Pearls: Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey

Throughout 2019, this blog series will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization along our 30 year journey. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for three decades. They will also highlight how we continue to inspire and be inspired by the women in our program while they are working with us and long after they’ve launched.

And yet, even as we are thrilled to celebrate this 30-year milestone, I find myself hoping that in 30 more years Women’s Bean Project will be unnecessary. That through all of the lessons learned over the prior years and our impact on the community, we will finally be able to say we’ve solved the problem we set out to address: to help women with multiple, significant barriers to employment learn to stand tall, find their purpose and break the cycle of poverty. I hope you enjoy these 30 pearls and continue to join us on this journey.

Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO

Pearl #1: The Tremendous Power of Women Helping Women

At Women’s Bean Project we believe all women have the power to transform their lives through employment. Yet, we recognize believing and doing can be different things. For us women tap this power through the support of a safe environment and culture where there is no room for degrading, minimizing or diminishing.

Pearl #2: The Dignity of Work

A couple of years ago I had an experience that taught me a lesson which has stayed with me. We had just hired a large group of women and our team was helping several of them address their basic needs, such as access to healthcare, transportation and housing. As the women were adjusting to their new routines and taking care of their immediate challenges, one woman, Gracilee, stood out.

Pearl #3: Why is What Matters

At Women’s Bean Project, we believe all women have the power to transform their lives through employment. We know that when a woman changes her life, she changes her family’s life. This is the true purpose of our work. And yet, in the day to day, it can be easy for us to default to merely communicating what we do.

Pearl #4: We Must Strive Daily to Find a Balance

At Women’s Bean Project, we provide stepping stones to self-sufficiency through social enterprise. Our social enterprise model creates a tension between the business and the mission that is in turn interesting, challenging and inspiring.

Pearl #5: Potential is Unlimited. Opportunity is Not.

You might be familiar with a book called The Other Wes Moore – One name, two fates. The book tells the story of two kids with the same name who grew up in the same rough neighborhood. One went on to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other is serving a life sentence in prison.

Pearl #6: We Are in the Change Business

Change is funny in that when you’re in the midst of it, it is rarely much fun. As I reflect on those early days of my tenure, it’s incredible to think of all the changes we made in a relatively short amount of time. What I learned in that process is that it’s a lot easier to be an agent of change when staying the same isn’t a choice. If we hadn’t made so many changes to our operations, we certainly would not have survived, much less made it to our 30th anniversary!

Pearl #7: We Are Also in the Hope Business

What constitutes hope? What changes it? In its simplest sense, hope is a feeling of expectation or desire for something to happen. Hope is inherently optimistic and outward facing, rather than internally focused. It is the belief that my life could be better. Hope is the difference between trying one more time to improve one’s life and giving up in futility.

Pearl #8: Start with the End in Mind

In my tenure as leader of the Bean Project I have learned more things than I can count. One thing I’ve learned and reference nearly every day is this lesson: Start with the end in mind.

Pearl#9: Your Past Doesn’t Define You

Past experiences leave each of us with history, baggage, and knowledge. Unfortunately, for the women we serve, the history, baggage and knowledge often lead them to be held back by their pasts. 

Pearl #10: Relapse is a Part of Recovery

As an organization we’ve recently had to challenge our drug and alcohol policy, and along with that, our organization’s attitude toward relapse. The experience has been humbling, scary, and illuminating in turns.

Pearl #11: Our Actions Aren’t About Making Our Own Lives Easier

At the Bean Project it seems like we rarely make easy decisions. There are always at least two ways to look at something or multiple opinions about what’s best. Over time I’ve learned that we often advocate for decisions that are best for each of us individually. I suppose it’s human nature. At our core humans are essentially selfish in that we each desire to do what’s easiest.

Pearl #12: Compassion and Kindness Are Not Wimpy

Several years ago a couple of women who were volunteers and donors to the Bean Project asked me if I ever got burnt out due to hearing all the sad stories from the women. I remember thinking for a moment and then saying, no, not at all. It was an honest response, though I don’t think at the time I knew why I wasn’t left feeling bereft after witnessing years of stories of sadness, loss and failure.

Pearl #13: We are More Effective as a Coach

Denver, the community in which Women’s Bean Project is based, is booming. Unemployment is low, wages are increasing and housing prices are sky-rocketing. For the mainstream, everywhere you turn, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the current economic landscape. But even in times of prosperity, people at the margins in our community get left behind.

Pearl #14: Breaking Out of Poverty is Extremely Hard

Living in poverty is stressful. This might sound logical, but I often think those of us who are not living in poverty are unaware of the impact the stresses of poverty have on those who are. Research shows that when experiencing the stress of poverty, one can only think of one or two things at a time.

Pearl #15: Volunteerism is Mutually Beneficial

Each year several hundred volunteers help Women’s Bean Project in a variety of ways. Volunteers lead many of our program activities, such as computer and financial literacy classes. They also provide job coaching and career search assistance, such as editing resumes and helping women navigate online job portals.

Pearl #16: Diversified Funding Keeps Us in Business

Sales create jobs. During tours and staff meetings, at speaking engagements and dinner parties, I am often heard proclaiming this mantra. Because of our social enterprise model, we are a sales-driven organization. Sales revenue is the primary driver for how many women we can hire and lives we can affect. And yet, because of how we’ve chosen to structure our operations, we are unable to fund 100% of our expenses with sales alone.

Pearl #17: Our Work Must Be Trauma-Informed

Sometimes, in the work that we do, I am reminded of the Hippocratic Oath, which is learned during medical school and underscores the idea that we must endeavor to help people without doing harm to them in the process.

Pearl #18: Find the Balance Between Stability and Nimbleness

According to the JPMorgan Chase Institute, 51% of small businesses are ten years old or less, and 32% of small businesses are five years old or less! A third of new businesses exit within their first two years and half are gone within their first five years.

Pearl #19: We Help Women Help Themselves

I’m often asked if we place the women we serve into their next job upon graduation from the Bean Project. The quick answer is no.

Pearl #20: When You Change a Woman’s Life, You Change Her Family’s Life

Women in America are more likely at every age to live in poverty. In fact, the US has a greater poverty gap between men and women than any other country in the western world.

Pearl #21: Define Success or Others Will Do It For You

When we didn’t do a good job of defining what success looks like for us and the women we serve, others did it for us.

Pearl #22: Employment is Key to Breaking Out of Poverty and Staying Out of Prison

In a broad study of people in the US, she found that long-term employment radically decreases poverty.

Pearl #23: Everyone Wears a Mask

In life everyone wears a mask. For some, the mask is an attempt to project to the world that everything is okay.

Pearl #24: Sweat the Small Stuff

The words we use, the smiles we give or don’t give, the policies we create and enforce all matter. Each small action is a reflection of our values and guiding principles.

Pearl #25: It Takes Great Products to Last 30 Years

We’re lucky. With very little research, Jossy, our founder, landed on ten bean soup mix as our first product.

Pearl #26: Sometimes We Need a Break

Getting emotionally invested in others who are trying to change their lives is a tough business to be in. It brings into play all of our emotions and has the potential to tap our own baggage.

Pearl #27: Second Chances Are an Art, Not Science

Women’s Bean Project is built on the foundation of second chances and the belief that everyone deserves one.

Pearl #28: We Can Adapt Without Mission Drift

Despite the changes we’ve seen in our community and across the country, we have stayed true to our original mission to change women’s lives by providing stepping stones to self-sufficiency through social enterprise.

Pearl #29: It is Possible to Do well and Do Good at the Same Time

For us, doing well and doing good goes beyond good intentions and corporate responsibility and is baked into our operations. Our mission and our business are not separated or separable. They are two sides of the same coin; one does not exist without the other.

Pearl #30: Work Each Day to Become Unnecessary for Future Generations

As long as we are needed, Women’s Bean Project will exist in the community, ready to help women create lasting change by learning the job readiness and life skills needed to get and keep employment. I merely hope there will be a day when we are no longer needed because we have effectively solved the problem we set out to address.  That is my vision for our future.

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