Brenda Palms Barber, Chicago's Queen of Second Chances, is dedicated to finding jobs for former prison inmates. But when the nonprofit she runs couldn't overcome employers' resistance to bringing on ex-offenders, she spun out a business so she could hire them herself.
North Lawndale Employment Network, or NLEN, is located in a west Chicago neighborhood in which 57 percent of the population has done prison time. "People here don't talk about incarceration in a negative way," says Palms Barber, who is NLEN's executive director. "They don't say, 'My son is coming out of prison.' They just say, 'My son is coming back. And he needs a job.' "
But when Palms Barber, a career foundation worker, took charge of NLEN in 2000, persuading employers to take a chance on clients with a criminal record was a tall order. The only answer, she decided, was to launch her own business to hire and train former inmates. Hence, Sweet Beginnings, a wholly owned subsidiary of NLEN that produces honey and honey-based skin care products and is staffed almost entirely by ex-offenders. "I had to demonstrate that ex-offenders can be good workers," Palms Barber says. "They can be good for your bottom line."
Sweet Beginnings is an LLC with its own board of managers. Legal firewalls separate the for-profit and nonprofit entities, so NLEN never worries about risks assumed by Sweet Beginnings. NLEN also provides support for Sweet Beginnings's employees, who must complete its job-readiness program before they are hired and receive job-placement services as their time with the company draws to a close.
Sweet Beginnings is an unexpected little company, tucked away in a neighborhood of vacant homes and boarded-up stores. In a pocket-size lot behind a chainlink fence, men and women wearing what look like modified hazmat suits tend an apiary humming with small, furry life. In addition to raising bees, former inmates perform jobs that include manufacturing, website management, sales, and customer service. Most work 90 days, although a few stay on as team leaders for a year or so. The perpetual turnover is not ideal from a management perspective, but it's the only way to provide experience and resumé entries for large numbers of people. Employees are paid minimum wage; payroll costs are subsidized by the city and the state.
With Sweet Beginnings on their resumés, roughly 85 percent of employees find an unsubsidized outside job, compared with around 50 percent of NLEN clients who have not worked at the honey business. More important to Palms Barber: Fewer than 4 percent of Sweet Beginnings's workers have landed back in prison, compared with a national average of 65 percent.
Palms Barber toyed with several business ideas (a temp agency, a landscaping company, a delivery service) before a board member introduced her to a friend who raised bees. "He told me beekeeping was a profession passed on by word of mouth," said Palms Barber. "I liked that, because people learn well by storytelling, especially when they have academic challenges." Sweet Beginnings launched in 2007 with $140,000 from the Illinois Department of Corrections. At first, the company sold honey at farmers' markets. But the 13 percent margin on honey was not enough to fulfill Palms Barber's second goal: to create a sustainable source of income for NLEN and free it from the unpredictable ebb and flow of grant funding. Honey-infused skin products were a more lucrative proposition.
Today, the company brings in about $100,000 a year in sales; it projects sales of $2 million in five years. The business sells its Beeline-branded products (soon to be renamed Beelove, for trademark reasons) at 13 Whole Foods stores—at which employees practice interacting with the public by handing out samples—in boutiques around the country, and at farmers' markets. Recently, Palms Barber negotiated a deal with the Chicago Peninsula Hotel, part of the luxury chain, which will offer Sweet Beginnings's honey in its restaurant and tell the company's story on its website. And the Chicago Department of Aviation has agreed to house a Sweet Beginnings apiary and sell Beelove products at O'Hare International Airport.
Since 2007, about 200 former inmates—up to 15 a quarter—have worked at Sweet Beginnings, and, as the company grows, it will accommodate more. Meanwhile, Palms Barber is fielding inquiries from New Orleans, San Francisco, and other cities interested in starting their own Sweet Beginnings. Palms Barber is working with lawyers to determine the best way to—please forgive her—"pollinate the model," whether through licensing agreements or franchises. Any fees would, of course, go back to NLEN. "The idea is to make it as local as possible for these cities while building the national brand," she says.
James White worked on Sweet Beginnings's production floor in 2009. He was later hired by Christy Webber Landscaping and recently launched his own landscaping business. "All I had on my resumé was stuff I did when I was incarcerated, like librarian's assistant," says White. "Sweet Beginnings is a name people know. They taught me to be professional and dedicated to my job. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be where I am."