, basically.

FIF: They’re expensive. Right.

SUE: That’s part of the strategy.

FIF: And the reason the shirts were more on the fashion end and higher priced is because it’s to bring awareness to a segment of the population that can make a difference. If you take it to someone who normally buys a designer shirt for like, $115, and now you bring this message across, maybe eventually people will realize this is a problem.

COLLEEN: The social problem that Fif is talking about is the severe lack of opportunity for women released from prison.

FIF: So when you get out of prison the way the system works is you get $200 and the money for your bus fare is taken out of that. And you’re dropped by the bus in the downtown closest to the city to where you live and it’s in the worst neighborhoods. So a lot of these women end up being homeless.

SUE: Just think about it...what are these women supposed to do? They have basically no money, no job, maybe nowhere safe to stay. And add to that, many struggle with addiction.

COLLEEN: And not many employers will even take a chance on women like this.

FIF: 70% of the people who get incarcerated end up back in the system. If life gives you a bad card how do you undo that? How do you reverse the hands of fate and go back on track?

COLLEEN: Fif came up with the idea for Road 22 in 2013.

FIF: I actually was reading Orange Is The New Black. I’m reading Orange Is The New Black going, “Oh my God.” It’s kind of crazy, right. This woman goes to jail after ten years for something really minor, so I started, you know, at nights I would look on the Internet, people who got incarcerated, and it’s, kind of the facts kind of shocked me.

COLLEEN: The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world...when it comes to women, the female prison population is nearly eight times higher than it was in 1980.

SUE: And most women in state prisons -- about two-thirds of them -- are there for non-violent crime.

FIF: What scared me is that once you cross that line and you’re incarcerated it’s almost impossible to come back into society.

COLLEEN: So Fif -- whose background is not fashion-related at all --

SUE: No, she’s actually a very successful mortgage broker.

COLLEEN: She decided to create a socially minded company that would hire former female prisoners.

FIF: I thought, “You know what, I want to kind of do something to make, that makes a difference.” I always thought it’d be great to create clothes that competes with like, The Gap but it’s cool, like tee shirts, sweatshirts that really felt good, that looked good, and then I married the two ideas.

SUE: She found a design partner, Alice Larkin Cahan, and the two decided to start Road 22.

FIF: We jumped into it.

COLLEEN: Fif actually sold a $300,000 investment property that was supposed to pay for her kids’ college.

FIF: Something inside me was really calling for it. So I sold the house, took the funds, and invested in the company.

COLLEEN: They paid several visits to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, California. That’s the largest female prison in the U.S. People call it Chowchilla.

SUE: Their first idea was to have women in prison make the clothes.

FIF: Yeah, so originally we thought we’d just, we’d do the work within the prison, create the shirts there while the women are there, right, captive group, they save the money, they can use that towards their future.

COLLEEN: The vision didn’t quite match reality.

FIF: Just going to visit the prison took months to get clearance. Once you get in there, the women who they hire in their sewing facilities, they are lifers and these women get 50 cents an hour. It’s probably the most heartbreaking scene I’ve ever seen. These women work eight hours a day, they get 50 cents an hour, so for them to get paid by us is actually slave labor.

*Musical Interlude*

SUE: Fif and Alice decided instead to make Road 22’s tee shirts in a commercial sewing factory in San Francisco.

COLLEEN: And everything else is done in a warehouse, also in San Francisco, and there they hire formerly incarcerated women to fold, trim and package the company’s products.

SUE: But the trips to Chowchilla have certainly had a lasting impact...

COLLEEN: ...including the name of the fashion label.
FIF: When I went to visit Chowchilla it was interesting because we drove on the Road 22, and Road 22 is the road in and out of Chowchilla but we, we refer to it as the road out of Chowchilla because it’s the road out of that system.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Fif Ghobadian, who started Road 22 in 2014 with her partner Alice Larkin Cahan. Back at the beginning of this podcast...

SUE: ...we mentioned something about the Iranian revolution.

COLLEEN: That’s because Fif was born in Iran.

FIF: We were living quite comfortably, then the revolution happened.

SUE: This, of course, was in the 1970s.

FIF: I’ve seen in my life what life is like when you have everything plus more. And then at a very young age I saw the extreme opposite.

COLLEEN: The revolution led to the brutal death of many of her parents’ friends.

SUE: Fif was 15 when she fled with her family, first to London, then eventually to the United States.

FIF: I came here in 1979 and went to school in Marin, which was quite shocking. We grew up really affluent in Iran so it was a pretty comfortable life all the way through, and then the reality hit that assets were frozen in Iran, my dad couldn’t go back, and my parents had to claim bankruptcy.

COLLEEN: Fif managed to attend Claremont Colleges near Los Angeles, but not without some financial struggle.

FIF: My senior in college, my mom actually sold her wedding ring for me to graduate.

COLLEEN: When I spoke with Fif she really stressed the notion that life can go from good to bad very quickly.

SUE: You can tell she has seen a lot in her life. I interviewed her on camera for our video profile -- you can watch it at TheStoryExchange.org -- and we talked about her family’s situation. Let’s listen...

FIF: We were here for about a year before my father like, lost all his money.

SUE (from tape): It must’ve been terrible for your father, this gradually slipping down the economic ladder.

FIF: A huge slip for him. So the concept of all of a sudden not having money was shocking, but in addition to that, looking for jobs. So, I remember my mom when I grew up didn’t even know where the kitchen in the house was. Like, we always would have sit-down meals, the food would be served, it was a very, you know, different life. When we came here and money ran out not only did she sell her wedding ring, she also had to get a job at Macy’s.

SUE: Fif remembers how her father struggled...

FIF: The only thing he could do, because his English wasn’t great, was managing apartments. And I vividly remember him like looking in the paper, circling phone numbers, calling for those jobs. And I think that is actually what planted the seed of what money can do for you in your life and what privileges it gives you.

SUE: Her father was never able to recover financially, at least not in the U.S. He eventually returned to Iran, and died in September 2016.

FIF: You can be the same person and you can have such a life with so many doors opening. And then you can all of a sudden lose all your money and there’s not a single door that opens. So hence why there’s this whole compassion within me to give people opportunities and to kind of break that barrier.

*Musical Interlude*

RACHAEL: I was homeless for like, three or four or five years...I don’t know, it’s kind of blurry. And then I got arrested and was looking at some substantial prison time.

COLLEEN: That is Rachael Dunne. She used to be hooked on drugs, spent time in the county jail -- after that, she says she’d go on job interviews, they’d do a background check, and she’d never get a call back. Until she went to Road 22. This soundbite comes courtesy of media site called HooplaHa.

RACHAEL: When we were having our interview, they, you know, asked some tough questions and I gave them the answers -- they weren’t shocked and appalled or like -- mmm -- they were just like, “Oh.” They were interested in how it happened, and how those skills might be transferrable. And it was just, it was warm and welcoming.

COLLEEN: Fif says Rachel has undergone a transformation since joining Road 22 a few years ago. In fact, Rachel is now the company’s customer care manager.

FIF: The most gratifying is seeing how the women change. Seeing the fact that they get an opportunity, that they’re actually able to buy clothes for themselves.

COLLEEN: There are challenges, however.

FIF: We’re dealing with people who have negative self-esteem. They feel like they’re not worth anything so trust is a huge factor.

COLLEEN: There’s a lot of training, and a lot of tough love.

FIF: We have one woman who came, who’s part of our organization, who started out and she was really hung up on methadone, which is the drug they give people who are coming off heroin. And she actually was working with us but she was coming in late, she was falling asleep on the job, and so we basically said, “You know what, out. You can’t do it.” And she went, she went cold turkey, got off methadone, came back and she’s been like the most reliable employee.

*Musical Interlude*

SUE: Road 22 is like a cross between a social service agency and a fashion line.

COLLEEN: Exactly. The hiring decisions they make are completely different than most companies.

SOT: All she need is a social worker or case manager.
-Mm hm.
-And that still takes six month to a year?
-It might take less than that because she’s homeless. It depends on her situation.

SUE: To date, they’ve hired 8 formerly incarcerated women.

COLLEEN: And looking ahead, Fif says she’ll hire more as soon as Road 22 grows.

FIF: It’s tough, definitely tough but I think we don’t have the infrastructure that we wanted to have. Because we just don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough money, we, our sales need to get bigger, we need to get more exposure so that we can provide what we need to provide, right.

SUE: They are facing lots of challenges, that’s for sure. But Fif is really determined. To reach more people, they’re expanding Road 22’s product line.

FIF: We want to have the fashion brand continue and we want to create a lower-priced line, a little less detail in the shirts that we can use for corporate marketing, corporate branding, because that’s more volume generated, quicker turnaround, higher revenue.

SUE: The company’s shirts are now sold in about 200 stores.

COLLEEN: Last year, the company broke even; this year, Fif told me they hope to reach the million-dollar mark in sales.

SUE: And did we mention Fif still works as a mortgage broker?

COLLEEN: Which is incredible, doing both.

FIF: The goal is that Road 22 will grow to the point where I don’t have to be a mortgage broker and work on Road 22. Currently doing both is pretty...creates a pretty fast-paced world.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We started this podcast talking about second chances...

SUE: Fif is certainly doing her part to make sure women are getting them.

FIF: I love seeing people wear the clothes. That’s fantastic. But, you know, I think the most gratifying is the change in the women’s lives. You know, just even if we change four people’s lives, right, that’s a big change.

COLLEEN: Our thanks to Fif Ghobadian at Road 22.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Richard Neil. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.