Lessons from my Summer at a Social Enterprise – Sara Marcus, Harvard Business School

One year ago I arrived at business school hoping to answer a question: How can I use business management skills to expand economic opportunity to those who need it most? This interest led me to the Farber Internship at REDF and my summer at the Women’s Bean Project, where I got to explore answers to that question for 10 weeks.

Women’s Bean is a social enterprise in REDF’s national portfolio that makes packaged food products while employing women who face barriers to employment. The challenges these women are working hard to overcome include histories of addiction, incarceration, domestic violence. They spend nine months at Women’s Bean getting back on their feet and learning how to succeed in the workplace while holding a stable job on the production floor making soup mixes, baking mixes, and other dry good products. At the end of the program, Women’s Bean helps participants find full-time employment.

I worked on a variety of projects for Women’s Bean this summer, but the bulk of my time was spent developing an e-commerce strategy to drive topline growth through digital channels. I found myself drawing heavily on my background in management consulting and corporate strategy for a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company, as I worked to help Women’s Bean develop a more commercially-oriented approach to their business while maintaining their mission.

My experience taught me several lessons about the challenges and opportunities associated with doing this work:

Work has the power to transform lives. Employees at Women’s Bean start in cohorts every two months. As I would walk around the building, I could often tell who had been at the program for a while and who was relatively new. It was evident in the way they carried themselves and the confidence they displayed in their work. I’m more convinced than ever that a stable job can be the missing link in breaking the cycle of poverty. It goes so much farther than just the paycheck; it’s the feeling of purpose you can see when the women come into work every day and make progress towards their production goals, and the increasing sense of self-sufficiency they exude when they walk out the door in the evening.

Building a social enterprise is like building a business, but with twice as many challenges. Women’s Bean is trying to build a profitable business employing the ‘least hirable’ people in the labor market, while competing for shelf space with giant CPG companies with many millions of dollars in resources to get their products into the hands of consumers. The labor cost angle is challenging as well: in a typical manufacturing environment, hourly labor is viewed as a cost to be minimized. At Women’s Bean, increasing labor hours is the key goal of the business (‘sales create jobs’ is the unofficial motto). And yet, Women’s Bean has to be cost competitive to get on the shelf, so they must find a balance that maximizes hourly labor while remaining competitive. All this with a workforce that turns over every nine months (given its transitional nature) is no easy feat.

Consumers want to get behind socially conscious brands, but communicating purpose takes time. When a shopper is spending 15 seconds of their busy day scanning the soup shelf at the grocery store, how do you communicate that your soup creates job opportunities for women facing chronic barriers to employment? Shoppers must also trust that your product tastes good and is priced appropriately, otherwise they won’t pick it up in the first place. Shoppers want to spend consciously, but the onus is on mission-oriented brands to make that decision easy when customers walk into the store.

While these challenges are immense, there is so much potential upside if we can get this right. Given today’s tight labor market, the time is now for employers to consider expanding job opportunities to those they may have excluded in the past. And social enterprises like the Women’s Bean Project show that with the right tools and support, individuals with difficult pasts can thrive as employees.