The Women's Bean Project: How Gourmet Food Helps Local Women

Sometimes hope is found in the strangest of places. At Women's Bean Project, a social enterprise offering transitional jobs to women in need, there's hope in the signature Six Bean Soup, as well as 30 other gourmet food products, all locally handcrafted with a purpose. 
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. The old Chinese proverb is practically the mantra at the Women's Bean Project, a 501(c)(3) charity in Five Points with a corporate-inspired business model. Founded with the express purpose of teaching job readiness skills to chronically unemployed women, Women's Bean hires and trains long-term welfare recipients and those newly released from prison so they can enter the mainstream workforce within 12 months -- and stay there.
Nancy, who turns 50 this year and has been part of Women's Bean since last October, is one such woman. Hovering at mid-life, the mother to five children (one of whom lives with her at a transitional living center) finds herself gainfully employed for the first time ever. 
How is this possible, you ask? After separating from her long-term boyfriend, the father to her children who'd been the family's sole breadwinner and part-time bill payer (Nancy's been on and off food stamps most of her life), Nancy, a stay-at-home mom by design with a small-time criminal record and no high school diploma, found herself alone, uneducated, and unemployable when her boyfriend abruptly left. 
Women's Bean offers various soup mixes for sale. Enter the Women's Bean Project. When CEO Tamra Ryan, mastermind behind the charity's revolutionary business model, left her corporate marketing job to head Women's Bean in 2003 the organization was recovering from a serious financial crisis that had left it nearly defunct a year earlier. "The first three years were about changing the culture of the organization, getting the right people on the bus, and building a better infrastructure," Ryan says. "I had to really work at getting everybody into the mindset that we are both a business and a place with a mission, and the two are inextricable." 
Ryan recognizes a tension between the business of selling beans and the Organization's philanthropic mission. "By definition, we hire the worst workers, and we work hard to make them good workers so that they leave us; then we start over again," Ryan explains. "In a typical business, the goal would be to retain these workers; but, we exist to help women transition into mainstream employment." 
"Women's Bean has taken on a huge challenge," echoes Rebecca Arno, Vice President of Communications at The Denver Foundation, a neighborhood organization that's served as a place for local philanthropists to do their charitable giving since 1925. "These are women who have traditionally been very hard to employ in our culture." Indeed, the average employee at Women's Bean is 38-years-old and has never held a job longer than a year.
Arno praises Women's Bean for carving out a specific niche within the charitable giving world. "By running businesses, the women themselves develop a history of good work habits, skills, and get recommendations in the context of a real enterprise." The Denver Foundation bolsters Women's Bean by giving on three levels: through a general fund, community endowments, and private donor funds.
 What started out as a few women making bean soups in 1989 has since grown to include production of about 30 different gourmet food projects -- everything from cornbread and cookie mixes to spices, rubs, and salsas -- as well as handcrafted jewelry. Ryan quickly realized bean soup wasn't selling during warm months. "I wanted to remain relevant year-round," she says. When Ryan came on in 2003, product sales generated about $300,000 annually; today, the women rake in $1.6 million per fiscal year. 
In her early days as CEO, the organization grew 40 percent, which, Ryan admits, was hard. Women's Bean has since stabilized. Still, it's a relatively small operation. With just 10 staff members and an operating budget of 2.1 million, not every applicant can be accepted into the program. In fact, Ryan estimates four out of every five applicants are turned away. Marketing Manager Kelly Bell confirms Women's Bean has been shopping for a new space. 
About 70 percent of the organization's operating budget comes from the sale of products made by program participants. Grants and donations make up the other 30 percent, a split that roughly corresponds with how program participants spend their time. Says Ryan, "About 70 percent of the women's paid time is spent making products or selling them; the rest is spent in what we call 'program activities', which is basically where we teach workplace norms." 
Learning to fishWomen's Bean participants make the jewelry for sale.
Women's Bean prepares local women for entry-level jobs that they'll be able to maintain long-term. "We meet women where they are," says Ryan. Each year, the organization employs 70 women with the goal of making them job-ready in under a year. Most participants complete the program in nine months; some are ready to join the workforce sooner, around six months, and others stay a full year. 
 Participants learn by doing. Each day, they must arrive on time and clock in, which isn't always easy since most don't own cars or have licenses. "As people who grew up with parents who worked daily, it can be hard to understand the problem solving that goes into getting to work on time," says Ryan. has to catch two buses and the Light Rail to get to work each day, which takes about two hours round trip.
"We teach other workplace norms, too," says Ryan. "Norms most people would take for granted." Participants learn to dress appropriately for food production and are educated on appropriate interaction between peers. "Cooperating on the production line, paying attention to detail, talking through problems with co-workers instead of getting upset and leaving -- some of this is really foreign to many of the women," says Ryan.    
Production happens in an old firehouse at 32nd and Curtis that was purchased from the city back in 1995. Everything but the coffee is made on the premises. There's also a retail store upstairs, although most sales are outsourced. Some 500 stores in 40 different states carry Women's Bean products; goods are also sold through catalogues and online.  
Participants are compensated for their work. "We pay them $8 dollars per hour," says Ryan. "We try not to pay them too much because we want their next job to be more lucrative." Graduates of the program typically go on to earn $10.50 per hour. And, while they may not be striking gold at Women's Bean, participants receive additional fringe benefits like discounted RTD passes and paid time off to meet their basic needs.   
The goal is to help women by teaching them to help themselves, which is why some rules exist. "It takes a lot to get fired," admits Ryan. "But, it can happen." Participants have to be clean and sober for six months before they're hired; if they start using again, they'll forfeit their spot in the program. Violence is another way a program participant may be released early. And, there's a less strict "no call no show" policy whereby women who fail to show up without calling three times are terminated.
The reality is that some women will go back to prison or otherwise flounder. Still, the success rates of these women are relatively high, considering most were dubbed "unemployable" before entering the program. Ryan reports 60-70 percent of women graduate the program annually. All of these graduates are placed in real jobs. Six months out, 100 percent are still employed; at a year, 85 percent are employed. 
 "Sometimes we come across women who have the capacity to go to college, so we'll help them take that next step," Ryan says, priding herself on always maintaining realistic goals for her charges. "If somebody has a third grade reading level, even getting a GED might not be realistic, so we focus on what this woman can do." Nancy will be graduating soon from Women's Bean.
"It's a good goal," Nancy says of the organization's overarching mission to give women the tools they need so they can stand on their own feet. "You don't know how fantastic I feel." Today Nancy is holding out for a job in a nursing home or hospital because she likes to make people smile. 
Multi-generational hope
There's a plethora of ways a woman might walk through Women Bean's heavy firehouse doors. "We get referrals from half-way houses, parole officers, and treatment centers, as well as resumes from independent applicants who heard about the program from friends or family," says Ryan. Oftentimes, multiple women from the same family work at the facility simultaneously - - a testament to how pervasive multigenerational poverty can be.  
Ryan tells me about one woman who started selling crack when she was 12, became her parents' drug dealer at 14, started using at 16, had her first child at 18, then landed in prison. "Yes," Ryan says, "This was a choice, but one that most white middle class Americans don't quite understand." 
Nancy, who had her first child when she was 17, worries about her 22-year-old daughter, her youngest, who still lives with her and has a six-year-old. Nancy's daughter never graduated from high school and shows little interest in joining the workforce. "I'm proud of myself for being able to be a good example for her now," says Nancy, choosing optimism over regret. "We all deserve a second chance," she says as I'm packing up my stuff. "If it weren't for the Women's Bean Project, I wouldn't have that."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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