Small Business Profile: Sweet Beginnings
While the economy is improving, certain communities remain behind the curve in terms of employment and opportunities. For example, while national unemployment hovers at just over 4 percent nationwide, in Chicago’s North Lawndale community, unemployment is around 23 percent.
However, in every challenge there is opportunity. Brenda Palms Barber, the CEO of Sweet Beginnings, LLC, decided to take things into her own hands. “As a frustrated leader of a nonprofit with a mission to improve the earnings potential of the North Lawndale community through innovative employment initiatives, I knew I had to provide our participants with the second chance they so desired and greatly needed,” she said. “If the employers in North Lawndale would not be willing to hire our program graduates, then it was in my and my team’s own hands to create a way.”
Palms Barber helped create Sweet Beginnings as a social enterprise that trains the formerly incarcerated for jobs in manufacturing, food service, customer service, hospitality, retail and more. They do this in part through their beelove® brand of certified, natural urban honey and honey-infused skincare products. As they say on their website, the company is “where your purchase transforms lives.” Sweet Beginnings’ growth allows them to employ traditionally difficult to train individuals, and to empower them with financial and life skills to help build independent and more meaningful lives.
Employees at Sweet Beginnings start with job readiness training, which is provided by Sweet Beginnings’ non-profit parent company, the North Lawndale Employment Network. Currently, Sweet Beginnings has eight employees, all of whom spent time in prison.
Sweet Beginnings beelove products don’t just provide opportunity, they are fantastic natural products that are beloved – no pun intended – by locals and celebrities alike. The company says that due to the support of married entertainers Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, who recently talked about the company’s products in People magazine, their most popular product is currently their beelove nourish & smooth body cream.
Having a small business dedicated to teaching skills to former prisoners has had a tremendous impact in North Lawndale. , “When communities are ravaged by poverty and violence, generations of families suffer as neighborhoods are drained of their primary wage earners, investment from local business owners and a tax base which can support community social resources,” Palms Barber said. Now, between beekeeping (which Sweet Beginnings does to make their honey-based products), harvesting and selling honey and honey-infused products, they provide transitional jobs for those returning to the workforce, while developing important and tangible skills the participants can use to become more competitive in the job market.
The results speak for themselves. Sweet Beginnings says that more than 75 percent of those who complete their program will go on to secure permanent positions with other employers, start their own business or enter into post-secondary education. Fewer than 8 percent will return to prison.
As in any small business, Sweet Beginnings employees learn a number of skills. The company says their employees learn manufacturing, sales, inventory, quality control, customer service and digital literacy, which transfers to positions in a wide variety of industries.
Sweet Beginnings has a goal to provide transitional employment to at least 60 citizens returning from incarceration and other hard-to-employ jobseekers in the next three years. To do so, the company is expanding distribution. In addition to selling products via their beelove website, they also sell in all Mariano’s Fresh Markets, Hudson’s at O’Hare and Midway International airports and other Chicago-based retailers. They are looking for other retail partners.
If you are looking to make a social impact with your small business, Palms Barber has some additional tips to share.
- “First, it is important for a social enterprise to be in clear alignment with the mission of the nonprofit organization. I also learned it’s wise to listen and embrace your critics’ feedback because they will lift up critical gaps in your business assumptions that you may be blind to address, resulting in a stronger business model. One thing about Sweet Beginnings is clear – we have done nothing traditional or conventional. Be open and willing to carve a new path and create a new direction for the business. Not every social enterprise will fit into a neat box.”
- “Another key piece of advice is the importance of engaging and retaining professional legal counsel. Invest in legal counsel upfront because they will guide the legal structure that supports your long-term vision.
- “Finally, I have to say that everything takes longer then you think it ever, ever, ever will. It takes time to grow a messy idea to a profitable business!”
Everything worthwhile takes time, and it is clear Sweet Beginnings’ time invested is really paying off.
To learn more about Sweet Beginnings’ beelove products and mission, visit their website.
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About Carol Roth
Carol Roth is the creator of the Future File ® legacy planning system, “recovering” investment banker, billion-dollar dealmaker, investor, entrepreneur, national media personality and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Entrepreneur Equation. She is a judge on the Mark Burnett-produced technology competition show, America’s Greatest Makers and TV host and contributor, including host of Microsoft’s Office Small Business Academy. She is also an advisor to companies ranging from startups to major multi-national corporations and has an action figure made in her own likeness.
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