By Joshunda Sanders
CHICAGO—Some people see a bee and want to swat it. Brenda Palms-Barber sees a bee and thinks about products it helps to produce and jobs it creates.
Palms-Barber is executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) in Chicago. The nonprofit organization partners with about 100 agencies to help low-income people, primarily former offenders, find and keep jobs.
In 2004, she launched Sweet Beginnings, a company that makes honey locally and sells natural, honey-based beauty products in local stores and businesses. Assisted by grants from organizations such as the Illinois Department of Corrections and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Sweet Beginnings is creating jobs for the unemployed.
It has expanded from a single apiary facility with about 20 hives to four with 100 hives, including one with 50 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Sweet Beginnings also keeps 18 hives in the city at the Cook County jail, where the company works to teach incarcerated offenders the art of beekeeping.
“The growth of business is so important because it continues to prove that there can be a market-driven solution to a large social issue,” Palms-Barber says. “From here, look out world, right? If we can make this happen successfully in Chicago with one of the largest airports in the country, it helps to codify the model and makes it more reputable to take it to communities where there are fewer economic opportunities in employment for people who need second chances.”
When Palms-Barber moved to Chicago from Denver with her husband in 1999, she was concerned about the high employment rate for formerly incarcerated men and women. Several NLEN employment initiatives to help ex-offenders move into the workforce had failed. For years, the network had been operating U-Turn Permitted,a 90-day training program, for offenders but had difficulty finding employers willing to hire them.
“We needed to do something,” she says.
Unemployment in the North Lawndale community was three times higher than that in the city of Chicago. She needed to train and find jobs for dozens of men and women a year. But how could she keep them employed?
Palms-Barber put her business management degree from the University of Phoenix to work, seeking a sustainable business model. While she was brainstorming with her partners and board members about job creation, one member mentioned beekeeping.
“Beekeeping seems to be open and receptive to a person no matter what their past,” Palms-Barber says.“Bees don’t discriminate between what is a flower or a weed. They are seeking nectar. They draw the good out of whatever that plant source is and make it into honey.”
NLEN hires 30 to 40 men and women annually at a rate of nineor 10 a month. After transitional work experience, 25 percent of those who complete training are hired permanently with Sweet Beginnings.
Kelvin Greenwood, an assistant general manager with Sweet Beginnings, is one example of many success stories.
Greenwood was imprisoned for seven years before joining U-Turn Permitted, the transitional program,in 2008. His initial reaction to bees and beekeeping was the same as that of most novices. “At first, I wasn’t too pleased working with them,” he said in a phone interview. “At the time, I was ignorant to the fact of what they do, but as I got to working with them, my opinion opened up.”
The bees are friendly midwesterners from Wisconsin, but honey produced in their hives wasn’t enough to create a sustainable and profitable business. The profit margin for honey was only about 13 percent.
Then the Employee Volunteer Council at The Boeing Company took an interest in Sweet Beginnings, attracted in part by how different beekeeping was from traditional volunteer work such as painting buildings or cleaning up lots.
For a year, Palms-Barber says, she worked with Boeing’s high-level and midlevel executives on a business plan including risk management and sales projections. With their help, Palms-Barber sharpened her plan to include honey-infused merchandise such as natural hair care products, lotion, lip balm and body cream. The profit margin for natural products was 80 percentto 85 percent.
“That was a game-changing decision, a real pivot,” Palms-Barber says. Sweet Beginnings continues to expand its reach by marketing products in local and national businesses.
The company developed the first apiary at an airport through its relationship with the Chicago Department of Aviation, which administers O’Hare and nearby Midway International. Sweet Beginnings skin care products are available at 18 Whole Foods stores nationwide and at Hudson News stores at O’Hare and Midway.
Although the business has grown, Palms-Barber says it still faces hurdles as a small brand in an unstable economy. “We don’t have brand recognition. We’re still young and very new. Trying to penetrate the market at a time when people are pulling back is very tough.”
With help from Whole Foods, Sweet Beginnings sales increased 45 percent in the last year. Palms-Barber attributes some of that to having a quality product with an inspiring social message. As nationwide awareness of the importance of local and organic products has increased, she says she and other Sweet Beginnings employees have backed into a health-conscious advocacy role in addition to providing jobs for people.
“We’ve had film showings in the neighborhood about bees and the role that bees play,” she says. “We give out samples of honey, and they begin to taste things that are made locally and in their neighborhood. It’s very exciting to talk to people about bees, people who say ‘I used to swat them or kill them.’ And now they say, ‘Usher that bee out the door, don’t kill it.’”
The biggest takeaway for Palms-Barber remains the image of drawing nectar and sweetness out of a bleak situation.
“On the West Side of Chicago, people will say, ‘Where are the bees even finding flowers?’ Bees don’t discern between what you and I see as a flower and what you and I see as a weed — like white clover, which is actually a weed.
“It makes the best honey, and there’s a lot of that on the West Side. It’s about drawing the good out of what looks like a bad plant.”
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