Sweet Beginnings creates jobs for people with criminal backgrounds who want to work through an innovative urban honey-producing business.
Brenda Palms Barber is a purpose-driven, transformational, and innovative leader helping the most vulnerable to raise themselves to economic sustainability and reclaim their self-esteem. She is Founder, President & CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network, an urban workforce development agency, and founding social entrepreneur and CEO of Sweet Beginnings, LLC, a social enterprise that uses urban beekeeping to create jobs for those with significant barriers to employment. Because so few employers would take a chance on the returning citizens she served, in 2004 Brenda founded this honey business to create jobs. Today, NLEN helps 2,000 people get jobs and Sweet Beginnings has hired its 500th worker. Brenda explains, “As honeybees seek nectar without distinguishing between a weed or flower, Sweet Beginnings seeks to elevate the sweet and good within all to support productive employees, good parents, and civically engaged residents.”
Sweet Beginnings creates jobs for people with criminal backgrounds who want to work through an innovative urban honey-producing business.
The Sweet Beginnings social enterprise is committed to solving the problem of unemployment among Black men and women with criminal backgrounds. We do this by providing reentry services, job training, and three-month transitional jobs in our honey and skincare business. When no one else will give them a second chance, we present them with the opportunity to build a work history and develop skills transferable to jobs in green industries, manufacturing, food and customer service, and more. We have hired our 500th employee. More than 75% of our workers secure unsubsidized jobs and 85% keep them for the long-term.
Sweet Beginnings elevates humanity one jar at a time. With these jobs, Black men and women restore their sense of self-worth, regain family connections, and meaningfully contribute to their communities. And more broadly, customers and supporters learn to value every human being, regardless of a past mistake.
The U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration: 2.2 million people are behind bars. And this terrible truth does not touch all communities equally: 1 in 3 Black men are incarcerated (that is 1 in 17 if you are a white man). This works in tandem with low rates of employment in our Black communities creating a crisis of unemployment and poverty, and a generational cycle of incarceration.
On Chicago’s West Side, 10,000 prisoners return from prison with no job; 52% eventually return to prison. Communities like ours are sapped of their wage earners: more than 2 in 3 men were employed prior to incarceration and more than half were primary providers. Job-seekers with a criminal record are offered half as many positions as those without; serving time correlates with low hourly wages, decreased annual earnings, and poor job retention.
Sweet Beginnings helps those with the greatest challenges reintegrate: our workers live in poverty and have a felony conviction, limited education, and little to no traditional work experience. Their average annual income at start is $8,000. Many have children under 18. Less than 2/3 have a high school credential and 14% have never had a job.
Until we have major policy changes regarding crime and incarceration to stop the flood at its source, we must offer these returning citizens – men and women with families, hopes, and ambitions – a way to restore their humanity and their self-esteem. At Sweet Beginnings we do this by offering them a livelihood – a means to earn a legal income, support their families, and dream of their futures.
Sweet Beginnings is a market-driven solution to addressing the unmet social need of reintegration. It produces beelove™, a Certified Naturally Grown and all natural line of raw, urban honey and honey-infused skincare products. Workers gain experience in beekeeping, production, packaging, inventory management, and customer service. This training, in an earth-minded, green industry, transfers to manufacturing, food service, distribution, warehousing, hospitality, customer service, and more. We have 125 beehives at 5 Chicagoland locations, including O’Hare Airport, making us the largest operator of urban beehives in the city. Products are featured in Mariano’s stores, Hudson News at O’Hare and Midway Airports, online, and more.
Sweet Beginnings does not create jobs to produce honey. We produce honey to create jobs.
The impact of employment for citizens returning from incarceration is profound. A person who secures stable employment can reunite with and support his family, rejoin his community, restore his sense of self-worth, and is significantly less likely to return to prison (less than 4% of Sweet Beginning workers return!). The impact of one job transcends the individual to change the entire network of relationships within a community.
Our programming was initially designed by community members including residents harmed by crime, families of those incarcerated, formerly incarcerated individuals themselves, employers, and other stakeholders. This created a balanced program to address the needs of both the worker and employer. We also staff our programs with people with lived experience, including our own program graduates. For example, Charlotte, our Team Leader, oversees orientations and production, and Lisa, Beekeeper Apprentice, manages sales and distribution. Working full-time with Sweet Beginnings in permanent positions, both are program graduates who record observations from workers and product vendors to help keep programming current.
Elevating opportunities for all people, especially those who are traditionally left behind
It would be hard to identify a population more “left behind” than Black men and women with criminal backgrounds. While we talk the talk about paying dues and second chances, rarely are those chances offered – even to those with minimal crimes, such as possession of drugs that are now legal. Today people across the nation and the world are rising up in protest of how we treat these individuals. While marches are more directly about police brutality, this is one of many symptoms of the same problem – our society considers some people as less human than others.
Brenda’s work has always been about addressing the racial wealth gap through improving the earnings potential of those she serves. She founded Sweet Beginnings to create jobs for primarily Black men and women who cannot get a job because of a criminal background. As Executive Director of a workforce development nonprofit, the North Lawndale Employment Network, in one of Chicago’s lowest income Black neighborhoods, she learned that few employers will give a person with a background a second chance. She realized she had to become that first employer so these jobseekers could prove themselves. She chose the unlikely urban beekeeping industry because it suits the population well, with learning through storytelling and a less intimidating pedagogy that results in transferable skills. It has the further advantage of connecting our urban population to nature and the environment.
When Brenda decided to create jobs through urban beekeeping – well before today’s hipster trend – everyone thought the idea was bizarre and could never succeed. Especially on Chicago’s West Side, an area better known for gun violence than eco-business. But she did her research and understood the potential of urban honey products and adaptability of beekeeping, traditionally passed through word-of-mouth and mentoring.
Brenda began thinking about unemployment early in her career, but not until working with the North Lawndale Employment Network did she come to understand the vast depth of the racial wealth gap across generations, chronic unemployment, lack of opportunity, and destruction of the African American community by mass incarceration, and how these social ills are connected and compound one another. The insanely disproportionate impact on boys and young men of color – and thus their families – is a human rights issue. It was through this work that she came to see how society treats people as what they did, not who they are. And she wants to change this. Brenda says, “I don’t know how anyone sleeps at night knowing the daily destruction of these human beings. Today’s social unrest was a long time coming and I am grateful to see allies in other communities joining the fight for justice and restoration.” With our honeybees – responsible for the pollination of a third of our food supply – at risk today, Brenda also is inspired to advocate for these creatures. “The restoration of our families and our honeybees remain fragile but are critically important to a healthy society.”
Brenda Palms Barber and the teams at the North Lawndale Employment Network and Sweet Beginnings, LLC are uniquely positioned to deliver on Sweet Beginnings. Together they have established successful re-entry, employment, and financial literacy programming at NLEN and the growing Sweet Beginnings social enterprise. At NLEN, we provide a variety of training and financial literacy services to 2,000 people per year. Of these, we provide intense reentry and job training to about 250 per year; 82% of them either secure jobs or continue their education. Sweet Beginnings has, to date, provided more than 500 returned citizens with transitional jobs and helped them to secure permanent employment. More than 75% of our workers secure unsubsidized jobs and 85% keep them for 90+ days – a key indicator for long-term retention. NLEN program graduates see prison recidivism rates of less than 10%, compared to 45% in Illinois and 68% nationally.
Brenda is an accidental urban environmentalist. She read the beekeepers bible, “The Hive and the HoneyBee,” was mentored by Master Beekeeper John Hansen for seven years, has over 30 years of experience as a workforce development professional, and has family and friends impacted by mass incarceration. Her qualified team includes workforce professionals, business developers, program designers, innovators, and people with the lived experience of having been incarcerated themselves or otherwise personally impacted by the justice system. Together they create a highly experienced, knowledgeable, and empathic team to deliver on the NLEN and Sweet Beginnings missions.
Finding ways to elevate the humanity of Black men and women with little education, limited work experience, and criminal backgrounds is fraught with adversity. When Brenda started work at NLEN in 1999, there was no societal understanding of mass incarceration or the policy and personal implications of tough on crime laws. Truly, no one cared about these people outside of their families.
The brilliant idea to create a social enterprise to employ this population may be Brenda’s best example of overcoming adversity. Brenda realized that NLEN could prepare people for jobs until the end of days, but it would not matter if no one would hire them. She did NOT want to be another failure in the lives of these people who she believes deserve more.
She learned that employers are reticent to be the first to take a chance on someone with a background, so she made Sweet Beginnings that first employer, giving workers an opportunity to show potential employers that they are reliable workers. This shifts the employer’s perspective of a potential employee from that of an offender to seeing the person he or she is today. And it enables returning citizens to transform their lives.
While Brenda’s professional history has many examples of leadership, forming Sweet Beginnings best highlights this characteristic. She determined the need, researched the industry, and turned concept to reality. This required foresight and leadership. As a social enterprise, she led staff, board, and funders on this journey when many thought the idea foolish. This was before social enterprises were commonly understood in the nonprofit arena and, mentioned already, before urban beekeeping became a “thing.”
Key to success was building social capital. Through both strategy and sheer force of will Brenda secured support from Illinois Department of Corrections (funding and referrals), philanthropic donors willing to take a risk because they trusted Brenda, Mayor Daley, and the Chicago Department of Aviation to provide land for beehives. Brenda secured media attention and applied for – and won – awards that generated positive publicity.
Another key to success was acceptance by the neighborhood. People are scared of bees and do not know they are harmless if left alone. They also do not know how important they are as pollinators for our food sources. Brenda’s team initiated a community education campaign and came to be known as the Bee Lady on the West Side of Chicago.
Chicago, IL, USA
Hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit
Sweet Beginnings, LLC is a social enterprise and transitional jobs program, founded in 2004 and wholly owned by the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) 501c3 nonprofit. Sweet Beginnings is supervised by the NLEN Founder and CEO, Brenda Palms Barber, Daphne Williams, Chief Growth Officer, and NLEN’s Board of Directors. NLEN provides re-entry programming, workforce training, financial counseling, and other services. Sweet Beginnings workers are recruited from NLEN’s 4-week, full-time re-entry and job readiness program, U-Turn Permitted, where participants reacclimate to society and develop preemployment skills. Those who express an interest in a transitional job interview for the position.
Transforming urban, low-income individuals into beekeepers and building on that to create sustainable careers. Connecting our workers to nature and the environment has a greater impact on the individual than other jobs. Not only do these bees open a new world that gets them thinking beyond a job to health and sustainability, it also gives them the opportunity to be creative – these are atypical jobs that feel valuable to our workers. Further, many of our workers have not had the benefit of leaving the neighborhood (aside from incarceration). Our bees bring joy and life to the neighborhood in addition to preparing people with transferable skills.
Creating quality products. We knew that our social mission would only get us so far with sales. We had to have a high end, attractive product that would stand on its own. beelove™ does this and has been sold at Whole Foods, Hudson’s and HMSHost at O’Hare and Midway International airports, local boutiques, and more. Alicia Keys and her husband Swizz Beatz endorsed beelove™ in People Magazine in 2018.
Unique public support. We are the first urban apiary in an airport. The apiary uses fallow land, left as a buffer zone, to house bees. This is good for the environment and for the bees and gives the business more space for our apiaries. Since we opened at O’Hare Airport, Seattle, Portland OR, and Toronto have followed. We even hosted a visit from a group in South Africa that wants to replicate our model there.
At Sweet Beginnings, honeybees take the sting out of re-entry. Prison is a traumatizing experience that, for many, results in debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily life. Our beekeeping allows employees to focus on the life cycle of the honeybee and the work she performs to produce the honey we enjoy; honey takes time to cure before ready to consume. If impatient, one can become sick from eating it before it’s ready. The same with reentering society and securing employment. It will take time for a participant to discover her gifts, know her value, and build the skills required for a livable-wage job.
The Sweet Beginnings theory of change starts with preparing this individual for reintegration and employment, and moves to changing community, changing employers, and – we believe – changing the nation and the world. At an individual level, people restore their sense of self-worth – ripped away during incarceration – and develop transferable skills. They can then reunite with their families, become engaged parents, and impact their communities by financially and emotionally supporting their families and community. The model is replicable across communities, across the nation, and throughout the world.
From a business perspective, the Sweet Beginnings theory of change is integral to that of NLEN, our companion nonprofit. Together our strategies of:
lead to key outcomes and social impact, which, to date, have included:
These ultimately lead us to NLEN’s mission: To improve the earnings potential of the North Lawndale community through innovative employment initiatives that lead to economic advancement and an improved quality of life.
Sweet Beginnings currently employs a total of 40 workers in three-month transitional positions per year and helps them to secure unsubsidized, permanent jobs. In one year, we plan to increase that number to 60. Five years down the road, Sweet Beginnings aims to employ, train, and place 100 people per year. All of these individuals have criminal backgrounds and numerous other barriers to employment. They are unlikely to secure stable employment without Sweet Beginnings or a similar intervention. Eventually, we plan to spread our model across the nation and even internationally through consulting and licensing agreements. Once this is achieved, our model will serve vast numbers of returning citizens.
Our goal over the next five years is to employ and find permanent employment for another 500 returned citizens. The impact of these jobs is exponential – one job means a sustained family, economic mobility, and will ultimately address income inequalities.
Achieving this goal will require an expansion, already planned and well underway. By fall 2020 Sweet Beginnings will have an expanded production facility and share a home base with NLEN, which acquired a 20,000SF neighborhood building to create a new campus that will be a hive of new activity. With the new campus, Sweet Beginnings begins a phased expansion into “Social Enterprise Ventures,” to include the addition of Hive Event Rentals, a new events space rental venture and pop-up retail space for local entrepreneurs, and Worker Bee Café, a new cafe and catering venture and showroom for beelove™ honey and skincare products. We have raised $7.5 million and are on track to achieving our $10 million goal by end of 2020.
And we can go beyond our neighborhood. Sweet Beginnings can be replicated in any disadvantaged community and has already been approached by nonprofits across the country and internationally (South African and Ethiopia). Brenda has considered franchising, although she is pacing expansion and will explore that in a few years. She is also considering another social enterprise – providing consulting services to nonprofits that want to start their own urban honey social enterprises.
Sweet Beginnings faces many of the same challenges as other small businesses – expanding product offerings, marketing and national distribution, forming an advisory council, and human capital and capacity barriers. These have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing it requires. We must increase sales, as more sales means we can hire more people. We are currently in a local market with our largest distributors Mariano’s Groceries, owned by Kroger, and HMS Host and Hudson’s at O’Hare and Midway airport. We plan to expand regionally and eventually nationally. But to increase sales, we must increase production. We have plans for this that includes a new facility enabling us to increase production. While we have acquired a vacant building that is currently under construction, and are well on our way to raising the capital funds to complete it, we could not have anticipated the pandemic, the slowdown in construction and production that resulted from it, or the social distancing now required to create a safe working environment. This means a reboot of the production facility layout and schedule, which ultimately will lead to slower production at a time we need to ramp up. Also resulting from the pandemic has been a temporary slowdown in sales. Marketing research shows that people are unlikely to switch skincare products without a trial, so 40% of sales result from farmers markets and store demos. The shut down of these activities dramatically (but temporarily) reduced sales.
To increase sales locally and regionally we are working with Mariano’s, a local grocery chain owned by Kroger’s that already sells beelove™ in 40 stores, to expand into more Kroger stores throughout the region. We are also in conversation with ULTA to distribute beelove™. We are developing a more robust e-commerce platform with an optimized website and we are working with marketing experts to develop a social media marketing campaign.
We also seek to establish an advisory council with retail brand leadership such as Unilever, Dove, and Sephora. Some may also provide corporate grant support to help advance our brand nationally. Being a small local brand is both a benefit but also a barrier to scaling. To scale nationally, customers must trust our products are high quality and love the social purpose.
We have a modified production schedule that reduces the number of production days to three per week and rotates employees with production duties to every other day. This creates a reduced crew onsite to accommodate for social distancing while in production. We will maintain a-just-in-time inventory, and aggressively promote our e-commerce and corporate gifting strategies.
Sweet Beginnings and NLEN succeed with the help of numerous partners. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago works with us on our place-based arts and education initiatives. Lincoln Park Zoo is creating a new urban education program for our neighbors on honeybees and our ecosystem. We partner with the Illinois Beekeeper Association on our beekeeper curriculum and our honey is Certified Naturally Grown. We partner with the Chicago Social Enterprise Alliance on business planning. We partner with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, and Benefit Chicago on our financing. Bain Capital, the University of Chicago, the DePaul Baumbart Entrepreneurial Center, IFF, and JPMorgan Chase advise on our financial modeling and planning. The City of Chicago and Cook County provide wage subsidies and referrals.
On the NLEN programming side, community-based providers, government, researchers, and employers extend NLEN’s capacity to deliver comprehensive services of the highest quality to those who face significant barriers to economic advancement. Community-based service providers provide recruitment, housing, legal services including restorative justice, life and social skills, and substance use and mental health care. Government partners support programming with funding, referrals, and collaboration. Employers partner in program design and providing jobs. We also have an evaluation partnership with the Social Innovation Fund and University of Illinois at Chicago.
Our business model is a direct response to the prevalent need for employment for people with criminal backgrounds. In our neighborhood, that is around 80% of our working-age population. Our business model stands on its triple-bottom-line mission:
Social: To provide people facing significant barriers to employment – primarily those with histories of criminal convictions – with viable opportunities to establish a work history, learn productive work habits, and become productive members of society.
Economic: To contribute to the economic revitalization of the North Lawndale neighborhood through a social enterprise that is sustainable for the long-term and generates jobs.
Product: To produce and sell high-quality honey and honey-based personal care and relaxation products.
The model relies on a close relationship with our parent nonprofit, NLEN, which ensures we meet our social mission by providing the training and supports our community served needs most, while enabling philanthropic funding through its 501c3.
Our funding model understands that to meet our social mission we have to have subsidies. Our purpose is to employ as many people as possible – an expensive endeavor, especially when training a new workforce every three months. Most business models rely on cutting costs wherever possible, meaning low wages and as few workers as possible. That is antithetical to what we are trying to achieve.
Also essential to the business model is our product. We need a product of the highest quality that can stand on its own, so people will want to buy it even without the social mission.
Sweet Beginnings is firm in its path to financial sustainability. Its financial plan is integrated into that of NLEN and driven by our strategic and business plans with a three-year path to accelerate growth, increase sustainability, retain and develop talent, and attract the growth capital necessary to strengthen infrastructure and asset base. NLEN has raised $7.5 million towards a $10 million goal for capital – the new workforce campus and production facility – and reserves.
We increase sales annually and expect a significant bump up once the new facility is online – even with challenges caused by the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, we were on track to meet our $200K sales goal for the year currently ending. A new subscription box will also increase sales, as a well-researched new product offering. With our new facility and products, we aim to generate $500K annually in 24 months. While increased sales are important to our financial plan, our model will continue to require philanthropic investments. We have long-standing relationships within Chicago’s philanthropic community and government partners. We recently received a $75,000 infusion to support a podcast that will ultimately serve as advertising for consulting on social enterprises, creating a new revenue stream. We have identified new re-entry and workforce program grant opportunities as well.
NLEN has established effective systems monitoring progress towards financial goals. Financial progress is tracked by both the program and finance and administration departments, which work together to set budget goals, expectations, and parameters based on funder requirements.
In the past year we have received close to $200K in philanthropic support and $160K in sales. We expect to double sales after our move into the new facility.
Our annual budget is under $300,000 and growing. Revenue is from both philanthropy and sales. Our employment model, focused on employing and training as many people as possible at a living wage, is inefficient in comparison to a business whose mission is to simply create profits. Thus the need for philanthropic support and the importance of funds such as those from the Elevate Prize. The Sweet Beginnings fundraising plan for FY 2021 includes confirmed and pending operating funds and sales revenues, while we continue to seek marketing resources.
The Sweet Beginnings expenses budget (separate from that of NLEN) for 2020 is approximately $300K and includes Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), Personnel (although some support staff are included in the NLEN budget), Professional Fees $30,300, Marketing, New Product Development, and Fees for Service.
At Sweet Beginnings, we want to change the way our country re-enters men and women who have served their time. We are achieving this one person at a time. A tailored media and marketing campaign and connections with influencers will expand this work by helping us to reach more people, inspire them to rethink their values in regard to people who have been incarcerated, and become more open to second chances and more compassionate towards people who have very hard lives and may have made bad decisions along the way.
Also tremendously important, winning the Elevate Prize will help Sweet Beginnings to become a more effective, sustainable business. The new business management and marketing resources and connections with industry leaders and experts will help us generate more sales revenues and philanthropic support.
We would like to develop partnerships in mentorship or coaching to help cultivate national relationships and open new channels in the natural skin care industry, and help us to learn how to best scale distribution of our skincare products to take advantage of a new opportunity with ULTA and potentially Sephora, which recently expressed interest in distributing beelove™.
We would like to diversify our Board of Directors with small business and social entrepreneur experts.
Finally, we would like to develop a partnership with marketing experts to help Sweet Beginnings to build brand recognition and amplify our impact story through marketing displays or cards hangtags and design point of purchase communications for beelove™ lip balms at sales counters.