The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

Women's Bean Project
Denver, Colorado

Several surveys have examined the nuanced impacts of the recent recession. Interestingly, in almost every measure of insecurity and hardship, from difficulty paying for basic needs to insufficient means to save for retirement, women have endured more hardship than men. Though the economic recession has frequently been referred to as a "mancession," based on the fact that men have lost more jobs than women (over 6 million jobs since 2007), women have only recovered 9 percent of the jobs they lost. This pace lags far behind male job recovery, which stands at 27 percent. A report conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research suggests the recession has slammed single mothers the hardest, with 16 percent reportedly "experiencing hunger" in the previous year and 35 percent using food stamps.

These hard times for women accentuate the importance of programs like Women's Bean Project based in Denver, Colorado. Women's Bean Project was founded in the late 1980s by Josepha 'Jossy' Eyre with $500 of her own money and a bag of beans. Her goal was to give homeless women marketing knowledge, confidence, self-esteem and practical skills so they could compete in the mainstream job market. At the program's inception, the two women employed by Women's Bean produced basic foodstuffs for sale, grossing about $6,000. By 1995, the program's operating budget was $500,000 with $331,000 in sales. In 1999, sales had increased to $380,000. By its 20th year, the program sold products in grocery stores in 40 different states and online. By 2007, Women's Bean had more than $750,000 in sales.

Today, the 70 women who are employed in the Bean Project's one-year transitional employment program package dry mixes, including products like soup, brownie and cookie, salsa and dip mixes; and ready to eat food products such as jelly beans and chocolate covered espresso beans. During their tenure, participants also help with important office tasks like front desk work, shipping and receiving, bookkeeping and data entry. In return, they receive a wage and training in practical skills such as computer work, problem solving, and interpersonal communications. The program, which primarily employs women with felony backgrounds or spotty employment histories, grossed $1.7 million in sales in 2011 and sold products in 450 stores around the country.

"We're serving women who really just need a second chance," said Tamra Ryan, who has served as the program's executive director for the past eight years. "No one comes here with just one problem - they have lots and lots of problems - but they leave knowing they're worth a better life."

Even during the program's genesis, Eyre was dedicated to creating something allowing the recipient an opportunity to give back. In fact, much of its success has been attributed to the fact that it runs like a small business. Instead of a handout, participants receive a steady paycheck, which helps develop solid transferable work skills and strengthens their sense of self, instilling confidence and responsibility. Workers graduate from the program in six to 12 months.

"My background is in the for profit world," said Ryan. "I started at Women's Bean as a volunteer, but I was just fascinated by the idea that there was a for-profit business that could support the program's true goal: preparing these women for jobs in the traditional workforce."

"But it's a model that works," continued Ryan. "Every woman here has a story that begs to be told, and from a marketer's standpoint - as someone who is working to sell our products - that's what you want."

Women's Bean Project offers assistance to program participants in three areas: developing basic job readiness, life skills, and accessing community support services to ensure their basic needs are met. "If someone does not have a place to go home every night, it is not realistic to expect her to come to work every day. Also, she will be a much more productive employee if she has addressed any health issues she has," said Ryan. Job readiness skills address the basic abilities all employers seek in their employees, including attendance, punctuality, attention to details and quality performance.

"There's no question that this is an inefficient way to run a business," said Ryan. "Basically, we come to work every day and hire the worst people. We train them to be good workers, and then they graduate and we start all over again. There's a constant tension between the business and the mission. But we've been successful in finding a balance that works."

Sales from Women's Bean Project products cover approximately 75 percent of their annual operating budget, but there's no question that foundation support has been critical for the program.

Governor John Hickenlooper, a supporter of Women's Bean, agrees. "For over 20 years, the Women's Bean Project has been helping women in Colorado break the cycle of poverty by teaching them valuable job and life skills," Hickenlooper said. "Foundation funding has been an important component of their success. The Bean Project contributes to a stronger Colorado by empowering women to create better lives for themselves and their families."

And the support from foundations means that Ryan has the flexibility to plan for the future, instead of focusing solely on making it through the current fiscal year. "The great thing about working with foundations as partners is that it gives us the ability to move our organization to the next level," said Ryan. "We can go to them with a concept and a business plan, and they can see exactly what their investment is going to provide." That's exactly what happened when the Women's Bean Project decided to launch its line of limited edition jewelry. Ryan had a business plan and a product line, but the program simply did not have the funds - until they got a $150,000 grant to get the project off the ground. Now, it's a major product line.

"Foundations help support our current operations and give us the resources to create more opportunity," said Ryan. "I would like to see us go national at some point - and foundations will help us make that leap."

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