Meet the Women’s Bean Project

A nonprofit gourmet products manufacturer shows how the “social enterprise” approach to women’s poverty could work.

Women sorting beans in a factory setting.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of the Women’s Bean Project.

DENVER —Michelle Potter has found a sense of self-confidence for the first time since she dropped out of school at age 14.

A recovering meth addict, Potter, now 42, attributes her new lease on life to the Women’s Bean Project. Social enterprise investors who look for ways to use business to solve social problems are hailing the program as the “gold standard” for a new breed of ventures looking to break an escalating cycle of poverty in cities nationwide. “I am not putting drugs into my body—I am doing things with my life that I am proud of,” said Potter, who will graduate from her nine-month stint in the program in July. “I absolutely love coming to this job. When it’s time to punch out for lunch, I’m the last one.”

Potter is one of more than 70 women the Women’s Bean Project will groom this year to take manufacturing, food service, and other positions in one of the nation’s hottest job markets. With an average age of 38, most of the women are struggling to escape a history of addiction, abuse, and homelessness that left them unable to hold a job for more than a year. Like Potter, a majority are single moms who are attempting to reconnect with their kids, who are often in someone else’s custody.

In short: The Denver-based nonprofit’s curriculum prepares impoverished women for the job market with skills classes and with practical job experience. That’s where the beans come into the picture. In addition to skills classes and resource assistance, the women package gourmet products, such as Firehouse #10 Chili, for sale to the public.

On a frosty April day, Potter and her colleagues worked an assembly line in northeast Denver, scooping green- and peach-colored lentils into plastic bags, throwing in spice packets, tying off the tops, plopping them into rectangular tan-and-maroon boxes labeled “10 Bean Soup Mix,” and sealing the containers with a round sticker adorned with the signature of a woman who has participated in the program.

The goods, including chili, cookie, brownie and bread mixes; salsa and spice rubs; and instant teas and organic fair trade coffees, are sold in almost 1,000 stores nationwide and on Amazon. In addition to assembling the products in the 90-year-old former firehouse that serves as the nonprofit’s headquarters, minimum-wage earning trainees like Potter receive assistance in finding permanent housing and food aid, as well as classes that teach job readiness and interpersonal skills, such as attention to detail and the importance of being on time to work.

As federal spending on workforce development shrinks as a percentage of gross domestic product—well below most western European countries—social enterprises like the Women’s Bean Project are stepping in to provide effective skills training to at-risk populations. For every dollar spent on these efforts, $2.23 is returned to society, in part through reductions in government transfer payments, according to a 2015 study by Mathematica Policy Research.

Employees who graduate from such programs increased their monthly income by 91 percent to $1,246. The percentage of total income from government transfers to these workers decreased to 24 percent from 71 percent, Mathematica found.

In the almost three decades since Josepha “Jossy” Eyre, a survivor of immense hardship during World War II, founded the organization, the Women’s Bean Project has helped train more than 1,000 women to become self-sufficient. About 93 percent of those who graduate from the program are still employed a year later—a statistic that sets the nonprofit apart from other social enterprises.

“We were impressed at how long women were able to retain jobs. That told us the program is providing the right types of support, as well as good job training,” said Karen Chern Zangle, a portfolio director at the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, or REDF, which invests in social enterprises focused on employment.

“To demonstrate that close to 100 percent of the people who graduate from the program get placed in a job they are happy with—that type of retention is the gold standard in this field,” she added.

REDF chose the Women’s Bean Project in 2016 from among 209 applicants to receive grant funding and advisory services from its team of experts for up to five years. Since then, the Denver organization received $310,000 in capital investment and technical assistance from REDF and plowed it into product development and changing its packaging, as well as a truck. The funds also helped Tamra Ryan, its chief executive officer, research different sales channels and pricing.

“This opportunity came at a time when we really felt the need to invest in our business in order to grow,” said Ryan, who’s run the nonprofit for 15 years. “We were at a point where we needed to invest to generate enough cash every year to have money to put back into the business.”

Running a social enterprise that employs people is tricky work, said Ryan. The efficiencies required to operate a profitable manufacturing business don’t necessarily pair well with the Bean Project’s human services mission. A controller Ryan hired ran an analysis that found the nonprofit needed only 15 employees on its production line. Instead, it hired 71, she added.

The venture pulled in about $1.47 million in fiscal 2017. This revenue is funneled back into its job training programs. Social enterprises like the Denver-based nonprofit typically do not profit off the minimum-wage labor of those they train.

Consequently, they do not exploit the chronically unemployed by paying them low wages, said Chern Zangle. Rather, they pay them while teaching them skills that will help them apply for jobs with better salaries. This is different from other workforce programs that often do not compensate trainees at all.

“Social enterprise is meant to be an employment option for those who otherwise cannot get hired,” said Chern Zangle. “I think many of the social enterprises recognize the wages they are paying individuals are not a living wage, but they aren’t meant to be forever jobs, but rather a step toward jobs that can be more sustainable.”

Even as the Women’s Bean Project barely breaks even, its training program is providing reliable workers to small businesses struggling to find help in one of the nation’s most competitive job markets.

The fact that these women are dependable and motivated helped persuade employers in Denver that hiring former drug addicts and felons isn’t something to shy away from.

“As an employer, there’s always a risk when you hire someone, and that risk is maximized when hiring someone with a record,” said Kim Scheid, co-owner and founder Share Good Foods, who’s hired three graduates from the Women’s Bean Project. “In the food industry, where turnover is notorious, we are always looking for good employment pipelines like the Women’s Bean.”

The women Scheid hired from the project cook and package artisan sandwiches, salads, and grab-and-go foods the wholesaler provides to coffee shops. One Women’s Bean graduate, who’s been with Share Good Foods for three years, is now a trainer who works with new employees.

Scheid attributes her employees’ success in part to the Bean Project’s mentor program, which recruits community members to help trainees devise a résumé and practice interview techniques, and to hold them accountable during their job search. REDF’s Chern Zangle agreed the mentorship piece is among the attributes that set the Women’s Bean Project apart.

“They evolve from barely being able to speak about where they’ve been—it never ceases to amaze me how difficult their lives are—to a point where they can stand on their own,” said Gail Fritzinger, the organization’s board chairwoman and a professional career transition coach. Fritzinger had mentored multiple women over her eight-year tenure, giving them the “one-on-one attention they’ve never had in their lives.”

With Denver’s tight labor market—Colorado posted the nation’s 10th lowest unemployment rate, at 3 percent, in March—project graduates can often choose where they would like to work and receive solid hourly salaries, said Ryan, the nonprofit’s chief executive.

“In an environment like we have now, it doesn’t take three months to find a job,” she said. “Now a woman who doesn’t believe anybody would hire her is moving into a situation where she has multiple offers—imagine how that makes her feel.”

Conversely, Denver’s red-hot economy and the staggering rents and home prices that accompany it are also causing impoverished women to lose housing, leading to a jump in homeless applicants to the Bean Project, Fritzinger said. The nonprofit typically turns away half the women who apply, although some return to participate in later trainings.

For Potter, the Women’s Bean Project trainee who despises breaks, the chance to fill out an application with job experience she’s gained during her time at the nonprofit is something she looks forward to as she readies for a job search this summer.

She used to dread applying for work given a scant employment history that included working as a nurse’s assistant, dancing in bars, and staying at home to care for her kids. Potter is also taking classes toward receiving her GED and is reconnecting with her sons, who live with her parents.

“I was always scared when it came to a job application—now I have a chance to show myself and what I can do,” she said. “I’m interested in getting my forklift license and learning how to move pallets—it’s an awesome opportunity.”

Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.