Episode 1: The Beginning of Sweet Beginnings

Are you searching for an innovative and sustainable way to carry out your social mission? Or already planning to start a social enterprise, but struggling to come up with a viable idea?

In this episode of Inside Sweet Beginnings, Brenda Palms Barber shares how she knew her nonprofit needed a social enterprise and how she came up with the idea for Sweet Beginnings.

She tells her story of coming to Chicago to lead the North Lawndale Employment Network (Sweet Beginnings’ parent nonprofit) and explains how quantifying the impact of mass incarceration in North Lawndale led her to social enterprise as a way to make a difference.

We’re sharing some extra materials about the foundations of NLEN’s and Sweet Beginnings’ work, which we think will serve as a helpful starting point as you develop your own mission and core values.

Fill out the interest form to the right to have these materials sent directly to your email!

  • Timeline of NLEN and Sweet Beginnings from 1998 – present
  • NLEN’s mission and impact statements
  • NLEN’s core principles and values

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!

View all episodes of Inside Sweet Beginnings


Brenda: I loved seeing all these people show up and lines around the building for people to sign up to get into our program, and it was fabulous, until we realized that we didn’t have enough jobs for them.

Alice: Hi, and welcome to Inside Sweet Beginnings. Thanks for joining us for our first ever episode. Our new podcast about Sweet Beginnings gives you an inside look at our social enterprise. We’ll tell you about our many challenges and successes, and share some of the lessons and best practices we’ve learned over the last fifteen years. We hope that learning about our work will help you make an impact in your own community.

Today, we are starting at the beginning of Sweet Beginnings. How did Sweet Beginnings come to be? And why did we choose to work with bees?

The story of Sweet Beginnings starts with the story of our parent nonprofit, the North Lawndale Employment Network – NLEN for short. And the story of NLEN starts with Brenda Palms Barber, our president and CEO. She has led the organization since its inception in 1999, and Sweet Beginnings is her brainchild.

My name is Alice and I work at Sweet Beginnings. A few months ago, I sat down with Brenda to get her telling of this history. The rest of our podcasts will be more conversational, but for this one, we’re going to let Brenda take it away. I asked her to start by telling me about the work she was doing before she came to Chicago.

Brenda: It starts with me working at the Piton Foundation, which is located in Denver, Colorado. And I was hired to work on a special initiative called the Jobs Initiative, and it was one of five states -well, one of five cities – selected to partner with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based out of Baltimore, to explore how to help the unemployed access employment. And it was really interesting because, I don’t want to get too far off here, but just so you understand, that the initiative was exploring five different ways or methodologies that communities or cities were approaching unemployment in their neighborhoods. And what they knew for sure that eventually manifested, was how disproportionate – the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos were disconnected from the labor market. And how do we reengage these folks? So Seattle, Milwaukee, Denver, New Orleans, and there’s always one more, were the five cities that were selected. And so that’s where I was, so I was hired to work on that initiative, and I specialized – my title was that I was the Director of Community Connections, and so I was responsible for connecting and meeting with folks that were in particular zip codes, because we used a zip codes strategy, mostly of color, and talk to them about how they access jobs. And we developed, interestingly enough, what’s called a sort of a coaching model, but we didn’t call it coaching. And we identified the fact that the barber at the barbershop, for example, was filled with lots of information about jobs and where to go. Because people would share so much with him in his chair. So people like that, and there’s the woman, this lovely woman called Maria, who owned a restaurant in the heart of the Latino community, and everybody loved her. It was a small little restaurant, but she knew everything that was happening in the neighborhood, right? So these are kind of people that are gossipy too. So the idea was that I could connect with them and figure out how these informal networks around employment work.

And what happened is the work got a lot of attention, I loved it, we had a whole training manual and I did all this work on it. But then, the Annie E. Casey Foundation was evidently approached by folks here in Chicago, by the Steans Family Foundation. Who was also figuring out that they wanted to do work around employment. And so I don’t know how it came about, but someone said well, you know, maybe you should talk to Brenda Palms Barber, who’s doing this work in Denver around informal networks and how low-income people access jobs. So they were like yeah, let’s have her come in. So I was invited to come here to Chicago to do a workshop. And I did, and really was excited by what I saw, by what I heard, did my workshop, had a piece of Chicago-style pizza, and back out. So then about three months later, they reach out to me again, and I thought oh cool another workshop, and they were like no, we’re interested in learning if you would be interested in applying for a position as the Executive Director of this new organization we’re putting together. And I’m like, what? Because I thought, what would a girl from the west coast – I’m from Tacoma, you know – how effective would I be in the city of Chicago, right? And on the West Side, nonetheless. So, um, I was like, well sure, you know, I’d be interested in interviewing, not taking the opportunity that seriously. Flew here, interviewed with these folks, fell in love with their vision of what North Lawndale could be. I had not experienced the kind of poverty in the United States that I did here. I’d experienced poverty outside of the – like in Mexico and other places I’ve been, but nothing like that in the US. And so they touched me. I interviewed with six people at one time – major – it was fascinating and intimidating but wonderful all at the same time. So a couple of weeks later I’m called and they asked me – to tell me I was selected for the position and would I accept the job.

Alice: This effort was initiated by the Steans Family Foundation, which is a Chicago foundation that focuses all their grantmaking on the neighborhood of North Lawndale. For many months, North Lawndale residents and community leaders had engaged in conversations about the most important issues in North Lawndale. They reached a consensus that employment and housing were the two most urgent issues – and since there were already housing efforts underway, they decided to focus on employment. And that’s when Brenda arrived, in February of 1999.

Brenda: That’s a really important point, that what the community originally envisioned and what I was attracted to definitely took a strategic turn. So what drew me to the job opportunity and what they wanted was for NLEN to really serve as an intermediary organization. And not for the reasons that I was interested in that as a strategy, but I think that they decided that they didn’t want to favor any one particular organization over the other around investing any money because it’s such a competitive, small community, that the more politically correct route was to create a separate entity that would be an intermediary that would help build capacity of the existing nonprofit organizations focusing on workforce development in North Lawndale. And so that fit for me because that was similar to a role that I had played in Denver with building all of these unique tools, right, these tools that were employer-driven to help raise the quality of job readiness trainings, the work I have done with coaches at the neighborhood level and how to help people access jobs, and developing strategies for how we can do that better. And so for me I love the idea of all of these different organizations coming together and us as a community defining what job readiness is, what we define as retention, what sectors make most sense for our community. And so those sectors had been identified was construction, manufacturing, healthcare, and childcare. So those were the four industries that the community spent time on eighteen months prior to my arrival. So I love that they understood a sectorial approach to workforce development.

So there were lots of things that excited me, coupled with the unfortunate depth of poverty, and these people who were inspired and had light and hope for improving this community. I’m like, I’m on board, I want to be a part of that. So that’s what happened and so that’s what I did for the first three years. I convened quarterly meetings in the neighborhood. They were often held at Sinai Community Institute where we were incubated, and we would have well over 100 people that would show up on a quarterly basis to these meetings. And it’s where I would talk about either the studies that we were engaged in, talking about having sectorial experts talk about different things, lifting up certain partners and what they were doing, and then launching the job readiness training program that we offered so we could talk about job readiness in a very different way, as it relates to how we’re gonna define that in North Lawndale. So we did that for the first three years of our organization’s life.

Alice: One of the first things Brenda had to do as the leader of this new organization was to understand the root cause of the high unemployment rate.  

Brenda: I sat in a lot of meetings, I had a big introductory meeting, was really excited about it, but then started to hear themes around high unemployment in this community. And everyone agreed that employment was a big issue, but no one really understood why. And it was really apparent to me that I’m like, well, if the unemployment rate here is like people are saying 28, 38, 58 percent, I’m like, well what’s the driver? And people just wouldn’t know. And then I started to hear things about this community, people would say — I remember having the taxi driver have a difficult time even wanting to bring me here. So I thought, ooh, this is that kind of community where people didn’t want to go. So there’s all the stigma that was associated with North Lawndale that I also had to sort of understand, and become aware of. But I thought, that can’t be the reason why people aren’t working. So, long story short, I start to come to the conclusion that there’s a theme around people returning, or my son is coming back, my congregation members are coming back. This coming back theme is what I started to focus on because it was coming up in almost every conversation. And I realized that it was just another term at the time for people returning from incarceration. You know, Alice, at the time, twenty years ago, right, incarceration was – it was a taboo, it was a word that people didn’t want to talk about. The pressure and the stigma associated with having a criminal record was so much more difficult than it is even today. So that’s why people didn’t say prison or returning or incarceration. Today we’re more forward about it. So then understanding that this is a community that was deeply impacted by mass incarceration, it was important for me to understand how do you measure that, what does that look like.

So I commissioned a study with a wonderful organization called Center for Impact Research, or SIR – CIR, rather. And they spent two and a half years with funding that we received from the Woods Fund of Chicago to help us unpack the impact of mass incarceration in North Lawndale. And as a result we developed a report and published a report in 2002.

So we produced that study, which allowed me to say, different from any other community, that 57% of the adults in North Lawndale, over the age of 18, have had some involvement with the criminal justice system. And that blew people away. Because we actually had measured it. And I could say this is a real problem in our neighborhood. So after that, we understood that I could not do workforce development without including that population. So inclusion of those with criminal records was always a given, no matter what we were going to do, and as a matter of fact, it rose to a level of priority when you just think almost 60% of the people here have criminal records, so duh, this is why the unemployment rate is so high here. That was a really important thing to unpack too, is that it’s not that people didn’t want to work. It’s that people couldn’t work because of the stigma associated with having a criminal record. That was it.

Alice: Once Brenda had a strong understanding of the social problem, she went on to launch the U-Turn Permitted program, which remains NLEN’s flagship job readiness program to this day. At that point, NLEN was not yet a direct services organization. You’ll remember that Brenda said earlier that the original vision was for NLEN to serve as an intermediary organization. I asked her how we made the transition from that role as an intermediary to the direct services organization we are today.

Brenda: The idea with U-Turn Permitted originally was to incubate this model that could eventually be rolled out to an organization in North Lawndale that had built their capacity to run this program. And it would give NLEN the flexibility to continue to be more of a research and development kind of entity as well as an intermediary. So I loved those kinds of concepts. What changed was when we started to receive funding from the city, ultimately the North Lawndale Employment Network was the contractor or -ee, the contractee. And we were ultimately as an organization held accountable for achieving the outcomes that the contracts from the city required.

It was at that point I decided that we need to sort of assume responsibility for the outcomes and so therefore – and the other piece that happened was that we had launched U-Turn Permitted too, and we also had a contract with the city around that, that I couldn’t roll out to anybody because that whole concept wasn’t there, and so we sort of backed in to becoming a direct service entity. And it was in part because no one else in the neighborhood was actually providing comprehensive workforce development. So everybody had a little bitty piece that they were doing. But it wasn’t comprehensive, right? And so that was a problem, and then I think, and then after we did our study, we recognized that 57% of these adults had some involvement with the criminal justice system, I’m like, well, they can’t do childcare, they can’t do healthcare, they can do manufacturing, they can do construction, but we still have to get them ready and deal with the stigma. So that pulled us into that direction.

But that was the pivot. So three and a half years in, I had to do something different and create a response to the organization. So we have this funky name of the North Lawndale Employment Network, when in fact we are providing direct services.

Alice: Okay, so back to the U-Turn Permitted program. NLEN had launched this job training program that focused on working with returning citizens. However, Brenda quickly started to realize that this job training alone wasn’t enough to meet the needs of our clients.

Brenda: At the same time, U-Turn Permitted was having record-breaking numbers of people showing up for our programming, and we were over at United Baptist Church, so we had enough space, but we didn’t have enough jobs at the end of the day. We would have thirty to forty people in a class and eventually we had to scale that down to like twenty-five. So there were waiting lists and people were just glad somebody was doing something about this population that had been overlooked and ignored.

I loved seeing all these people show up and lines around the building for people to sign up to get into our program, and it was fabulous, until we realized that we didn’t have enough jobs for them. And the employers in North Lawndale were just not open to hiring people with criminal records.

Alice: I asked what that unwillingness looked like. Were employers outright rejecting Brenda’s inquiries about hiring NLEN’s clients? Or were they expressing willingness to hire but then rejecting applicants in the interviews?  

Brenda: So I would have conversations with folks first, because I had to get a understanding of the lay of the land, who works here, who are the employers, and tell them who I was, and then tell them what type of training and program services we were offering, and that they were employer-informed. I talked about work ethic and the studies we’d conducted, the focus groups that we’d had, so they really knew that I knew what I was talking about, and what their needs were, reducing the cost of turnover, and hitting them in places that really meant a lot to their small businesses and what have you. And so then they would be like oh, well, you know, well listen, well we’re not hiring now, but maybe if you could, come back in a couple of weeks or come back in a couple of months and we’ll see what we’ve got going, so I would do that, and no, sorry, nothing, we still don’t have anything opening, but thanks. So these really polite brush-offs, or they would say yes, send someone over on next Tuesday, we’d be happy to give them an interview.  So the person would show up on Tuesday and the front desk person or the receptionist wouldn’t have a clue, didn’t know what – so we’re talking with the leadership but they hadn’t trickled that down to the front desk and so people would be like well I was told to come over and I had an interview – we don’t know anything about it. So there would be those kinds of rejections, face to face. It was just really horrible. Or sometimes employers would say things like, well, you know, as long as they’ve been out of prison for at least eight years, then we can consider them. And I’m like, wow, the need is far greater than that.

Alice: Overall, it was clear that employers were just not interested in hiring from this population. And then there was another big factor.

Brenda: The other fact that I want to keep in mind that’s important maybe to the story is that 9/11 happened too. And in 2001. And what happened is, all the employers who had hired people with criminal records – cause people didn’t really care as much. It was quiet, but employers would privately go, yeah we’ll go ahead and give you a job, you know? Car rental places, I mean, airports – but after 9/11, everyone started conducting background checks. And as a result, hundreds and hundreds of people lost their jobs. Because it hadn’t been officially known that Johnny had a record. So you have people who had good jobs, holding them down, that were now flooding the work, flooding the labor market. And then you had those that were coming out of prison. And what we also understood was that roughly 40,000 inmates are being released out of state prison, and then of those 40,000, 50% come back to Chicago. And of the 50% that come back to Chicago, 50% of that group, right, so about 10,000 people come back to the west side, west side zip codes. So it was just crazy.

Alice: Around the same time, Brenda started thinking about another need, which just so happened to converge with the need for job opportunities.

Brenda: So I participated, I was invited to participate in, was it a 6 month program for new executive directors. It was almost like it was like perfectly designed for me, but there were a number of people that applied but they only selected like six of us. And it was managed by an organization called Women’s Self Employment Project. And they had money from the Macarthur Foundation and they had money from the Chicago Community Trust to help build capacity of new executive directors. It was really quite lovely. So I applied, was accepted, and the purpose of that training wasn’t just to help new executive directors. It was to think creatively and innovatively about developing earned income strategies. And so that was interesting. And the idea was, how do we develop financial independence from state and city and private foundation support, how do we become independent of those things and still do the work? So long-term sustainability. So we were thinking – so that was the purpose of that, to spur us to think creatively about how do we fund our agencies, and I’m really grateful that I participated in that.

So I’m looking and I’m like oh, gosh, we have all these people that we can’t get jobs because these employers are not willing to hire them for a variety of reasons, some legit, some not so. I need to think about long-term sustainability strategies and how to develop earned income opportunities, and so it was at the intersection of those two needs, or opportunities, that I started thinking about a business and how – it was clear that the employers weren’t willing to hire so that only supported this concept of me thinking about launching a business that would help to sustain the need that we had from our clients but also could be a revenue source to support the nonprofit long-term.

Alice: So Brenda and her board began the long process of thinking through how they could actually create such a business. They started brainstorming.

Brenda: So that was sort of the rough of it. Then as we started to get closer to the work, me and my board, we started looking at a variety of different ideas, and this is where I kind of share that – I laugh and realize there were lots of really really bad ideas. And there really were, lots of bad ideas. And there wasn’t anything that was going to give us a unique competitive advantage. And in a business, you have to have your – what is your competitive advantage, what is unique about your product that’s going to draw people to it? And support it? So that was a big deal, and when I ran out of ideas and was really at the end of my rope, I just thought – I was close to giving up. And then one of my board members, her name was Donna Ducharme, she said, you know what Brenda, I don’t know but maybe we should think about beekeeping. And I’m like what? And she’s like well, I have some friends that are beekeepers. I’m like well what does it take? She goes I don’t know, but let’s meet with them for lunch.

So we did, and what resonated for me out of that conversation with those beekeepers was, beekeeping is a hobby, or even a profession that’s passed on through storytelling. That was it. That was it! I just thought, wow. So no matter what a person’s academic attainment or challenges, people could learn the art and the science of beekeeping, no matter what. And I thought that degree of success was gonna be really important. People needed to feel that they could be successful. Because pausing parenthetically, prison is all about stripping a person of their self-worth. You’ve heard me say this before. It’s someone that like, Elaine Austin who works here, she says, I got my name back. I am Elaine Austin. And I think that when a person is released from prison, they have a huge journey that involves restoring their sense of self-worth. So being associated with something in nature that is soft and good but can sting, slows a person down in a way that’s really important. It makes you reflective. It also makes you appreciate nature, that something as small as a honeybee can produce something that is sweet and good and consumable by humans. It just slows you down. So it was just lovely that we could actually help people through beekeeping, get jobs – well, jobs, have work experience is what we were trying to do.  And the Illinois Department of Corrections signed up and said yes, we would be more than happy to give you some seed funding. They had some money left over from one of their prison projects, and gave us $130,000, $140,000 to start, and then the city came in with $100,000, also to help with transitional jobs support, and we bought bees, developed our business plan, and we were off and rolling and established the first apiary in the spring of 2004.

Alice: As for the name Sweet Beginnings, Brenda says that emerged organically from a conversation with a friend. Many people had been skeptical about her idea, and Brenda thought she might get a similar response. Instead, after she finished describing her idea, her friend paused and said, “Well, what a sweet beginning for those people.” And the name stuck. After Brenda got Sweet Beginnings up and running, she continued to develop the product itself.

Brenda: Once we finally had our first harvest of local honey, we took it to farmers markets, and it was scary. Because I just didn’t know if people would feel comfortable purchasing honey and/or honey that was assembled and jarred by people with criminal records, again because of that strong social stigma associated with criminal records. And so what was interesting is that the folks at the farmers markets really didn’t care about who had produced it, but that it was delicious. That it was local was even better, and then eventually it would be interesting because the story might come out, well tell me, where did the honey come from? And so with the questions from our customers became stories about these individuals who had served time, and it was just really cool. I was worried again that people might not want to try the product, because I’ve seen other social enterprises that worked with like the homeless or in Denver, there was a – they’re very popular now – but it was called the Women’s Bean Project, and people would refuse to buy their soup because they were assembled by homeless women and they were like, mm, it just visually didn’t work for people. That was twenty years ago. But now they’re one of the best social enterprises in the country. But I was worried. And for no reason, because I realized that people really cared about the quality of the product versus who made it. And so we downplayed, early on, who made it, and really focused on the quality of the product, because we wanted to have repeat business. We didn’t want people to like us because of our social mission, we wanted people to like us because our products were good or the honey was good.

And then we realized that honey’s profit margins are so thin, 13%, that that was not gonna make a sustainable business and so we had to then think about what could we do to expand our profit margins and improve the long-term sustainability of the business and make it more profitable? So the board and I, we looked at different things, we really looked at some bizarre things, like honey as a preservative is something that, like a fruit preservative, that was a big idea and I kept thinking no, that is not gonna work. But then we eventually landed on skincare. And at that time, natural skincare was not that popular either. But people again loved our products.  

Alice: Fifteen years later, a lot about Sweet Beginnings has changed, but the fundamentals remain the same. We still make those products – the lotion, the body cream, the lip balm, and more – and the revenue from those products has provided transitional jobs for our clients. Last year, we hired our 500th transitional employee.  

Brenda: The purpose of Sweet Beginnings was really to help establish a work history for a person who’s been incarcerated and out of the labor market. It was designed to help people become acclimated to the culture and discipline of work. Really, work ethic. So they could show up every day on time, clocking in, and they could learn how to reengage and address issues around supervision and anger, because prison is a place where there’s a lot of anger and animosity toward guards and whatnot. And so people would treat employers as they would treat their relationship with guards. And we had to change that. And Sweet Beginnings does that without a person losing their job. So I often say that Sweet Beginnings helps our employees unlearn what made them a successful inmate. So they can become successful employees.

Alice: We’ve covered a lot in this episode: how NLEN began as a community-driven effort initiated by the Steans Family Foundation, how Brenda realized that NLEN needed to create jobs in addition to training people for them, and how she came up with the idea for Sweet Beginnings.

Please get in touch if you have questions or comments! By filling out the interest form on the podcast landing page, you can submit a question you’d like us to address, or send us a note about what brings you here. We’d love to hear about your vision for change. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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