Niki Okuk runs the Compton-based company RCO Tires along with her partner, Richard Carter. The basic premise of the company is this: take all those old tires that would end up in a landfill and turn them into something else.
RCO is what you would call a green business, but it’s also a company that doesn’t shy away from employees who’ve made mistakes in their past. As Okuk puts it, RCO doesn’t discriminate against potential employees who may have a conviction on their record.
Okuk grew up in the area and, after getting degrees from both Columbia and MIT, she’s back in L.A. creating jobs. RCO makes stuff like the rubber pads you see on the piers at the back of grocery stores, bumpers, and lots of other stuff too.
We spoke with Okuk among the stacks and stacks of tires in her shop.
Stacks of truck tires waiting to be recycled at RCO Tires in Compton.
Here are some excerpts from our interview:
On the volume RCO recycles:
I think the last time we had done the count we had recycled about 14 million gallons of oil, diverted them for landfills and made them into new products. There about 22 gallons of oil in each truck tire, so that number means we’ve cleaned up a volume of petroleum greater than the Exxon-Valdez spill.
On why she came back to Los Angeles after college:
I grew up in L.A. Right out of college I had an idea that I wanted to work in development, go all over the world and help developing countries with economic policy or stimulus, but you kind of get to those places and realize there’s a lot of work to be done back at home.
The first couple employees were just sort family references and then from there the word really spread like wildfire because people tell each other when there’s places that you can get a job that they’re not going to discriminate against you for being a felon. So very quickly we got lots of people showing up here to apply.
On being a female entrepreneur of color:
The way that our economy and the criminal justice system works now, they live in a completely separate economy where they face — where we face — all types of discrimination when it comes to housing and employment. So, it was important for me to come here and say we would not participate in that.