This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Robert Frost suggested that taking the road less traveled made all the difference. The Women’s Bean Project, a nonprofit in Denver, Colorado, employs only women generally considered unemployable. For nearly 30 years, the social enterprise has worked to help women learn to work by giving them jobs; that is how they make a difference.
The “Bean,” as insiders know it, was recently selected by REDF, a national organization that supports social enterprises like the Bean, that “provide jobs, support, and training to people who would otherwise have a tough time getting into the workforce,” for a growth investment, according to Carla Javits, President and CEO of REDF.
The Bean, according to CEO Tamra Ryan, generates $2.2 million in revenue and employs 75 women. The business generates a modest gross margin on sales of gourmet dried food products of just 8 percent. The organization’s other costs are funded by grants and donations.
Ryan explains that regardless of the circumstances that led women to experience chronic unemployment and poverty, the situation becomes a trap. “Women caught in the cycle of unemployment and poverty need help to break out. Not only do they believe they are unmarketable and unhireable, they don’t believe they are worthy of being hired by an employer who will care about them. In addition, the problems compound, creating numerous and overwhelming barriers to employment, including histories of addiction, incarceration and homelessness. A holistic approach is needed to break the cycle.”
The Bean provides jobs in a supportive work environment and complements the job with training on soft skills that help women get out of the poverty trap.
“We teach women to work by working,” Ryan says. “Through employment in our manufacturing business and the skill-building sessions we offer, they learn the basic job readiness and life skills needed to get and keep a career entry-level job. We hire women for a full-time job for 6-9 months, during which they spend 70 percent of their paid time working in the business in some way and 30 percent in activities that build soft skills, like problem-solving, communication and planning and organizing.
Kimball Crangle, the Colorado Market President of Gorman & Company, Inc., serves as the Bean’s volunteer Chair. She takes pride in the organization’s success. “I think the work the Bean does is incredibly impactful. We not only train women for jobs but also in life skills that extend beyond the working hours. The women that graduate from the Bean are better able to keep a job and improve the stability of her family.”
Javits emphasizes the program’s track record and partnerships. “The Women’s Bean Project is a stand out because of its’ business excellence which has resulted in more sales through partnerships like the one it has with Walmart and Walmart.com that in turn allow it to provide more job opportunities.”
Despite the Bean’s success, Ryan wishes she could do more. “Historically we have turned away four out of five qualified applicants because of our capacity. Today we are focused on growing our sales because sales create jobs. We want to ensure that we can serve every woman who needs us.”
She also has goals to help people she doesn’t employ. The families of the women the Bean serves are also beneficiaries of the program. “We want to ensure that our services are so effective and far-reaching that she is the last in her family to need us, that we help to create transformational change for both the woman and her family.”
The barriers to employment faced by the women we hire are numerous and complex. There are many factors that have led to each woman’s inability to get and keep a job, including backgrounds of abuse, addiction and incarceration.
Ryan notes that the obstacles to employment are complex; whatever they are, they are in the past. “Because we can’t change her past, we must be focused (and help her focus) on her future and finding a path to a successful life that includes employment and self-sufficiency. Sometimes the biggest obstacle can be helping her realize that she is worthy of a better life.”
The biggest limitation the Bean faces, she says, is the women themselves. “Free will is the limitation to our solution. Ultimately each woman must choose to make the changes required for a new life.”
Crangle is eager to grow the Bean. “If we are able to expand our program and have a further reach, we can impact more women, which will ultimately improve our city in a myriad of ways, from the family systems of the women we serve, to the economic benefits of having a more skilled workforce.”
Ryan emphasizes the impact of the Bean’s work on the family. She says, “I truly believe that when you change a mother’s life, you change her family’s life. It can be challenging to comprehend how hard it is for a family to break out of poverty.”
She adds, “So many women have told me that when they were growing up they had no role models for employment; they never watched someone get up every morning and go to work. By creating role models in families, we finally create the potential for transformational change in the family as well.”
The Women’s Bean Project continues to hire women that others won’t–specifically so they will–and that has made all the difference.
On Thursday, January 5, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Ryan will join me here for a live discussion about the Women’s Bean Project and the women they serve. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe. The video player for the interview is at the top of this article.