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Tamra Ryan / photos Kara Pearson

Women’s Bean Project

by J.B. Bissell on November 3, 2014, 12:23 pm MST

www.womensbeanproject.com

Denver

Founded: 1989

Nonprofit

Employees: 9 (plus 60 to 70 women per year)

CEO Tamra Ryan balances a fulfilling social movement with fulfilling more orders for more soup.

Twenty-five years ago, Jossy Eyre, the founder of the Women's Bean Project, decided that if she could teach women how to work by having them actually work, she just might be able to cure poverty -- even if she did it one woman at a time.

"She was volunteering at a daytime homeless shelter," explains Ryan, who joined the organization in 2003. "She would see the women come and use the services and then leave when they got a job. But she was there long enough to see the same women keep cycling back, and realized that while they had the ability to get the job, they clearly didn't have the ability to keep it."

Eyre took $500 of her own money, bought beans, and put two women to work. That was the genesis of the Women's Bean Project.

Today, the operation is housed in an old fire station, and, in addition to the nine permanent staff members -- whose positions run the gamut from production to caseworker to sales and marketing -- employs 60 to 70 women per year. Those ladies spend an average of about nine months at the Bean Project.

"During their nine months, about 70 percent of each woman's time is spent working in the business in some way: packing products, fulfilling orders and so on," Ryan says. "The other 30 percent is dedicated to program time, which is a variety of things, including financial literacy and budgeting, managing paperwork and keeping a calendar."

The split seems to be working. According to Ryan, 77 percent of the women who start at the Bean Project successfully graduate from the program, and 100 percent of those secure employment upon completion.

Obviously, then, the Bean Project positively impacts dozens of women's lives every year. At the end of the day, that's the bottom line for success. Still, Ryan has another bottom line to think about, one that has her performing a daily balancing act between social benefits and company prosperity.

"The better the business does, the more women can be served. We have to do both well," Ryan says. "I actually really enjoy the tension that exists between the business and the mission because there are days when the mission has to win, that we're going to have to pull everybody off the production line for three hours to do a class. And there are days when the business has to win because we've got a big order that has to go out."

Of course, it's the 60 to 70 women each year who, by getting that big order out, take a big step toward ending their own cycle of poverty who ultimately win.

Challenges: "Coming to work everyday and shooting yourself in the foot," Ryan says. "And coming back the next day and doing it all over again." By definition, the labor force at the Women's Bean Project is rather unreliable, and about the same time they grow into more dependable and productive workers, "they go, and they're great employees for someone else," Ryan adds. "Which is awesome, but it's not a very efficient way to run a business."

Opportunities: Subcontracting their services. "Plenty of businesses need piecework done," Ryan explains. "Hiring us could be much cheaper for a company than even bringing on seasonal workers. We could do it here, and do the fulfillment from here."

"We've invested in this huge fulfillment software and it has all this capacity because you have to build it a certain way. I'd like to fill that capacity with our products, but in the meantime, it'd be great to do it with other people's."

Needs: "More ways to hire more women," Ryan says. "Truly, the only reason for our business to exist is to fulfill the mission, so we're looking at partnerships and co-branded products. We're very open to being creative in terms of working with other companies."

"Oh, we could use a truck, too," she adds. "With a liftgate."

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Betsy McPherson

Incredible organization.  Happy to be a part of it!