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Name: Tamra Ryan

Business: Women’s Bean Project

Location: Denver, Colorado, U.S.

Industry: Consumer Goods

Reason for starting? Women’s Bean Project was founded in 1989 because we noticed that, while many of the basic human services offered to homeless, unemployed and impoverished women kept them safe, they didn’t do much to help them make lasting changes in their lives. We believe obtaining and maintaining employment to be the most significant way to build dignity and help women break out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency. Most importantly, we wanted to create opportunity in a real way by teaching women to work by working. So, we invested $500 in beans and put two women to work making Ten Bean Soup mix. Through the years we have added additional products, including more soups mixes; baking mixes for brownies, cookies and scones; and spices for salsas, dips and rubs. We have also expanded our reach to nearly 1,000 stores across the country and employing 70-80 women each year. The women, over 1,000 since our beginning, have learned to stand tall, find their purpose, and break the cycle of poverty.

Related: How “Orange is the New Black” Inspired This Luxury T-Shirt Company

How do you define success? We are a transitional employer, so the first metric of success is how many women graduate our program after 6-9 months and move onto a career entry-level job in the community (about 70% of the women we hire do). Then, we want to be sure that change sticks, so we track how many are still employed one year after graduation (an average of 93% are). We also define success by our product sales. Sales create jobs, so the more product we sell across the country, the more women’s lives we can affect.

Biggest success: From a sales standpoint, our biggest success has been to place products with some of the country’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger. This has required us to up our game and become a better manufacturer. With respect to the mission, our biggest successes are always women whose lives are completely changed through their experience at Women’s Bean Project. We can see the effect of what happens when you believe in someone — they can finally begin to believe in themselves. For example, Gloria graduated our program 13 years ago when a local company took a chance and hired her at their front desk. Today she still works there, only now she manages five women, has bought a home and a car and is on the verge of earning her college degree. She did this despite the fact that she arrived at the Bean Project homeless, having left an abusive marriage and losing her kids and being forced to deal with years of closet drug and alcohol abuse.

What is your top challenge and how you have addressed it? We are challenged to find a balance between our business and our mission. We are a consumer packaged goods company and a human services organization. Our mission, to change women’s lives by providing stepping stones to self-sufficiency, is often in conflict with our business. We hire the women no one else will hire, with multiple and complex barriers to employment, with histories of addiction and incarceration, poor work histories and little education, and help them learn the job readiness and life skills needed to make them great workers. Each day we are challenged with finding the balance of accomplishing both our sales and our humanitarian goals. If a woman doesn’t have a safe home to go to each night, how can we expect her to come to work each day? If no one will hire her, how will she build a work history? With no feeling of self-worth, how will she self-advocate? We create a safe and accepting work environment where she can learn to be a great employee and community member and mom.

Related: Women & Money: Setting an Example 

Who is your most important role model? My most important role models are women who lead with grace, dignity, intelligence, kindness and humility. They are women who are strong — not pushovers — who are not afraid to speak the truth for purpose. They are self aware of their strengths and weaknesses and hold themselves to a higher standard than anyone else. Importantly, they keep their word. There are a few women who I believe embody these characteristics. Those whose names you would know include Sheryl Sandberg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama. However, there are many women who serve as everyday role models as well.

Twitter   @womensbean 

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Edited by The Story Exchange