Episode 2: Building Confidence, Restoring Self-Worth

How does Sweet Beginnings provide a stable work experience for people with high barriers to employment? What kinds of programming and supports are most important for formerly incarcerated individuals?

In this episode, Brenda Palms Barber shares how Sweet Beginnings serves our clients as a workforce development program. You’ll learn about the core components of our U-Turn Permitted program, how Sweet Beginnings builds on that foundation, and how the program helps clients build confidence in their skills and restore their sense of self-worth.  From extracting honey to producing skincare products to interacting with customers at events, transitional employees participate in many different business activities during their 90 days with us, and each one is part of their journey to success in a permanent job placement.

Fill out the interest form to the right to download the show notes for this episode! They include:

  • Three key takeaways from this episode
  • Schedule for a typical day at Sweet Beginnings
  • U-Turn Permitted client flow chart

Have a question you’d like us to answer in future episodes? Thinking through how to start your own social enterprise? Send us a note through the interest form!


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Transcript

Brenda: Honey doesn’t happen instantaneously. It takes time for it to cure, and to become the delicious, sweet, sticky, wonderful substance that we love, right? And I think that that’s really important for them to understand, that your process is going to take time. You’re going to want to have the best paying job right out the door. And that’s not going to probably happen. Because you have to take steps. Small steps that eventually will lead you to that big wonderful high-paying job. 

Alice: Hi, and welcome back to Inside Sweet Beginnings, our podcast that gives you an inside look at how we run our social enterprise. 

At Sweet Beginnings, we provide 90-day transitional jobs to formerly incarcerated community members, and we produce the beelove  family of honey and honey-infused skincare products. As a social enterprise, Sweet Beginnings is both a business and a program. In this episode, we’re focusing on Sweet Beginnings as a program. If you’re curious about how to provide a stable work experience for people with high barriers to employment, just keep listening.

Brenda Palms Barber is the founder and CEO of Sweet Beginnings. I called her to talk about how NLEN serves our transitional employees, first through job readiness training and then through employment at Sweet Beginnings.

Alice: Hi, Brenda, good morning!

Brenda: Good morning! 

Alice: How are you?

Brenda: I am fabulous, thank you. How are you?

Alice: I’m doing well! I am really happy that we get to have this conversation today. 

Brenda: Me too, me too. I’m looking forward to it. 

Alice: So in the last episode, you told me about how NLEN was founded, and how you came to Chicago and North Lawndale originally. You studied the impact of mass incarceration on the neighborhood of North Lawndale, started developing NLEN’s workforce development programs, and then came to the realization that you needed a social enterprise to further the mission. 

So today I thought we could do a dive into the specifics of that mission and look at the mechanics of it and go inside Sweet Beginnings, as our goal is with the podcast. So I’m hoping that listeners will get an answer to the question: how do you get to achieving that big mission from the small, everyday activities of a social enterprise? And how do you know that you’re doing the right activities? 

So, to start us off, you have a really great story about interviewing one of the first ever Sweet Beginnings employees, who was named Kelwin, and can you tell me that story? 

Brenda: I love to tell the story of Kelwin because he is probably one of the most important individuals that I crossed paths with to help me understand the importance of this work and honestly that I too had some misgivings and misunderstandings about working with people with criminal records. So, Kelwin is one of the first people I interviewed for the job. And back then I didn’t have a staff, it was essentially me and an intern, and so I found myself sitting in front of Kelwin asking him a series of questions for his first interview. And so what happened, I sat down and traditionally I have a practice of not really talking about one’s background. I am really interested in who are you today, and what do you want your future to be? But in this case, I wound up asking a little bit more about his background, which was kind of a surprise for me and probably for him too. So we sat down for the interview and I could tell he was a little nervous. I was honestly a little nervous as well. And so I said well, Kelwin, tell me about your work experience, just as an opener. And he said, well ma’am, I’ve not had a job before, I’ve never worked before. And I thought oh, gosh, where is this gonna go, right? What do I do? And I said, well then, tell me, what got you in trouble? How did you wind up having to spend time in prison? And he said, well I was a drug dealer, ma’am. And he kind of bowed his head a little bit, looked down at his hands and fidgeted, and I said well, were you a good drug dealer? And he said, well yes ma’am, I was. And it was clear that he sat up a little taller in his seat and he looked at me and now I’m fascinated. And I’m like, well tell me, what does it take to be a good drug dealer? And he started to share these different aspects of running a business. He started off by saying well, you know, you have to have really good product because it’s really competitive out there on the block. And I had never thought of that before.  He said that he had to maintain his inventory. He had to understand his supply and demand. I’m like, wow, this is crazy. Now of course he’s using his words, but this is what he’s saying. And he had to know math and he had to know how to make sure that he was making a profit. 

So after he tells me all these different aspects of what it’s like to run a business on the street selling drugs, I said to him, Kelwin, do not ever say you don’t have work experience. Because in fact you do. And you have some really really good skills! It’s just that they were illegal. He used them for illegal gain. But you absolutely have all the skills that we’re looking for, for someone who can work for Sweet Beginnings. And so it was in that moment that I realized that people who have criminal records aren’t just sort of throwaways, these are very smart people who’ve made some poor choices but have a business savvy, many who sell drugs, that we can help transform those skills from illegal activity to traditional work and earn an honest paycheck. So Kelwin was really core to my understanding early on of the potential that men and women have who’ve been incarcerated. 

Alice: I love that story so much, and you tell that so beautifully. 

Brenda: Thank you.

Alice: And I think it really emphasizes the point that you made the last time we talked, about beekeeping not requiring any formal education or work history, and that’s part of the reason that you chose that business in the first place, right? 

Brenda: That’s right. That’s absolutely right.  

Alice: Okay. So from that really great example of the impact on an individual person and all the wonderful life experience that they’re bringing to the position, let’s zoom out and start from the really big picture of North Lawndale as a neighborhood and then kind of work our way into the details of Sweet Beginnings from there. 

Brenda: Absolutely. So, North Lawndale is a community that prior to 1968, was an economically thriving family-centered neighborhood. It was actually economically independent of the City of Chicago. We had some of the city’s largest Fortune 500 companies that were based in North Lawndale – Sears, of course, being one of them, but there were many. And so there was a time when North Lawndale was just the place you wanted to be. People were migrating from the South to come to North Lawndale because it was a place for new beginnings. 

And then of course there was the Civil Rights [Movement], the civil unrest that took place. Dr. King, whom we know visited North Lawndale, really brought awareness, but to the mayor at the time, he brought a sense of embarrassment. Because he was able to get national attention on the economic disparities between blacks and whites in North Lawndale. And particularly put a focus on the housing differences, the disparity between the quality of housing. And Dr. King actually stayed in North Lawndale with his wife in an apartment that was infested with everything. And so that was embarrassing to the city and so you fast forward a couple of months, and unfortunately Dr. King was assassinated. So we were one of the last places that he visited. 

And so the city, well the West Side in general, just went up in flames. They were so frustrated and so hurt and [this person who] represented hope and change and equity was gone. And so we all know that the West Side of Chicago really never rebounded economically after the civil unrest took place. And so for over 50 years now, North Lawndale has struggled to come back. 

And in fact it’s been quite intentional. There are laws and policies that make a community a priority, and those that sort of bypass certain neighborhoods. And North Lawndale was one of those neighborhoods that was simply overlooked and bypassed where other areas were being invested in. So it’s a community where all the businesses that were shadow industries to Sears and other large companies relocated to downtown or to other suburbs, and so it was like a gut punch. Where just everything that was, was gone. And those who could leave, left. So those who were here were the only ones that had no other alternatives. And so North Lawndale struggled with economic development, schools deteriorated, just all the ills of poverty are what you experience and what you can see in North Lawndale. So it’s a community that has long struggled, like too many communities across this country. And so that’s sort of the picture of a community today.

North Lawndale was once a community where there were 125,000 residents and today we’re roughly at about 35,000. So you can see the flight that took place. Predominantly African-American, so I would say probably 95 percent African-American, maybe 3 percent Latino or Latinx, and then 2 percent of kind of a collage of lots of different folks that identify differently. 

Alice: I didn’t realize the numbers were that drastic, the reduction in the population. 

Brenda: Oh absolutely. Yeah. People left. And then of course, all the ills of poverty that I mention, people like Kelwin begin to sell drugs because it’s a way to make money, it’s a way to keep food on the table, and the reality is that North Lawndale is one of the gateways to the city for drug trafficking. And it’s one of the easiest because you’re on 290, people can drop by, pick up, go to the block where they like to get their product, and then leave. And so North Lawndale has always been positioned as a place where drugs have been sort of a lifestyle, a way to support yourself. 

Alice: Wow, I didn’t know that about the geographic aspect of it either, that’s really interesting. And so our client profile is pretty representative of the overall population in North Lawndale, would you say? 

Brenda: Absolutely it is. And that’s important. We want to reflect the needs of the community, so we serve predominantly African-American men, roughly about 70 percent, roughly 30 percent are female. 

So the population we serve is roughly 70 percent African-American men, around 30 percent African American women. And what’s interesting about that percentage is that that’s pretty much the representation that we see in our prisons today. Although the number of women being sent to prison and serving time is on an all-time high, which is very concerning, because of their children and the role that mothers play. So that’s usually the profile that we serve. 

North Lawndale is also a community where the average income is about $25,000 a year. Based on the study that you mentioned earlier that we commissioned, we’ve learned that 57 percent of the adults in North Lawndale have had some involvement in the criminal justice system. The study is starting to be a little old now so we would assume that hopefully it would be less, but the reality is we fear that it’s probably increased. And so we are also a community that is filled with hope. And even though there’s a lot of despair and legitimate reasons for being frustrated, and that does manifest through mental health challenges and through drug usage etcetera, but there are people in this community that have been here for generations, that know what is possible for North Lawndale. And what’s interesting for me is that through our honey, and through our work with honeybees, we get to sort of change the narrative about how people see North Lawndale. And that in fact there are flowers in North Lawndale. People are always sort of surprised that there are flowers in North Lawndale. They get very concerned about where the bees go, where do the bees go to collect nectar, and I’m like well, we do have flowers in North Lawndale. And it’s great to be able to sort of say there are sweet and good things happening in North Lawndale through the production of this local, natural, raw, urban honey. Right in our community. It’s an important part of the narrative. 

Alice: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. So our mission is to help people get jobs, primarily, and can you talk a little bit about how you see that leading to community-wide economic transformation? 

Brenda: The unemployment rate in North Lawndale is three to five times higher, consistently, than those of the city of Chicago. And so the unemployment rate in North Lawndale right now is roughly 23.4 percent. And that means that nearly a quarter of the community isn’t working. And then we also know there are a group of people who are no longer counted, right, in those numbers. And so you can see that when you drive through our neighborhoods and you can see folks sitting on their porches or playing basketball in the middle of the day. So it’s important to have a job because so much comes with having a job. There’s the dignity of being able to support yourself and hopefully your family, that you’re not stressed out trying to figure out how am I going to make it from paycheck to paycheck. And I’ll tell you that it’s not even about paycheck to paycheck right now. People are struggling day to day. Where am I going to eat tomorrow? Where am I going to sleep tomorrow, especially our young people. 

So having a job is more than just a revenue generator. I mean it’s fundamental, but it also connects to how one sees oneself. Am I a contribution to society? It has an effect on your self worth. Without a job, especially in our culture, one of the first things we say to each other when we meet is, well hi my name is Brenda, what do you do? People want to know immediately, what do you do. It’s unfortunate because the real question is who are we, who are you, right? And tell me who you are. But in our society, having a job makes you valid or not. And so that’s why it’s important that we help people, especially those who have made poor choices but have served their time and are looking to have an honest job and make honest money. 

Alice: That’s great, thank you. 

Brenda: You’re welcome. 

Alice: So our primary intervention as NLEN is U-Turn Permitted, which is our four-week flagship job readiness program. So, what is the UTP program and how would you differentiate it from like the standard workforce development training?

Brenda: You know, U-Turn Permitted, first of all, I love the name. Because it says everything. It’s a four-week cognitive-based program that was designed and informed by individuals who have served time in prison, by individuals who are moms and sisters and brothers of individuals who have served time, in addition to pastors of churches and principals of schools. So when we came together and we understood the actual impact of incarceration in North Lawndale, we knew that we had to come up with a program that was designed specifically to meet the needs of those returning from incarceration. And who better to inform us than community members and mothers and fathers and people who have been incarcerated. So they’re the ones that said what it feels like to come back and not have a sense of support. Or to still be angry about what they may have experienced in the process, the system. And so we knew that we had to have an anger management component. And people thought that was weird at the time. Now it’s normal, but like fifteen years ago, people were like, why are you doing anger management for workforce development? And it’s because we understood that anger management really is about getting to the core of your process and your feelings and actually helping a person forgive themselves, right? Otherwise you can’t show up in the world with an open mind or an open heart. And so we knew based on family members especially that anger management was a really important key. And then of course, it is about the unspoken rules of the workplace, and helping people who have not had traditional employment understand what that means. What is work ethic? How do you show up in the workplace? Being on time, not challenging your supervisor, being comfortable with the power dynamics of being an entry-level worker and reporting to someone who’s a supervisor and not letting that dynamic become a trigger because of your experiences with guards in prison, right? 

We also focus on helping people unlearn what makes them a good inmate versus a good employee, right? It’s really interesting because there’s so many opposites. Employers are looking for you to be innovative and to take initiative and to see what needs to be done and you go for it. Whereas in prison that is so not okay. You need to do what you’re told, only. And stay within a certain parameter. Your innovation and taking initiative is not rewarded. And so helping people sort of unpack that and know that they need to show up differently. 

Then of course there’s traditional job readiness, which is helping people with resumes and helping make sure they know how to use a computer and provide those kinds of supports. And then lastly, financial management and coaching and how to open up a checking account, how to deal with any checking issues or credit issues that they may have had. So it’s all of that and it’s packed into four weeks and it’s an intense process, and I love that – and I really don’t think there are a lot of programs like that. There may be one or two. But I love that ours was very organic and was created really by the stakeholders in our community. 

Alice: Yeah. I think that organic piece is really so important. And it’s a lot to pack into four weeks! Like hearing you list it all, it’s like wow, it’s truly impressive that they manage to fit that all in. And then at the end, we have this beautiful milestone ceremony, right, to celebrate their accomplishments. But it’s called a milestone because it’s just one stepping stone on their journey.

Brenda: That’s right.

Alice: So they keep growing and achieving more and more milestones. And so at the end, they’ve received all of this amazing training, they’ve built a community within their class, it seems like. 

Brenda: Oh they do. Absolutely. They become very close. It becomes their new support system. 

Alice: Yeah. That’s great. And then most of them are at that point ready to start going out and getting jobs, they’ve been working with our Business Solutions team to identify positions they’re interested in, they’re applying to those positions, they’re starting to actually use the skills they’ve been learning over the past month. And then some of them, if they’re interested, might end up going to Sweet Beginnings. And so how do we select people to participate in Sweet Beginnings, and what makes a good candidate? 

Brenda: That’s a good question. So Sweet Beginnings was originally designed to help individuals who weren’t quite ready for a traditional job because they may still need more time. You know, prison is – it’s a very difficult place to be when you’re not a person. You’re a number, right. When you don’t have a name, you have a number. When you’re questioning your whole self-purpose and self-worth. So there are some people depending on the number of years that they’ve spent living behind bars that need a little bit more time to become acclimated back into society, and for those individuals, we think Sweet Beginnings is a perfect place because it is a transitional job. It’s 90 days of additional support. And it slowly helps a person become better acclimated to all of the dynamics of working in a job. There are some people who’ve been in prison for maybe a year or less and they’ve had work experience prior, so those folks, we can place those folks a lot easier. But someone like a Kelwin who we started talking about earlier, he never had a traditional job before. And then he spent like four or five years in prison. And so for him coming out, he needed the kind of structured and supportive environment where he could make a few mistakes but learn from them, and then eventually be prepared to work and be competitive in the labor market. 

Alice: Awesome. Yeah. So I think you said it right there – I’m trying to kind of get at like, what does Sweet Beginnings do for people beyond the U Turn Permitted curriculum and why is it so important that we have that in place? And I think what you said is exactly it, it’s that structure and support and I think also like a family environment. So they’re allowed to mess up again and again and again. 

Brenda: They can. And it’s also a safe space to make mistakes while they’re becoming acclimated to the culture of work. And I think that’s the difference. U-Turn Permitted is a brush-up. It’s like a reminder, these are the things that are important and most of us know them. But for some of us, they need a little bit more time to understand what that looks like and to really give them time to process that. So they can be successful once they leave our doors. 

Alice: So it’s kind of ongoing coaching while they’re at Sweet Beginnings. 

Brenda: It is. Ongoing coaching but it’s also real work, you know? That’s the challenge. It’s that even though we know that Sweet Beginnings may need a little bit more time to become acclimated, it doesn’t change the fact that we still have honey to distribute to local grocery stores, and online orders have to be processed. And supplies have to be ordered. It’s a business. And so those things, so it’s a great mix of a little bit of structure – well structure and pressure, but in a supportive way.

Alice: So, a transitional job is pretty different from a normal job in that we’re getting value out of people as workers, but we’re also investing value back into them. 

Brenda: Absolutely. We want to set them on a course that’s going to allow them to actually get a job and keep a job. And I think so many people probably can go and get a job, especially in a very tight labor market. But the question is, are you able to retain your job? And those are all the soft skills and the work ethic that we’re pouring into our men and women so that they will be successful for the long term in those jobs. 

Alice: You said before I think that you’ve tried recruiting people for Sweet Beginnings not from the U-Turn Permitted program. Can you tell me about that and why it’s so important that they have that foundation before they come? 

Brenda: Yeah. You know, we were curious to know if people right off the street could be hired and work for Sweet Beginnings and make a difference. Because so many people were curious about – is this just a job, or do they have to go through something to be ready for the job? So we in fact hired people straight off the street. And were curious about how well they would do if they didn’t have that experience with U-Turn Permitted. And they just didn’t have the grounding that U-Turn Permitted offers. They weren’t accustomed to the structure yet. They just – I could see why people can get a job but not keep the job. Because they didn’t know the importance of how to be respectful to others. There’s a lot that happens in that classroom where you’re able to watch and learn and make mistakes that make you better and more prepared to be a good employee. Than folks who just are coming in off the street and who’ve not been exposed to any of these kinds of lessons. And really don’t know why they can’t keep a job. They have not processed, well could it be my – is it something I’m doing, or is it always the employer’s fault, right? So not having the anger management component coupled with all the job readiness preparation in fact really made a difference. We weren’t able to retain those individuals in our program for more than two or three days. 

Alice: Two or three days? 

Brenda: Days. I mean, some of them wanted a paycheck but sometimes they would show up, sometimes they wouldn’t show up. The same stuff that employers struggle with. People being inconsistent, not having good basic work ethic. That’s what we experienced. So we knew then that a prerequisite to working in Sweet Beginnings had to be that you’d been through U-Turn Permitted. We did explore that. 

Alice: Gotcha. Yeah that’s really interesting, and when was that? 

Brenda: Early on. I think probably within the first two years, people were like oh, we can just get everybody, anybody a job! 

Alice: Not everybody. 

Brenda: Yeah. Let’s see! And no, no we can’t. 

Alice: Wow, yeah, well good to try it out just so you know it won’t work. 

Brenda: That’s right! Well you have to wonder, right? We had to test the efficacy of our U-Turn Permitted program. Were people in fact leaving the program better prepared to work than others? And it was important and relieving to know that in fact yes, it was making a big difference. 

Alice: So what does a typical day look like for a Sweet Beginnings transitional employee? 

Brenda: You know, I can only imagine what the day looks like when you wake up that morning. You know, whether you have an elderly parent that you’re taking care of, or children that you have to help get out the door and feed and clothe and get to school. I mean, I think that a typical day for a Sweet Beginnings employee begins way before they enter the door of Sweet Beginnings. And so they’ve had probably several challenges and obstacles that they’ve had to get through just to show up at work. And to take a bus, public transportation, and get to the bus on time, and then make the transfers and then get to the location. So I think the day starts long before they show up at our doors. 

But then once they arrive, there’s coffee percolating, so there’s a smell of coffee that people can go get a cup of coffee. You’ve begun to bond with your cohort and with your employees, your peers. You hang up your coat, then there’s a morning meeting and you’re talking about what the production schedule will be for that day. You talk about what products need to be developed or if you’re gonna be working on inventory, and then we also kick off every morning with what’s called our Maxwell Reader that offers a really inspirational thought for the day. And it’s to sort of pull us all together and put us on one page, because we know the mornings have started in a variety of different ways. And so this is a time for us to sit and be still and to focus on some positive thinking. And then we do our assignments and oftentimes people are paired to do body creams or some folks are a little bit in the bee season, we’ve got folks that will go outside and start tending to the bees and making sure they’re properly fed, making sure that there aren’t any mites or any kind of disease on our bees, that they’re producing well, to counting inventory. And then there’s a lunch break, they have breaks throughout the day, and then they sort of wrap up and discuss what were some of the key lessons, and prepare for the next day. That’s kind of a typical day. But boy, we have so many guests that want to stop by and we’re hosting people all the time, what does it look like to work here, we have media interviews that come up, so they’re getting this terrific experience to talk about who they are and why this work matters to them, and they’re beginning to develop these really important interview skills, and they’re no longer becoming sort of intimidated by their backgrounds. But they’re building confidence and you can see it in every conversation or in every jar of honey that they produce. It’s a really exciting place to watch people who think that maybe I can’t be successful to saying oh, I’ve got this. I’ve got this. It’s great. 

Alice: Yeah. What stands out to me from what you just said is that they’re really developing the interview skills through completely kind of unrelated activities, just like very informal conversations with people who come to visit, or even selling and talking about their stories is helping them develop the interview skills. 

Brenda: That’s right. 

Alice: And that’s a lot better than just doing mock interview after mock interview where you kind of get into a rut of trying to deliver this script. Sweet Beginnings develops it in a very authentic way, I think that’s really cool. So, and you happened to choose a business that gives them a wide range of activities. So you’ve just mentioned a lot of different areas. So it’s production, so actually making the honey, it’s the beekeeping in the summer and spring when they get to go out and work with the bees, which is like its own special thing. 

Brenda: It really is, it’s beautiful. There’s nothing like the first extraction of the season, and you see this beautiful honeycomb that was produced in a community where people don’t think there are flowers. And just how delicious it is.  Back in the day we used to stick our finger in the hive and the comb and just taste it right out of the hive. Today we use spoons. We’re much more hygienic. 

And then for many of our folks who live in an urban environment, they’ve not gone out to a farm before. But here we sit, in the city, in North Lawndale, where they can see something grow and cultivate that they’ve set it up, and then there’s this beautiful tasting product at the end that they get to be a part of. I love the experiential aspect of working with honeybees and working with honey in general. Working in nature just tends to slow one down. And I think it’s important because it takes the honey time to actually cure, right? And I think that we want to do more with that, because honey doesn’t happen instantaneously. It takes time for it to cure, and to become the delicious, sweet, sticky, wonderful substance that we love, right? And I think that that’s really important for them to understand, that your process is going to take time. You’re going to want to have the best paying job right out the door. And that’s not going to probably happen. Because you have to take steps. Small steps that eventually will lead you to that big wonderful high-paying job. And that’s the same thing with our honey. If you taste what’s in there on day one, when they’re just collecting the nectar, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not what you expect it to be. But in time, and with time, it really does become something pretty spectacular. 

Alice: Wow, yeah. There are so many amazing parallels between the honey and the bees and our clients. 

Brenda: It’s so true.It’s amazing. It’s amazing. Just, it is. 

Alice: So a lot of the activities that people are taking part in are kind of built into the business already. Was there anything that you felt like you had to add in order to support people with their specific needs?

Brenda: Absolutely. So the business – everything that you need for a business is part of what Sweet Beginnings has to have. Everything I said earlier, everything from supply chain management to inventory to customer service and sales and packaging and quality control. All of those things that every business has to deal with. I think that’s important.

But one of the things that we had to do was to actually talk about your narrative, which we talked about, what’s your story? But also reminding people to smile. It’s so funny. But they’re so serious about working and life is so serious and life has been hard. That people forget to smile. And I’m like, hey guys, could you smile please, for a minute? We’re taking a picture, smile! And there’s this awkward sort of uncomfortable moment. And then they’re like well okay, yeah, that’s right, I should smile. And that’s important even in the interviewing process. Because again they’re so serious. I really need this job. They’re coming from a needs-based place. But you also have to be able to lean in, lean forward, and smile. So we had to build that into our customer service training. 

Alice: Wow, interesting. Anything else that you felt like was really important to add to the existing structure? 

Brenda: Not beyond all the things that – just encouragement. Some people have never gotten the encouragement that they’ve needed to feel like they could do something and be successful at it. But honestly it was the smiling, Alice, that people needed. 

Alice: I did not realize that was such a big part!

Brenda: It was a big deal. They looked scary. It’s like, I’m like okay, you guys want to look like you just came out of prison? Is that the look you want? Because that’s the look you’re giving. And so that’s one of those things I talked about that you have to sort of unlearn. It’s probably not okay to walk around smiling all the time while you’re incarcerated. And who wants to smile when you’re incarcerated. But I think that that was something that stands out completely to me, reminding people that there’s a reason to smile. 

Alice: Yeah, yeah. So speaking of interviewing and employers, once people come out of Sweet Beginnings, they’ve really worked to restore their sense of self-worth, develop their narrative, and then they take that into the interview. And how does that change that interaction from the employer’s perspective? 

Brenda: I think it’s – I’m hoping it’s one aspect that gives our Sweet Beginnings employees a real competitive advantage as they sit in that interview with the employer. Because so many times employers want to say well what is it that you did, and they focus on all the things that a person’s done, not who they are today. And so you can say that yes I made some poor decisions, I’ve served my time for those decisions. But today I’m an employee at Sweet Beginnings and I work with honeybees and we produce local urban honey, and suddenly the employer is like, what? What did I just hear? And so suddenly you shift from all the negatives of the past to who you are in your present. And bees are just fascinating to begin with. And I think it gives the interviewer an opportunity and a window to learn something new, and therefore get to explore who that person is sitting in front of them, a little bit. So there’s that exploration. Well let me find out a little bit more about this person, right? So I think that’s one of the competitive advantages of working with something as quirky and different as honeybees and all the other supports and experiences that we wrap around these individuals. Does that answer your question?

Alice: Yeah, yeah, that does. Absolutely. I realized I skipped over something I wanted to talk about, which is the sales aspect. You mentioned the sales curriculum a little bit before. So in addition to production, they get to go out to pop-up events and fairs and stuff like that and actually market the honey and the product. So how do you train them to do that? 

Brenda: Well we absolutely have a curriculum that focuses on how to market our products. The minute an employee starts with Sweet Beginnings, they’re given an employee handbook, a training book. And in this book, this manual, actually, are explanations and descriptions of all of our products. And so one of their first homework assignments is to actually begin to memorize at least three of the ingredients in each of our products. Because they have to be informed. They have to be able to stand in front of our customers and say yes, our body cream has vitamin A, there’s shea butter, and we put honey, and it’s just deeply moisturizing, there’s vitamin A in there as well, vitamin E, just know – so you have to have some authority as the salesperson. So that’s one of the things that they’re asked to memorize. 

So that’s important, that’s a really important part of their experience. Because you just can’t get out there and say oh I don’t know. You need to have knowledge about the product that you’re selling. And then what’s also cool is that if they’ve been involved with the honey extraction process, then they can share that experience as well. They can say well, I actually extracted honey and people are fascinated by that again, and they get to learn more about this person. So we make sure we do have a manual, there is structure to that, we want to make sure they understand the product, what are the unique characteristics of that product. There’s certain words that we use that are part of our brand, you know, so we talk about honey-infused skincare. 

That’s a line that’s important to us because it’s honey-infused. We don’t want to just say, oh, and our products have honey in them. No! Our products are infused with honey, right? So there’s certain lines and part of our brand that’s really important that they begin to learn. And then of course they then connect that with our customers. And we do know that not everyone is cut out for that experience, although we want everyone to try it. Because what happens is people aren’t aware that beelove has such an amazing customer base and an awareness of our brand. So they’ll go out to a farmers market or to an event, and they’ll be – the table gets rushed, you know. They’re like oh my gosh, I love beelove, I love your product and I need three lip balms! And our employees, they sit there and go what? I never heard of this. You know about this? And so just that alone starts to say, this is an important product. I’m a part of something important and good that people like. And it’s just one more touchpoint, Alice, where people get to say, I matter. That I have value, that I bring value. Even if it’s just through the association of this really cool skincare product. 

Alice: Yeah. Yeah. Wow. It seems like everything just came together so perfectly, like once you had landed upon this idea! 

Brenda: Sounds like it, doesn’t it? 

Alice: Yeah! It does! 

Brenda: I mean, you know, it’s great to talk about this, again, fifteen years in. It wasn’t that smooth, it wasn’t that easy. It was bumpy along the way. There were definitely bee stings along the way. But those bee stings help you take a different direction. And just figure out how best to get there. Because it sounds great today, but it was definitely hard. And you just had to be steadfast in your commitment to these individuals who you knew wanted to work, needed to work. And were challenged by not being able to work just because they had a criminal record. Not because they couldn’t be great employees. 

Alice: What aspects of Sweet Beginnings would you say are broadly applicable to any employment social enterprise? So any social enterprise providing transitional jobs to some population that has a barrier, but not necessarily incarceration? 

Brenda: I think structure is really important. When for example – when people, employees of Sweet Beginnings have missed two or three days because they were sick or they had to go meet a family member in another state or something, they come back and they’re like oh it’s so good to be back, because I really missed getting up and coming here and doing something and having that structure in my life. And I think that that’s something that’s really important no matter what. A lot of folks just appreciate having a reason to wake up in the morning and from smelling that cup of coffee when they enter the door to producing something that’s good, regardless of what it is. But that they know that they’re doing something for the greater good of society. And that in itself helps a person to restore their sense of self, whether they have been incarcerated or not. That’s just sort of a basic human need that we all need to feel like we belong and that we make a difference. 

Alice: That’s it for this episode. We’ve talked about how our U-Turn Permitted program supports people returning home from prison, how our clients move from that program into Sweet Beginnings, what exactly they’re doing at Sweet Beginnings during their 90 days with us, and how that sets them up for success with securing permanent stable jobs.

We’d love to hear any questions you have for us, or hear about any plans that you have for your own social enterprise. To get in touch, please visit the podcast landing page at blog.beelovebuzz.com/insidesb and submit a question or comment through the interest form.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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Brenda Palms-Barber

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