In 1989, Jossy Eyre was volunteering at a daytime women’s shelter in Denver as part of her master’s degree in social work. There she met dozens of jobless women with little sense of where they were going or what came next. After a period of relative safety and stability at the shelter, the women simply stopped showing up.
Jossy worked at the shelter for the entire academic year, and it didn’t take long for familiar faces to reappear. Often, the women had gotten jobs during their time away, but struggled to keep them. Jossy’s talks with them revealed an interconnected web of social and financial challenges that required a more sustainable solution.
So she did what all accidental social entrepreneurs do – she asked herself what she knew how to do, and how she could use her skills to create opportunities for others.
500 Bucks and a Vision
Jossy knew how to make soup. So she invested $500 of her own money and put two women to work making single pot mixes – 10 Bean, Lentil, Spicy Split Pea, and several other healthful blends of pulses, beans, and spices.
Naturally, she called it the Women’s Bean Project.
The enterprise was successful from the very first year, with $6100 in revenue and two women whose lives were irrevocably changed. Jossy knew growing the budding social enterprise could help more women achieve self-sufficiency and independence from cycles of poverty and trauma. So she kept going.
The end result? A regularly sold-out shop of savory soup kits and scrumptious bake mixes, plus seasonings, chips, coffee, and trail snacks assembled by chronically unemployed women in need of transferable skills.
“The women in our program work with us for six to nine months,” says Tamra Ryan, CEO of the Women’s Bean Project. “In a pretty short amount of time they become the women they are meant to be.”
Like Jossy, Tamra started at Women’s Bean as a volunteer. “I had two science degrees and was working in marketing and business development,” she shares. When the position to lead the organization opened up, a friend encouraged Tamra to apply.
She’s been at the helm of Women’s Bean Project since 2003 when the organization was knee-deep in a financial crisis. Tamra was responsible for preserving Jossy’s core vision of creating lasting change in women’s lives, but also growing the enterprise’s sales.
“We’re in two businesses,” says Tamra, “human services and food manufacturing.” She devoted herself to expanding operations, and that has yielded greater opportunities for struggling women in neighborhoods in and around Denver.
“Our goal is to deliver employees to the community who will show up everyday,” she notes. The first step was to create a transitional program that showed up for the women in more ways than one. “We are serving women who weren’t nurtured during their developmental years.”
“Get Rid of That Man”
The average age of a program participant at Women’s Bean is 38. Most women haven’t held a steady job for longer than a year during their entire adult life, and work histories often are punctuated by abuse, addiction, and incarceration. Only about half have completed high school.
“Their challenges are interwoven,” adds Tamra. “One of the things I have learned is that barriers to employment never happen for a single reason.”
The women work in a variety of roles during their training program at Women’s Bean. About 70% of their time is spent rotating through production, packaging, and general business departments where they learn tangible skills in food manufacturing.
Tamra believes that having a dedicated space without men not only removes barriers to advancement, but also brings down walls. The shop floor is team-driven and fast, and the women quickly learn that they have to trust and lean on one another to get the job done.
“They support each other,” Tamra says. More than once she’s heard the words, “Girl! You gotta get rid of that man!”
Big strides also happen in soft skills classes, which account for the remaining 30% of program time. “They learn computer literacy, financial literacy, and navigation skills,” Tamra says, “things that get lost when someone doesn’t have a work history.”
Classes are made possible by community volunteers and through corporate sponsorships. “The finance class is run by a community bank that brings as many employees as there are women,” shares Tamra. “Every woman has a point person to help her create a budget.”
The staff is careful about not recreating a classroom environment, because, as Tamra puts it, “School didn’t work for these women.” Instead, the concierge model of providing one-on-one support is very intentional.
Each woman is also assigned a job coach for weekly meetings where they distill their experiences into a resume and cover letter while preparing for interviews.
Minefields of Memory and Trauma
Another unique role of the job coach is helping each woman craft a Letter of Explanation, which allows them to confront the past in a safe environment.
“It’s helpful for them to see what comes up on their background check,” Tamra says. “Something that comes up a lot is a failure to appear for court dates or custody hearings.” The exercise of seeing the past on paper and having to tell a story around it has brought many women closer to their children, according to Tamra, and it’s also helped to clarify a workplace advocacy goal for the organization. “It helps us push the big picture of hiring for talent and potential, not background.”
A culminating experience in the program is a storytelling workshop in which the women create reflective videos sharing their journey and their growth. The exercise has helped many women come to terms with painful chapters in their lives.
A story Tamra will never forget? “One woman shared how she missed her parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary because she was in jail.” As she continued talking, she revealed she had been struggling with drinking and addiction since she was 12.
The women are paid for all of their time at Women’s Bean – not just for their hours on the shop floor, but also for excavating through personal minefields of memory and trauma.
The job opportunity, education, and restorative activities have produced remarkable results — women who are not just skilled members of the workforce, but also thriving, well-adjusted members in a tight-knit community.
“Our women are moving into entry-level careers with advancement opportunities and benefits,” shares Tamra. “Different than any job they’ve ever had.”
Women’s Bean tracks its graduates at the 6, 12, 18, and 24-month marks and even pays them a small stipend to incentivize checking in. It’s a small price to know the organization is helping women achieve lasting success.
The women invariably talk about their families during coaching calls. “When we help a mom move into the workforce and her kids see that as an example, you really have made an impact on more than one person,” Tamra says.
And that, as they say, amounts to much more than a hill of beans.