In 1989, while volunteering at a day shelter for homeless women in Denver, Colorado, Jossy Eyre found herself grappling with the fact that these women needed more than a place to go; they needed a means to achieve economic independence and empower themselves. So she bought $500 worth of beans and put two women to work. Now almost 30 years later, her aptly named Women’s Bean Project has grown from a grassroots social enterprise to a national packaged goods business wrapped around a local human services organization that continues to employ and train chronically unemployed women so they can help themselves make big and lasting life changes.
If there is magic to be found in this story, it’s not in the beans through which Jossy brought her vision to life; it’s in the company’s unwavering belief that “all women have the power to transform their lives through employment.”
The women hired by Women’s Bean Project are convicted felons, recovering addicts, victims of domestic violence. Many were teenage mothers and high school drop outs. The Bean Project is where they find hope because they’re given a chance… a chance to create new lives for themselves by learning how to be great workers and empowered women who “stand tall, find their purpose and break the cycle of poverty.”
Remarkably, this is all accomplished in just six to nine months through the company’s proven program of offering chronically unemployed and impoverished women a transitional job in gourmet food and jewelry manufacturing. And the benefits that come with it go way beyond the tangible value of earning immediate income.
“Because of my time here I have learned to dream and have hope again. I no longer feel like I’m worthless.” – Michelle
Employment with Women’s Bean Project involves hands-on training and the development of job readiness skills like attendance, teamwork, positive attitude, conflict resolution, and problem-solving. It provides women access to support services to overcome barriers to employment (i.e., housing, transportation, child care, health care). It’s also a place where they can develop the life skills needed to get and keep a job, such as basic computer skills, resume drafting and interview skills. Weekly empowerment classes teach women goal setting, budgeting and financial literacy, self-confidence, self-worth and responsibility.
As the women approach the end of the Bean Project program, they decide whether to further their education, access more training through another community nonprofit, or search for a new job.
Boasting a 77% graduation rate with 100% job placement, demand for this program has increased dramatically in the last few years. Tamra Ryan, CEO of Women’s Bean Project, shared with WYSK, “Historically, we turned away 4 out of 5 applicants based on our sales volume. So in order to be able to hire every woman who comes through our door, we’ve had to grow the business five times.”
To fuel this kind of monumental growth, Women’s Bean Project has had to expand its gourmet food offerings, taking into account the ever-changing palates and “quick and easy” food prep preferences of the American consumer. Most recently, three new product categories – seasoned popcorn kernels, biscuits and jam mixes, instant rice and bean cups – with new flavor profiles have been added to the company’s already wide range of soups and chilis, baking mixes, spice blends (dips, salsas and rubs), coffees and teas, and sweets. The product assortment also includes limited-edition jewelry that’s handmade by the women in the program under the guidance of designers, Franki Morales Cook and Ashley Schenkein.
Women’s Bean Project products are available online through the company’s site, as well as through its network of 1,000 major retail partners across the U.S. And the only way these goods get to end customers is by and through the hands of the women employed by the company, women like Eboni, Haben and Michelle, who spend hours preparing, measuring, scooping, making, labeling, and packaging with great care and attention to detail.
We wanted to know what led each of these women to apply to Women’s Bean Project and how participating in the employment program has changed or impacted their lives. Here’s what they told us…
“I came to the Bean Project five months ago after I saw a flyer at my church that said Women’s Bean Project was hiring. At the time I was homeless, I felt like I was nothing and I had lost my faith. I couldn’t understand why God was making everything so hard. Now I feel so optimistic and realize that I am accomplishing everything I hoped for, just maybe not in the way I had imagined. I want to work with kids again and feel very optimistic.”
“I have been working at Women’s Bean Project for five months. My sister saw the flyer for the Bean Project at The Gathering Place, a daytime homeless shelter for women and kids, and told me I should come here. I had been taking care of my kids for a long time and didn’t know how to relate to adults. Now I feel more confident about my abilities and my communication skills. This program has made me stronger. I have always known what I wanted to do – own my own business – but I never felt confident enough to pursue it.”
“I have been working at Women’s Bean Project for three months and originally learned about it at The Gathering Place. I can’t explain it exactly, but something drew me to the Bean Project, so much so that I walked through a blizzard to apply for the job. Because of my time here I have learned to dream and have hope again. I no longer feel like I’m worthless. Sometimes I have this feeling and have to take a step back for a moment and realize, ‘Oh, that’s hope!’ It’s been so long since I’ve felt it. My dream is to have my own business as an outfitter for backpacking trips.”
Over the last three decades, this dynamic social enterprise has positively affected the lives of more than 20,000 women and children. That’s because, as Tamra Ryan notes, “The most significant thing Women’s Bean Project does is it makes a woman believe she’s worthy of a better life.” What’s more magical than that?