Cheers echoed in the production room of Women’s Bean Project as one participant strutted out the door to head to a job interview. Dressed in a pantsuit, she was confident and prepared to land the job. This is what Women’s Bean Project is all about — women’s empowerment through employment and supportive friendships.

Women’s Bean Project is not your average nonprofit. Recognizing that sales create jobs, the organization produces and sells food products – such as 10 Bean Soup, Cornbread Mix, Chocolate Brownie Mix and many more. But it is more than a local food producer. Women’s Bean Project gives opportunities to women who are chronically unemployed — typically someone who has not held a job longer than a year in her life. The organization hires women full time for six to nine months, helping her develop the skills she needs to get and keep a job. Through working on the production floor and attending various program activities, women gain the confidence they need to enter the workforce and sustain their employment. 

Ready for a Change

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The women who come to the organization often have struggled with addiction, have been incarcerated or suffer from disabilities. The organization works with women to help develop soft skills, such as showing up on time, taking direction and resolving a conflict. Tamra Ryan, CEO of Women’s Bean Project, said “the goal is they become great workers,” and then the women go on to be a great worker elsewhere.

While the women cheered on their friend going out to an interview, they also cheer each other on while working on the production floor. Ryan commented on the sense of camaraderie between the women, “they [often] are having conversations about maybe their goals or what they’re working on.”

There’s a sense of understanding between participants that they are all at Women’s Bean Project for a reason, and no reason is worse than another. Instead, there’s a collective support for each other because they are all working towards a better, happier and more successful life. They become “a really tight circle for each other,” Ryan explained.

Developing Skills and Building Confidence

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While the participants are paid for a full-time job, 30 percent of that time is allotted to programming that develops the participants’ skills. Volunteers come in to teach the women various classes such as computer skills, resume writing, financial literacy and healthy relationship boundaries. Once a month, participants meet with a mentor to discuss their goals and progress, as well as search for new jobs and work on their applications. The women also spend time sparking their creativity with art projects like jewelry making. This component is important to building women’s confidence because they don’t often have the opportunity to make something beautiful with their hands.

One participant, Stephanie Segura, commented that these activities are therapeutic for them. She continued to explain that after being in prison, she gets nervous to talk and interact with people. “[Women’s Bean Project] helped me get back into the community,” she said. “Being here has helped me to talk to people again. This place has just helped me so much.”

In addition to programming classes, Women’s Bean Project works with medical professionals to provide free or low-cost checkups for the participants. A husband and wife optometrist duo offers vision tests pro bono and gives corrective lenses to those who need them. Women also have the opportunity to receive free teeth cleaning through a dentist that partners with the organization.

 Changing a Woman’s Life Changes Her Family’s Life

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“A big part of our culture,” Ryan explained, “is giving every woman an opportunity to tell her story.” On display in the product shop are photos and stories written by the women themselves. In these stories, participants are honest about their path to Women’s Bean Project and the effect their employment has had on their lives. Ryan added that while learning skills for work is crucial, “the most important outcome [of the program] is she believes she’s worthy of having a better life.”

The women who come to Women’s Bean Project often don’t know of another woman in their life with consistent employment. “If she’s never seen anybody work she’s gonna have to learn all the skills of what that looks like to go to work every day, to wake up and show up,” Ryan said. Women’s Bean Project is working to break that pattern. They want the participants’ kids to see their mother “going to work every day and feeling fulfilled and getting raises at work.” Ryan explained that this creates a ripple effect that has the ability to break the cycle of poverty in a family’s life.

The women themselves agree that the project affects their lives in many beneficial ways. Loriann Morgan recently got out of prison before coming to Women’s Bean Project. “It’s hard to find people that give you a second chance and [who will] treat you like a person and believe in you,” she admitted. “This place helps you to build up your self-esteem, it helps you feel that you can accomplish things.”

While working on the production floor, Renee Knouse, a participant, couldn’t help but add, “We love our bosses…They’re very kind. They’re very supportive. They talk with us, laugh with us. They tell us we do a good job.”

Beans with a Mission

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The project started with a $500 investment from the organization’s founder, Jossy Eyre. With that small investment, Women’s Bean Project made $61,000 in the first year by selling incredible food products. Now, the products are in over 1,000 stores and are sold online through its website and Amazon.

In the beginning, Eyre never imagined how successful the project would be. Ryan commented, “We were such a novelty in 1989, that we got a lot of attention because we were running this business that had a mission.” And business hasn’t slowed down since – the organization’s revenue is now more than two million dollars a year.

Even in stores across the country, customers can see the impact of Women’s Bean Project right on the product’s box. “These beans create jobs,” is printed right on the front of each package. The boxes are then sealed with a sticker that reads, “lovingly handmade” with a participant’s signature on the back. “We don’t know who’s going to end up with our product,” Ryan explained. What we’re really pushing for is to help people see that there’s meaning if you buy the product. There’s actually someone’s life who is being changed.”

Women’s Bean Project is located in the retired Firehouse #10 at 3201 Curtis St, Denver. The retail store is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Women’s Bean Project will have an open house November 30 through December 2 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. On December 1, Santa will be available for free pictures with kids.

Women’s Bean Project offers tours on the first Friday of every month from 12 to 1 p.m. (with lunch provided) and the fourth Thursday of every month they have after-hours tour at 5:30 p.m. If you are looking for a way to get involved, attend a tour to discuss volunteer options. Email [email protected] to reserve a place or get more information.

 

All photography by Samantha Hines.

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