Ten months ago I arrived at HBS hoping to answer a question: How can I use business management skills to expand economic opportunity to those who need it most? This summer, with the support of the HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship, my internship at Women’s Bean Project in Denver is helping me find an answer. 

Women’s Bean is a social enterprise that makes packaged food products while employing women who face barriers to employment. Many of the employees are recovering from addiction, reentry citizens, and victims of domestic violence. The women spend nine months at Women’s Bean getting back on their feet and learning how to hold a stable job on the production floor making soup mixes, baking mixes, and other dry good products. At the end of the program, Women’s Bean helps participants find full-time employment. 

I found my internship through the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), a venture philanthropy organization that invests in employment-based social enterprises. As part of their Farber Internship Program, REDF places MBA students in portfolio organizations, like Women’s Bean, to apply our business skillset to strategic projects. I am working on a variety of projects this summer, but the bulk of my time is spent developing an ecommerce strategy to drive topline growth through digital channels. I find myself drawing heavily on my pre-HBS work experience in management consulting and corporate strategy for a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company, as I work to help Women’s Bean develop a more commercially-oriented approach to their business while maintaining their mission.

So far my summer experience has raised more questions for me than answers, but some insights have emerged: 

  • Work has the power to transform lives. Employees at Women’s Bean start in cohorts every two months. As I walk around the building, I can often tell who has been at the program for a while and who is relatively new. It’s evident in the way they carry themselves and the confidence they display in their work. I’m more convinced than ever that a stable job can be the missing link in breaking the cycle of poverty. It goes so much farther than just the paycheck; it’s the feeling of purpose you can see when the women come into work every day and make progress towards their production goals, and the increasing sense of self-sufficiency they exude when they walk out the door in the evening. 

  • Building a social enterprise is like building a business, but with twice as many challenges. Women’s Bean is trying to build a profitable business employing the ‘least hirable’ people in the labor market, while competing for shelf space with giant CPG companies with every resource to get their products into the hands of consumers. The labor cost angle is challenging as well: in a typical manufacturing environment, hourly labor is viewed as a cost to be minimized. At Women’s Bean, increasing labor hours is the key goal of the business (‘sales create jobs’ is the unofficial motto). And yet, Women’s Bean has to be cost competitive to get on the shelf, so they must find a balance that maximizes hourly labor while remaining competitive.

  • Consumers want to get behind socially conscious brands, but it can be a challenge to communicate your mission to them. When a shopper is spending 15 seconds of their busy day scanning the soup shelf at the grocery store, how do you communicate that your soup creates job opportunities for women facing chronic barriers to employment? Shoppers must also trust that your product tastes good and is priced appropriately, otherwise they won’t pick it up in the first place. Shoppers want to spend consciously, but the onus is on mission-oriented brands to make that decision easy when customers walk into the store.  

While these challenges are immense, there is so much potential upside if we can get this right. Given today’s tight labor market, the time is now for employers to consider expanding job opportunities to those they may have excluded in the past. And social enterprises like the Women’s Bean Project show that with the right support, individuals with difficult pasts can thrive as employees. My experience at Women’s Bean is motivating me to keep exploring these challenges at HBS and beyond. 

Sara Marcus (MBA 2019) is a 2018 HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellow and 2018-19 Co-president of the Social Enterprise Club.