The Bees Knees: Honey for Social Change

beeline-honey.jpgImagine ex-cons doffed in beekeeping garb. Sweet Beginnings is a social enterprise that truly encompasses the triple bottom line, employing formerly incarcerated men and women to run all aspects of the business, including carefully cultivating bees to create high end honey.

Owner Brenda Palms Barber from the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale (where 1 in 4 is unemployed and 6 in 10 have had run ins with the law), was frustrated watching the revolving door of men being incarcerated, released, and incarcerated again due to the lack of available jobs in her community. She wanted to make change in her own backyard and worked with other community activists to create the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN). Each year, the admits about 200 people who have had run ins with the law into their jobs training program, U-Turn Permitted. They offer traditional job skills training like resume writing and interviewing skills, along with specialized classes in anger management, and cultural adjustment coaching.

Sweet Beginnings (owned by NLEN and managed by CEO Palms Barber) came about when Palms Barber and the staff realized that these general skills were not enough to give the participants with little previous work history or other obstacles to employment a true opportunity. They needed more extensive and specific training, as well as an employer who was willing to give them a second chance. Palms Barber began searching for an appropriate business she could run that would be able to accommodate workers who have troubled backgrounds and limited job skills. She settled on beekeeping when a friend told her that the profession was passed down via word of mouth. That means no studying, and no tests. The profession could even be learned without the ability to read or write.

At Sweet Beginnings, graduates of the U-Turn Permitted Program work in all aspects of the business, from beekeeping to packaging honey, bookkeeping, customer service and shipping and receiving. They are able to earn a competitive salary and contribute to their community. Sweet Beginnings works in conjuncture with U-Turn Permitted to keep employees on the right track, using clear guidelines about expectations, swift responses to negligent behavior, and wrap around job coaching support. In this manner, she is able to both keep her business running and continue to offer job training and support to an underserved population.

The products are sold under the label Beeline online as well as in stores throughout Chicago.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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