Growing a business, everything takes longer than you ever think it will . . . So don’t feel like you’re off track if things are taking longer than you want. If I reflect a little bit more about even honey and how it’s produced, it takes time for honey to cure once it’s in the hive. It’s not ready today. It literally has to cure over time and that takes at least twenty to forty days. I think that’s something that’s really important, that transformation takes time. I think about that not just with our honey but with the men and women that we work with: that they’ll make mistakes, but things take time. And the same thing with growing a business.– Brenda Palms Barber, CEO of Sweet Beginnings
In the final episode of this series, Brenda Palms Barber reflects on the lessons she’s learned over the sixteen years that Sweet Beginnings has been in business. You’ll learn about the challenges she’s overcome – such as trademark issues, ineffective distribution services, and not being taken seriously – and how those lessons can be applied to other social enterprises. You’ll also learn what she considers to be Sweet Beginnings’ great successes, and what’s next for Sweet Beginnings!
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Brenda: I had to recognize that I needed to go deep and understand the business, so that this vision could flourish. So that we could create jobs. And that I couldn’t be the person getting in my own way.
Alice: Hi, and welcome back to Inside Sweet Beginnings, our podcast that gives you an inside look at how we run our social enterprise. Sweet Beginnings has been creating transitional jobs and producing honey for over 16 years, and our CEO Brenda Palms Barber has learned a lot about social enterprise in that time. In this episode, Brenda shares some of the challenges she’s had to overcome, how those lessons apply to other social enterprises, and what’s next for Sweet Beginnings.
Alice: Hi Brenda, good morning!
Brenda: Hi Alice, good morning.
Alice: How’s it going?
Brenda: So good. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today!
Alice: Good, yeah, it’s good to see you for our wrap-up episode, for this series of the podcast at least.
Brenda: Yes. Yeah, it’s been a wonderful journey.
Alice: Yeah. So I don’t have much of an intro here, we’re just looking back at the fifteen years that Sweet Beginnings has been in business and talking about the successes and challenges along the way, and from there highlighting any best practices that might be useful for other social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. So let’s start with the challenges I think and as you say kind of the bee stings that you’ve encountered along the way. Yeah, what comes to mind? I’ll let you take it away.
Brenda: Oh my goodness. There’s so many. There’s so many. I think that at the very beginning, Sweet Beginnings, this concept, wasn’t taken seriously as a business. It’s not natural necessarily to think about beekeeping as a means by which to teach people who’ve been formerly incarcerated. How does that equip them with tools and skills to work in the workplace? It just doesn’t seem right, how does that work? And so I understand why people initially were so like, politely questioning, is this woman, has she lost her mind or not? And so I think that that was the challenge is that people would say well, how does beekeeping prepare a person for work? And then the other question was what kinds of jobs will beekeeping transition a person to?
What we didn’t emphasize perhaps enough were the skills that people would gain by running and operating a small business and all that goes with it. Everything from customer service to yes, working with bees but also processing the skincare products and extracting honey, jarring it, sealing it, boxing it, working with UPS and other mailers on proper shipping, how to manage inventory. I mean, we just didn’t talk enough about the type of skills that people would gain by working in a small business. And so I think that that’s where people had concerns like well they’re out there working in an apiary all day long, what is that going to do?
But the reality is, any kind of work is important for a person who hasn’t had a lot of work experience to understand and gain work ethic, to become acclimated to the routine of work every day. And that was really a very important and very basic part of what Sweet Beginnings was doing. It was a reason to get up in the morning, to show up on time, to work with others, to take instruction from supervisors, to produce something that was good. And that was part of a market-driven strategy to address the needs of those who’ve been incarcerated and their need for employment. So I think that not being taken seriously as a business – I mean I actually had some people tell me that, well that’s a nice idea but that’s a hobby. Beekeeping is a hobby, it’s not a business. And so I think what’s great is fifteen, sixteen years later, we can say that it’s certainly beyond a hobby. It’s actually a revenue-generating business that has hired over five hundred men and women who have essentially not returned to prison. So we really are proving that we could be a business, but a business with a very important social purpose.
Alice: How long do you think it took for you to figure out that you needed to adjust the messaging and emphasize kind of the business aspect more, or for people to come around and look at the outcomes and see that it was viable?
Brenda: Right. For people that had the time and the interest, grantmakers and others, they certainly wanted and needed time and we would host lots of site visits and invite people inside the hive to see what was going on, and then they could see the production, they could see people in their beelove® t-shirts working together, getting orders and filling those orders and seeing that the work was real. You have to invite people into the hive, right. I think that people have to see it.
And then they also have to experience the product itself. And when you try a beelove® body cream or lotion or our hand and foot balm or a lip balm, you’re like oh wait a minute, this is high quality, this is silky smooth, this is rich in viscosity, this smells great, it’s light and clean. They may know what they’re doing. This is a business! It’s not a hobby. So I think that was important, for people to realize that. That’s why I really focus a lot on making sure that the quality of our products are top shelf, that they are the very best that they can be for so many reasons. But one is to take our business seriously, and then when you have a quality product, people will return and purchase your product. But then it’s also important, as I’ve said before, that second chance people or how we’ve labeled them as second chance, giving them second chances, are associated with a first-rate, quality product. It’s important. So it took time. Indeed. Probably fifteen years. No, I would say it certainly has been slow in the coming, but the race is given to those who aren’t swift but to those who endure.
That was one. Another really important and early on sting was understanding the importance of who you partner with. And I think that that was probably one of the more difficult experiences that I’ve had in partnerships. I assumed that the group of beekeepers that we worked with initially, we were all on the same page because the honeybees mattered to us, we cared about the honeybees, but we cared differently. And so for the first couple of years working together was a joy, we established a hundred hives and we were producing delicious, great tasting honey, inside of Chicago. Which people didn’t expect necessarily, something sweet and good and delicious to come out of North Lawndale. But I loved that it was an opportunity to change the narrative about our neighborhood and also show what’s possible. But the honey was fantastic and we were working in partnership.
But Alice, I found out probably two and a half, three years into the partnership that they had a very different expectation around bees from mine. And what I mean is they were far more interested in developing a honey co-op where beekeepers from all over the city could come together and become a force for local honey in Chicago. And because we were the largest and continue to be the largest operator of apiaries in Chicago, they saw this as just an exciting opportunity to leverage all the talent of urban beekeepers in the city of Chicago. And to be fair, that was not my priority. My priority was to create a work experience for the men and women returning from incarceration that would help them become competitive employees in the future. And so honey for me was a means by which to equip these men and women with skills that would build their confidence, that would expose them to the various aspects of running a business, that they could use in jobs for the future. So what happened is we eventually began to realize that we didn’t have shared vision and then there began to be more tensions that grew and eventually we had to part ways.
And so that was a big lesson and it’s tough because partnerships mean that there are relationships that are involved and to realize that those relationships that we had established that were filled with hope and joy and promise, that that fell apart. But the key is that we were able to continue to grow and to work with new folks that were much more in alignment with understanding what the real objective of our beekeeping was.
Alice: Yeah. So that’s how you would get around that in the future, what other people should do when establishing partnerships, is just be super clear at the outset what the end goal is?
Brenda: Absolutely. Be very clear about that because we both operated on a set of assumptions. And now when I go into partnerships I’m like, okay let’s be very clear, what is important to you? What is the motivation for you entering into this partnership? And just being brutally honest. So that you can be in alignment as you move forward or make a decision to not enter into that partnership until you can find the right partner that’s in alignment with your goals.
But one of my mistakes was to think that I didn’t need to understand the art and the science of beekeeping. I thought I could just contract with these beekeepers who cared about bees, knew bees, understood the cycle of life for bees, and how to increase honey production and that all I needed to do was to be nice to them and cut them a check. And that my focus was of course on creating a workforce development experience for these men and women that we were hiring and that that was my expertise, that’s what I brought to the table. And I know that one of the most important things I learned was that you can’t parcel out any aspect of your business until you understand it first. So I was trying to lead a business that I didn’t fully understand and that’s just not wise.
And I had to learn beekeeping, I had to get out into the apiary, crack open a hive, understand what I was looking at, be able to identify the queen, look for mites, and I had to read a lot. There’s a beekeeping bible called The Honeybee and the Hive. It’s like six inches thick, it’s huge, but I literally had to read that entire thing to understand American foulbrood and to know the different types of diseases or lifecycles, different body parts, and how far bees will travel to collect honey, how it’s produced within their body and nectar and water and temperature. I just needed to understand beekeeping. And I think that that was something I really didn’t sign up for as a workforce development nonprofit executive. I’m like what am I doing out here in this apiary cracking open a hive and trying to look at these various aspects? But it was important that I understood the business so I could help guide others. And that I – you just can’t talk about something that you don’t understand. And that was probably a really important lesson is that you gotta know your business. The good, the bad, the all.
My next one is really don’t give up ownership of your intellectual property. Our original beekeepers wanted to retain trademark ownership of Sweet Beginnings. And I was really surprised to hear that they thought they should have that level of ownership when the concept of what we were doing was my intellectual property. And so here’s the other piece that I learned was I allowed someone else to submit my paperwork for applying for the trademark for Sweet Beginnings and for beeline, which was our original name. And because I didn’t have a lot of experience with the legal side of setting this up and this group did, I thought well good we’re in partnership, thank you so much, I really appreciate you helping to take the lead on helping us legally establish ourselves. But then as the relationship began to deteriorate over time, it became clear that they felt they had a level of ownership in what Sweet Beginnings is and they were always paid as consultants so of course I saw that very differently.
And it wasn’t until I had an attorney to demand that they turn over the ownership that I saw that it had been listed in another name and not under the name of the North Lawndale Employment Network. So again there was a lot of trust that I naively gave away and I think that that’s why I will tell people today, sit down with an attorney first, discuss what your legal structure should be, make sure that you tell them what your long-term vision is for the business and they will help you decide what the legal structure that best suits your vision should be. And then also will protect your intellectual property. And so that was another really big sting there.
Alice: Luckily you had a really strong legal team.
Brenda: I have an excellent legal team. I’ve always been really fortunate to have really strong attorneys that support our work. But I think that that is critical to someone thinking about launching a business. We think that sometimes attorneys can be very very expensive and they are, but there is no price to your intellectual property. You have to protect your business, and you have to protect your ideas. And so it’s important to work with attorneys who know how to do that, not your cousin’s brother’s sister’s friend’s attorney, but actually go – and if your organizational structure is one that’s nonprofit, then you can get most of that work done pro bono.
We didn’t have attorneys at the beginning. And so it wasn’t until I wasn’t able to get a copy of the trademark that I began to wonder what’s going on and that’s when I was able to secure DLA Piper as a law firm to help us figure out what was going on. So they did a cease and desist letter demanding that they turn over the – and that’s when we were able to learn – we developed a structure. And Sweet Beginnings became a legal entity after that. Prior to that, for the first three years of our operations, we were really operating as a program.
Alice: You mentioned the original name being beeline, can you tell me about that?
Brenda: Oh boy sure, you caught that. You caught that! Yeah so the very first name we came up with was beeline, and we loved beeline because it was making a beeline for change. It was a beautiful concept that people were getting ready to do something different. And it was just a beautiful metaphor. And so again about three years into the work, we started to realize that once we had a website, people could purchase our products online. We were having a small ecommerce effort, we realized that people from around the country were starting to purchase our products. And that meant that we were no longer sort of in compliance with Illinois state regulations. We never expected to initially grow beyond just a local product, and then when we realized that, we were like well we gotta take care of that. So we went and made sure that there wasn’t a trademark for beeline anywhere else around the country as we were getting ready to expand and grow and we did a search and learned that Procter & Gamble had already secured the name beeline nationally. So we’re like yikes, we can’t go up Procter & Gamble. They actually had reserved the name for a hair lightener. And I thought, you’re kidding, that’s it.
So then we had to go back to the drawing board and our board of directors at the time, of Sweet Beginnings, we spent probably about six months going through a process of other names, what can we do? It felt bad after we had already established beeline that we would have to come out with a new name and start all over and all that, but one of our Board members, a wonderful woman by the name of Faye Sinott, she was like, why don’t we just change a couple of the letters, and make it beelove®? We’re like, beelove®. And at first I didn’t embrace it. It sounded a little like, kinda hippie. Beelove®, and I’m like, what is beelove®.
But wow, it’s turned out to be the right name for all the right reasons. It’s just not about the individuals, it’s also about bees too. We have to love our honeybees. Honeybees produce honey which is bee love, for us as humans, we love our honey, but it’s also about be loving toward people who need second chances. Be love. We all need to feel love. And so suddenly it just seemed to grow on us and we were able to continue to have the same look, two different letters, so people would recognize our brand and go, something might be different but they’re not quite sure, and so it just really really worked out very well. And so now we have trademarked that naturally and we’re all set.
Alice: Yes. So the lesson there for other social enterprises would be to, I guess, think about scope when you’re starting out?
Brenda: Yeah, it’s a really good point. Decide if you want what the scale of your business is. Even though we thought eventually we would look at pollinating our model as either as a franchise or as a licensed business agreement, we always felt we would definitely go nationally and maybe even internationally, but not as soon as we did, right. So I think it’s a good idea to think big and long, and far ahead, and put those legal components in place so that you’re not limited by your growth. Your growth isn’t limited, rather, even beyond your imagination.
You know, another area that we certainly got stung on quite a bit, and I’ve shared this with other social enterprises that have struggled with this as well, is distribution. And around this area, I think it’s important to fail forward fast and then pivot and try another way forward. So third-party distribution contracts – it proved to be a big setback for us. In fact, because our business is so small that there really – we became a low, low priority for our distribution partners, and we’ve tried more than one.
Alice: So when you say distribution partners, that means those are the stores that are receiving the honey to sell and then the distribution service is just the truck and person that’s getting it there and putting it on the shelf?
Brenda: One was sort of just a smaller organization that focused on small brands and the other was a larger distributor and we really got lost with there. They just didn’t push our products out in a timely manner. They didn’t get the attention that they deserve – beelove® didn’t get attention they deserved on the shelf. I would often go to some of the stores and see that beelove® hadn’t been ordered, that there was maybe one jar on the shelf, or that things might be sticky. Or that even if it said local product that it might be crooked or empty, the signage wasn’t there, and those were the areas that our distribution partners are responsible for.
And so we had to pull out of that agreement, we terminated it, we do have – it’s important to have clauses in your contracts that allow you to terminate fairly quickly. Within thirty days. And so we did, and then we just decided to invest the money that we’d invested in that agreement with a full-time position. So we were able to create another full-time job for someone who’s served their time, and they have a driver’s license, they were able to drive the van, they were able to develop rapport at the loading docks with all of our stores and maintain the inventory, clean it up if it needs to be cleaned up and just really take pride in taking something that we’ve developed from the apiary to the shelf and making sure that that presentation is everything that it should be professionally.
So it turned out in the long run that it took us a minute to realize that we had the ability and the capacity and the inspiration to do that work ourselves. I do know that as we continue to grow, we do use UPS to deliver across the country and we’ve had some real challenges with UPS too. Sorry UPS if you’re listening, but we’ve learned that shipping honey is – we’ve gotten a lot better, but starting out we had a lot of lost product. Damaged, broken upon delivery that we’ve had to figure out. So we actually brought UPS on site and said help us figure out how we can best wrap our honey and what product should we be using and they were fantastic. So the good side of it is they helped us figure out how we could do our shipping and make sure our honey arrived without any damage at all.
One of the things that I learned was that everything will take longer than you ever want it to. I think we want solutions and we want to put action in place and make things happen right away. And what I’ve learned is that things take time to evolve. And so it’s important to be patient on one hand, but it’s also important that you never become complacent and sit back. You’ve got to stay impatient, you’ve got to still be on the edge, make sure that you’re leaning in because it can get really frustrating when things are slower, whether it’s a design element, whether it’s establishing trademarks, whether it’s getting into a particular store or not. Growing a business, everything takes longer than you ever think it will and I’ve shared that with friends and we all laugh and all agree that everything takes longer. So don’t feel like you’re off track if things are taking longer than you want. It’s just that things take time. And what’s interesting about that for me is that if I reflect a little bit more about sort of even honey and how it’s produced, it takes time for honey to cure once it’s in the hive. It’s not ready today. It literally has to cure over time and that takes at least twenty to forty days. Because if you eat honey before it’s ripe, then you can actually kind of get sick. And I think that’s something that’s really important, that transformation takes time. And I think about that not just with our honey but with the men and women that we work with. That they’ll make mistakes, but things take time. And the same thing with growing a business. It takes time.
Alice: That’s a beautiful metaphor.
Brenda: Thank you. It was a sting though. I think the other thing that’s important – it’s just being honest about your capacity. Being honest about your numbers, and being honest about what you need to know. I mentioned earlier that I read this book called The Hive and the Honeybee and it’s because I had to be honest and say I don’t know anything about beekeeping, and yet I’m running a business that is driven by bees and honeybees in general. So it’s important to recognize where you have opportunities to learn and to not be shy about it.
I came into this work as a workforce development professional. I did not come into this work as a beekeeper. I didn’t come into this work as a skincare expert. Or honey. I had to learn a lot about just running a business in general and then specifically about the actual products that we were producing. And so I have spent a lot of time building and leveraging partnerships that help build capacity, whether it’s working with employees at Boeing to help with business planning, I’ve participated in the Chicago Urban League’s business incubator for entrepreneurs called Next One, I’ve spent time at the University of Chicago in their executive business program on product development, I mentored with Jennifer Henderson who was the President of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream because they were one of the leaders in social impact businesses. I read a lot of different case studies, had lots of conversations with individuals, and I mentored for at least seven years with John Hansen, who’s a master beekeeper. I had to recognize that I ended to go deep and understand the business, so that this vision could flourish. So that we could create jobs. And that I couldn’t be the person getting in my own way.
And so it was important that you’re honest about what your skill sets are, where your skills are and where you need to build capacity. And I think I wasn’t really originally open to that. I just wanted to be able to sort of put the pieces of a puzzle together. Without really understanding the methodologies behind what we needed to do.
But it’s a business. And so you’ve got to, like I said, be honest – what do you need to know? Who can help you with your business planning? Who can help you with your financial models? How are you going to fund this? Where are you going to get the seed money, the capital to run and continue to operate the business? What are you defining as success? Answering those questions.
Alice: So speaking of success, what do you consider to be the biggest successes that Sweet Beginnings has had over the past fifteen years?
Alice: That it’s still here.
Brenda: Yeah, we’re still here! We’re here, sixteen years later. Trust that most people didn’t think we’d last a year, right? So the fact that the business is still here is one. It says a lot about the fact that we have customers that care and respect our product, number one. We couldn’t be here if the product wasn’t a driver. We see our sales increasing year over year. This has been our strongest revenue-generating year to date, and that’s even in the midst of a pandemic, our online sales continue to be strong. And so happy about that and so grateful for that.
So the fact that we’re still here. It’s like, the fact that people like our product, that we do have repeat business and that’s important. That we are in a national retail chain for our honey is pretty remarkable and that’s important. That means a lot again because if there’s demand then we can continue to hire men and women who need this kind of work experience.
That we’ve hired over five hundred men and women to date brings me joy and a very big smile on my face because I mean wow, five hundred people had an experience that they never thought they would. And that they weren’t necessarily ready for other employment experiences because maybe they’d been incarcerated for seventeen years and they needed time to re-acclimate to society, let alone a job. So to know that we’ve been a sweet beginning for those individuals really really is why we exist and that means so much to me.
And then the statistic that we’ve maintained over these past sixteen years is, at most, less than ten percent of the men and women that we’ve hired through Sweet Beginnings have returned to prison. And that’s a pretty remarkable statistic. And it’s been as low as less than four percent at times. It’s pretty remarkable. I’m really proud of that.
I also find that our successes mean a lot to society as a whole. So when you get an article in the [Chicago] Tribune, or the [Chicago] Sun-Times, it helps to amplify a narrative that people need to hear about a population of folks that most of us are afraid of, or have not had much contact with, or have just huge assumptions about. And to see that something good and positive, that’s so important. When you can attract the attention of People Magazine that want to lift up your story because Alicia Keys has given her staff beelove® products for Christmas, that’s pretty cool, because it tells people that there’s something good and positive that can happen when people are given second chances. That’s pretty awesome. Or to have the Obama Foundation come out and tell your story. I mean that’s pretty cool. It really is. And CBS Evening News and locally NBC and ABC, so every time there’s a story, it’s an opportunity for us to rewrite the narrative about both North Lawndale as a community and about the men and women that we touch, who really don’t want to be different. They just want to be equal. It’s pretty amazing. I think those are amazing successes.
Alice: Yeah. Thank you.
Brenda: You’re welcome.
Alice: So tell me about what is next for Sweet Beginnings in this coming year and for NLEN overall.
Brenda: Well, one of the things we’re really excited about is to finally have an actual production facility for Sweet Beginnings. It’s a long time in the coming. But we have a new building that we’ve acquired, we’re in the process of its construction right now, and it’s exciting to know that we have almost fifteen percent of the building is dedicated to the operations and storage of Sweet Beginnings that will actually – through our Worker Bee Cafe, we will also have a retail space that people can walk in and purchase beelove® products, which we’ve not been able to do in a formal way, which is so exciting to us.
I am looking forward to having a rooftop apiary, and we’re also going to have an apiary across the street that we can do tours and educational workshops and invite young people to come and taste honey right out of the honeycomb, and to really occupy space around urban education that we haven’t been able to in the past. So I’m very excited about accepting – I feel like we’ve been reluctant urban environmentalists. But we’ve accepted it, and we’re honored to help people experience the important role that honeybees play in our ecosystem. That a third of our food supply is dependent, it’s reliant on honeybee pollination. That’s important for people to understand. And so to be able to talk about the science and the art of beekeeping is really important in a community like North Lawndale and we want to be a destination location. We want people to come out and put on a beekeeping suit and experience that with us. So there’s that.
We’re hoping, we’re in some conversations with a national chain that we would love to have our products distributed, our skincare products, not the honey but our skincare. So we’ll keep you posted on how that evolves. But that would be important around one, telling our story again, but two, also having our products in places where people expect to buy and expect to experiment with skincare. Skincare is a very personal kind of experience right and most of us love a particular brand that we’ve been with for years. So to be in a place where people can experience our product and decide wow, this smells good, this feels good, and there’s this cool social impact behind it, let me try it. So I’m excited about being able to open up more opportunities for people to experience beelove®. Yeah. Looking forward to that.
Alice: And that building is coming later in 2020, right?
Brenda: I think the third week of July we’ll start the construction on the building, and we anticipate being finished around the middle of December.
Alice: Awesome. Sweet Beginnings gets a new home.
Brenda: A new home, a bigger home, and we’ll be able to have storage, and oh my gosh.
Alice: And people can look in right, at the production facility, it’s kind of at the center of everything right?
Brenda: Yeah, it is, we want people to be able to look in and see what’s happening and also what’s possible for them. For those especially who are looking for employment opportunities, for them to be able to take a peek inside and go oh I could do that. That’s important to us too. Exciting, exciting times.
Well, and also the other thing that’s important about this new space, it will allow us to actually hire more people and create more permanent positions. So that’s the goal too. It’s not just to scale production but it’s to scale the number of people that we’re creating permanent jobs for.
Alice: Yeah. Do you have a vision of what Sweet Beginnings will look like in ten years, after a decade in this building?
Brenda: Oh man, we’re in every airport, we’re in high-end skincare products, we are probably hiring a hundred people a year, that’s the goal. Isn’t that amazing?
Alice: Yeah you could get to another five hundred milestone in five years!
Brenda: Yeah! That would be awesome. We would love that. It’s unfortunate that the pipeline out of prison continues to be what it is, 2.2 million people are locked up and what we know is that ninety percent of the people that we lock up will be released. And until we change the way that we – and I think we will – the way that we lock people up, the way we arrest people, the type of punishments that we put on folks, often because they’re poor. You know? Yeah, made some bad decisions but the reasons for bad decisions are oftentimes rooted in poverty. And so until that changes, we want to be an option for people returning from prison. It would be great to not have to have a business that is specifically designed for that population because it’s no longer a national crisis. But it is still, it remains an unmet need, and so we plan to be there for folks until it’s no longer needed.
Alice: In this episode, we covered the many lessons that Brenda learned while turning Sweet Beginnings into a viable social enterprise, from the importance of good legal counsel to the logistics of managing distribution to store shelves.
This is the sixth and final episode of this series of Inside Sweet Beginnings. We’re so grateful you’ve joined us, and we hope you learned something that you can apply to your own social impact work.
To listen to previous episodes or to send us a note, please visit our podcast landing page at blog.beelovebuzz.com. Thanks for listening, and be well.