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Balancing Act: Growth and Purpose of a Social Enterprise

Brenda Palms Barber, the founder of Sweet Beginnings a social enterprise that creates BeeLove products by employing those with a criminal record.

Sweet Beginnings is a social enterprise based in Chicago that gives those who have been formerly incarcerated a second chance by offering training and employment through beekeeping and producing honey-infused products. In this episode of Shopify Masters Daphne Williams, the Chief Growth Officer from Sweet Beginnings shares their approach to driving impact within the local community, creating environmental change with urban bees, and setting growth goals for the future. 

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    Show Notes

    The symbolism that started a social venture 

    Felix Thea: What is the origin story of Sweet Beginnings?

    Daphne Williams: Sweet Beginnings was started by the CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network and her name is Brenda Palms Barber. And she is an amazing visionary. The story of Sweet Beginnings is really connected to that organization and the sense that North Lawndale Employment Network is a nonprofit and it is anchored in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago specifically in Chicago's Westside. It is a nonprofit organization that exists to serve the residents of the community. And when we talk about what we have to kind of keep it in the context that the North Lawndale neighborhood is a neighborhood that had a changing demographic over a period of time.

    Its residents have lived in the neighborhood for a long time, but they really don't have a lot of employment. The unemployment rate in North Lawndale is about 53%. The network is a resource for the residents and the community, and Sweet Beginnings began because a lot of the people that are served in nonprofit are people that have had a history of incarceration. We began as a social enterprise to help people who were previously incarcerated and were having a difficult time finding a job.

    Felix: How did the idea of selling products incorporated with honey begin? 

    Daphne: As Brenda shares, there are a lot of ideas that were really floated in terms of what are good social business ideas like landscaping, delivery services, and small motor repair. But when they took a step back and realized that those businesses were plentiful in the market. So someone had approached her and said, "What about bees?" And this was a friend of hers who had been on the board and there were a lot of apprehensions because bee stings. They realized that there was such an interesting parallel between bees and people who were turning to society from being incarcerated. People have a fear of bees. They're afraid of getting stung. People also have this perception about people who have been incarcerated that they're not good people or have done horrible things. And so having a business that merged kind of married bees and formerly incarcerated people was a way to kind of take a sting out of the stigma of both. So they went with bee, beekeeping and we currently manage five apiaries. And so the people that come through our program and come through our social enterprise are involved in understanding bees and how to beekeeping. The great thing about beekeeping is that it's really passed along through storytelling. So you don't have to read a lot of manuals really about beekeeping. That was something that was really important around having a business idea they didn't want a business idea that was going to require a large amount of education or that you had to be widely credentialed. They wanted a business idea that kind of had a little bit of an art to it.

    Beekeeping taking place by participants of Sweet Beginnings' programs.
    Turning the symbolism of bees and those who are previously incarcerated into second chances and products. Sweet Beginnings

    Felix: What day zero was like? Was there a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid first or built up by Brenda and any other founding members?

    Daphne: When I spoke about the North Lawndale Employment Network, one of the key programs that the North Lawndale Employment Network is called U-Turn Permitted. And that program mostly takes end people who have been previously incarcerated. It provides them with anger management and cognitive behavioral therapy, and it also prepares them for the job market. So when you think about getting people prepared for the job market, it's around helping them understand how to dress professionally, helping them understand how to interview, giving them tools so they can understand how to write a resume. And have all those skills so they're ready to go out and actually look for a job and interview when so one. They are the people that actually come to Sweet Beginnings. At the end of their journey at the North Lawndale Employment Network when they're engaged in a job search Sweet Beginnings is actually one of their options as an employer where they can come and interview. So we are a direct employer to the North Lawndale Employment Network and those particular clients that come out of that program.

    Felix: Where did this knowledge or expertise come from once the organization had decided on a business and a product to create?

    Daphne: I don't think anyone here at North Lawndale Employment Network had all of the deep understanding of bees and bee behaviors. We do have a master beekeeper that works with our social enterprise. And we've had master beekeepers prior to the one that we have now. So we have that expertise that we've had to build into our own organization to help us with that.

    How the sweet product developed occurred 

    Felix: When it comes to the ecommerce element, what products were being sold because of beekeeping?

    Daphne: We are purveyors of urban honey. We manage five apiaries and out of those apiaries, our team goes, they extract the honey, we jar it, and we distribute it through stores in the Chicago land area. The e-commerce platform for us is relatively new. We've been on a platform for about a couple of years. And prior to that we were really just engaged and going out into the community and participating in farmer's markets, and getting the honey out there. What we realized is that the honey really in itself didn't really generate the profit margins that we would have loved to have had. Even though it's really a key part of our product portfolio, we did have to expand into other products. So we offer six core honey-infused skincare products that are sold on our e-commerce site.

    Felix: How did the decision come about to expand into something like skincare or any other product lines that the team has ventured into since the beginning?

    Daphne: It was really looking at the profit margins of the honey and understanding that we've really needed to have greater profit margins. And so our founders, one that really enjoys beauty products and appreciates high-quality skincare products. She saw the opportunity to merge the honey that we were actually harvesting and getting it infused into skincare products. So our products are naturally made. We source very high-quality products. We put that together with the honey and now we have our Beelove Honey infused skincare line.

    Some honey jared from BeeLove by Sweet Beginnings.
    The product that started it all, raw natural honey, from BeeLove by Sweet Beginnings Sweet Beginnings

    One main ingredient in many different distribution paths 

    Felix: Can you talk a little bit more about the initial sales channels used to distribute products out to the community?

    Daphne: We started at farmer's markets that was the natural place to begin and community events to make sure that we had a presence there. We'd get our transitional team out into those particular markets and it was a great way for them to interact with the public and to develop selling skills. So it was a great way to have this product and connect our clients with the public. Then we got into the retail space and after hearing from many of our customers saying that we needed to be in grocery stores. And so our distribution is primarily today at one of the largest Chicago grocery store chains. And then we also are in one of the co-op markets in the Chicagoland area. We also sell our honey and our skin care products online through our e-commerce store. And then we also do a lot of things like pop-up shops. And then we have these really wonderful corporate partners that also allow us to come in during the holiday season and either sell on-site to their employees or they'll work with us in terms of employee gifting.

    Felix: What was the process like to get into grocery stores? 

    Daphne: We get a lot of interest from people because of the work that we do. So people are really fascinated around how we married bees and beekeeping with people who were previously incarcerated. I think it's really about the alignment and the recognition of the good work that we're doing in the community that has afforded us the opportunity to be in the retail spaces that we are in. Our co-op markets are of course offering more of the natural color product and so we have a good fit with them. And then our large grocery store chain has just been a very good partner from the beginning. And they're local when they really see the value in the work that we're doing.

    Felix: Can you talk to us about how the food co-ops work?

    Daphne: I think it's about having a relationship and making sure that the store managers or the owners of those co-ops know who you are and boards of those co-ops, know who you are and brokering that particular relationship.

    Felix: Tell us more about the impact of ecommerce and how it helped to build your relationship with other distributors. 

    Daphne: I would say that our online sales actually serve in very different capacities. Our online stores really allow us to reach people who have heard our story. Sweet Beginnings has been really the beneficiary of a lot of media attention. So not only do we get local media attention, but we also get a lot of national media attention. And it's been wonderful because again, that interest and the work that we're doing with bees and beekeeping and pre-formerly incarcerated people have really just caught on. When we started Sweet Beginnings, we thought it was just going to be a very local social enterprise and that the recognition would only be really here in the Chicagoland area or throughout the state. And what we found is that as we started getting more and more media attention, there actually became a demand for our products. And the ecommerce platform has actually worked to fulfill that. Our ecommerce platform has been absolutely instrumental in us being able to reach our customers across the country. So when we look at some of our data, we see that we have a good following of people in Los Angeles and in the Bay area, in New York and in DC. So those people do go to our ecommerce platform and buy. It's been instrumental for us to reach people with our message and our work and continue to communicate with them around the impact of the work that we're doing here in this particular community.

    Felix: What's the next step once you realize that there's a concentration of fans and customers in a city?

    Daphne: So our work is local community work. And when we think about our goals and our key performance indicators, we do have some of the traditional KPIs which are like looking at sales and growth but our real KPIs is around the impact of the people that we serve. At Sweet Beginnings, we want our transitional team to come and learn the end to end production of our honey and our honey-infused skincare products. So they participate in everything from extracting the honey to going out into the apiaries and actually being here on-site and creating that skincare product. So they're really engaged in the work of Beelove. They also go out and they do the distribution and then we get them out into community events and sales. So we really want to keep our work local because it's about looking at how much we can grow so we can hire more people here to do this work. And so at this point in time, we don't have any plans to expand into any brick and mortar spaces outside of the Chicago area.

    Training for life beyond the job 

    Felix: What is the process to facilitate onboarding new employees so that they're ready to hit the ground running as soon as they can?

    Daphne: We work closely with our nonprofit North Lawndale Employment Network to let them know that we have positions that are available at Sweet Beginnings. They will send clients over to us that they feel are really good clients for us to interview when we have openings. Once they start at Sweet Beginnings, we actually give them an orientation about what the organization does that we were created for people like them. We give them an opportunity every day to be able to meet, we do a reflective practice every morning, that anchors people. Certainly, people come to work sometimes with things that are on their mind that might be happening in their personal lives. And so we feel the really strong need to acknowledge that. So every morning we have a meeting that kind of anchors people around the reflective practice, and then we go into the business items of the day. And that's covering what sales we have gotten in either from our online store or from a corporate partner. We talk about where we need to distribute, where there any particular stores and our major grocery store partner that needed to have shelves restocked. We talk about inventory and actually looking at what needs to be made in terms of production for the day. So after we do kind of our reflective practice we really dig into sort of those business aspects of what needs to happen from operations and production standpoint.

    Sweet Beginnings' employees working on the last few steps of production.
    Employees of Sweet Beginnings get to be a part of the whole process from beekeeping to packing of each product. Sweet Beginnings

    The team in the first month are learning the ropes of how we function, then as we move into the second month, we start to lay out more expectations around being a contributor. Looking to see where there are opportunities for someone to lead on the production line, looking for opportunities to someone to take the lead and sales. So that second month we're really focused on even getting people our team out there into the community and selling and building up their comfort level for that. The third month that they're here is all about giving them that confidence that they can actually go out and start looking for a job on their own. So in the last month, the very last two weeks, we continue to engage with North Lawndale Employment Network and send our clients back there to participate in something called Job Club. And the Job Club is where they are working on their resume. They're working on their interviewing skills. So they're continuing all throughout the time they're here at Sweet Beginnings, but they're really ramping it up that last two weeks here at Sweet Beginnings because they're going to have to move on and find work on their own.

    Felix: What’s involved for individuals who want to start a social enterprise similar to Sweet Beginnings? 

    Daphne: We get inquiries all the time around, how to start a social enterprise? And we have an interest in doing this for a similar population of people. So that's something that we've been able to provide some advice and counsel to other people in other parts of the country around that. We encourage people to find ways that they can engage any population, whether it be youth or formerly incarcerated to have a social enterprise around that and give them the opportunity to work and establish a work history.

    Felix: When people ask why someone should hire from youth and formerly incarcerated populations, what is the point of view you share? 

    Daphne: I would say that it's a confidence builder for our team. So many of our men and women that come into Sweet Beginnings, they've really lost a sense of their self-worth. And we're giving them an opportunity to start over. If you can think about it, we're helping them course-correct their lives and getting them prepared for the next chapter in their journey. And the people that we encounter, they have just a wealth of knowledge. They're absolutely competent and capable and individuals that are driven and we can see when we work with them that they will be tremendous assets to an organization one day. And so we really focus on helping people bring their sense of self back and their self-worth and their spirit and the dignity that they may not have had before they came to Sweet Beginnings. And so to me, that's all the more reason why people should have a model like this. And in the end, hire people that may have really struggled in life, but they have a lot to give and they have really unique and rich perspectives on life.

    The feedback that shapes the social enterprise 

    Felix: Through surveys what were some of the most impactful questions that helped you to get feedback that helps you change the direction that you took the business?

    Daphne: One of the things that struck us, was that 72% of those customers that responded said that they bought Beelove because of the mission. And so that just really spoke to the power of the work that we do here at Sweet Beginnings. Another thing that stood out to us was the difference in social media usage. People in the older end that responded really were great Facebook users while people in the younger and were more Instagram users. That was something that was really important to us. We really have not developed a level of sophistication here in the digital marketing or social media landscape. And that's something that we want to put a lot more energy into. We realized that digital marketing and having a well-developed ecosystem is really going to help us grow in the future. So that customer survey also helped to inform us of that. Another great thing that we learned from the survey that will definitely drive some of the things that we're going to consider moving forward is understanding causes that our customers are passionate about. And the environment was number one. And that's no surprise because we work with bees and bees are such creatures to our ecosystem. So but it got us thinking about how do we pack our products and how do we ship our products and are there things that we can do in the future that are more environmentally friendly? So there were things from that survey that were absolutely some things that we already knew and some things that absolutely are informing the work that we're going to do moving forward.

    Felix: Do you ever run into situations where you were to make a decision that conflicts between the social side, but hurt the economics or hurt the product or vice versa? 

    Daphne: We get a lot of questions around scaling up with a large discount national retailer in the country? And that might be exciting. But then there's a part of you that's like, “well, we're trying to help as many people as we can in our community and stay focused on giving them the experience of creating this artisanal product that people love.” And that is really the priority is being able to have a social enterprise that is business-focused, yet really focused and on the human spirit. And what that means is that sometimes you have to make trade-offs around that. Our environment here is one that is really caring and nurturing. And we want it to be a safe environment because we're getting people at a really vulnerable time of their lives. And we also want to teach them business skills. And so, yeah the trade-off is as such you don't know we're not scaling up right now into being this kind of mass manufacturer that we are focused in on helping people and their journey, giving them the opportunity to kind of dig in deep and learn a little bit more about business to help them find self-worth, help them find the leadership skills within them, give them the opportunity to contribute and to be a really, really strong team player in this particular business. I would also say that we are a team of three full-time people and so we wear a lot of different hats and we are very cross-functional, meaning that we have to do a lot of different functionals. So not cross-functional in the sense that we have all these different departments and we come together and we work, we are all the different departments. And so that on a day to day basis is like trying to always prioritize like what do we juggle today? And sometimes I go home and people say, "Oh, what you do today?" And it's like, well, I handled everything from payroll to parole. That I helped with timesheets and I talked to someone's parole officer and I also had to spend time in developing the marketing strategy or I needed to do a customer interview or I needed to order a round of a product. So every day is very, very different here at Sweet Beginnings that really calls for us to reprioritize a lot on a daily basis.

    Selection of BeeLove's body and skincare products.
    Expanding to skincare items allowed Sweet Beginnings to improve profits and widen their product offerings. Sweet Beginnings

    Felix: So for someone out there that is focused on growth and let's say you could choose how to spend your time, where would you like to focus more of your time if I guess the goal is growth?

    Daphne: I think while we have like this day to day re-prioritization because we're a small team and we juggle a lot the emphasis that I have is like what are the three big things that we can tackle? So in some organizations, it might be tackling six to 10 things. But in this organization, it's like, what are the three things that we can do to really drive business? And I think for me it's like in order to do that we need to understand who our customer is today, what Beelove means to them as a brand? Why do they support us?

    Understanding our current customer profile and then identifying who we can go after. And then from that thinking about how we market strategically to that particular audience. And then the other thing is how can we get to be more sophisticated in terms of our digital marketing and social media. That's really, really important. So it's not like we can tackle like 10 things we're going to accomplish this year in terms of a growth strategy. It's about what are the reasonable things that we can accomplish this year and that can make the difference for our next fiscal year.

    Felix: What is more valuable? Mass surveys or individual customer interviews?

    Daphne: The surveys give you a general read of what's happening. The one-to-one interviews can be particularly insightful. One interview I did, a customer brought our product and showed me where they purchased the products from, and what else is in their cabinet. That provides a certain level of insight as to what they actually purchase. It's a good read to see what people say they do and what they really do.

    Felix: How different is that between what they say they do versus what they actually do?

    Daphne: Sometimes in surveys, if there's sometimes people, if they're rushing to get through that they may not be as revealing. And also you don't want to keep people in a survey environment they are too long because that can be laborious for them to complete. So the one-to-one interviews are actually quite nice and it just gives a better read on kind of behavior and how people in this case like to shop or how they like to use products.

    Plans for the future of New Beginnings 

    Felix: So it sounds like in a lot of these surveys there's an emphasis on or focus on the frequency of purchases or when or why they purchase. Was there a reason why you're looking for this information?

    Daphne: One of the things that we know about Beelove is that people love to give Beelove as a gift. So we see our peak sales season as the holiday time period starting around the end of October and then November and December and a little bit of early January where there's just a flurry of activity around giving the gift of Beelove. But the reason why we're trying to understand our customers a bit more and interviewing customers is that we're hoping to kind of break that seasonality. We know that the holiday season is always going to be a big-time just in general in retail. But we have these wonderful skincare products that people can use on a daily basis. And so we want to be able to start marketing ourselves as that. Is that when you need that lotion, that daily body lotion to use you should think about Beelove then as well.

    Felix: How do you begin to break seasonality?

    Daphne: Yeah, I think it's all going to be in the messaging and how we talk to our customers. And then even the messaging around like that mission that you don't have to just wait until the holiday time, time frame to be mission-focused that you can certainly support our mission every day through the use of our products on a regular basis.

    Felix: What do you think needs to happen this year for you to consider this year a success?

    Daphne: I would say for this year it is elevating our marketing, expanding our social media presence, connecting with partners, our corporate partners, and so looking to kind of expand our corporate network to organizations that find the value in the work that we do. So that would be big for us in terms of having a successful year.

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