Working Upward: The Women’s Bean Project

For the most recent Sustainable Business Fridays conversation, we were joined by Tamra Ryan, the CEO of a unique mission based company, The Women’s Bean Project. What makes this company so unique is that while successfully competing in the gourmet food industry, their mission is completely separate: “to change women’s lives by providing stepping stones to self-sufficiency through social enterprise.”


The Women’s Bean Project was founded in 1989 by Jossy Erye who was volunteering at a women’s shelter at the time. She began to notice over time that women would leave the shelter and get a job, but they would always return. Erye founded The Women’s Bean Project with $500 dollars with the goal of teaching the women she met at the shelter the skills they needed to keep a job through a business where they would make and sell bean soup. Ryan says that it’s “not about the bean soup. Bean soup is just how we change women’s lives.” This enterprise has grown drastically over the last 25 years and now has an operating budget of $2.2 million.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 9.42.25 AMBased in Denver, The Women’s Bean Project employs 70 women a year who go through a 9 month program. These are women who have been neglected by the system. 90% are former felons, and the majority are recovering addicts. During their time in the program, the women spend 70% of their paid hours working in the operations of the business and 30% of their hours building skills within three areas: work skills, life skills, and basic skills. Some of their classes include budgeting, computer skills, parenting skills, organizational skills. The Women’s Bean Project will even pay the women to get their GED.

The coolest part about The Women’s Bean Project? “The tension between the business and the mission”, says Ryan. “Some days the business wins and some days the mission wins.” This may seem like a counterproductive tension, but it’s really what drives the business. Ryan pointed out that they are extremely sales and growth focused because more sales means they can employ and help more women.


Ryan concluded our conversation with a wonderful metaphor: the beans that they use are, to the soil and the communities that grow them, what The Women’s Bean project is to the women in the program. The beans put nitrogen and nutrients back into the soil and help they family farmer who grow them succeed. The Women’s Bean Project similarly nourishes women by giving them the skills and confidence they need to succeed.

Visit The Women’s Bean Project’s website for more information on how to contribute and buy their products, and take a look at Tamra Ryan’s new book “The Third Law”.


Click here to listen to a recording of this conversation.


Join us for the next Sustainable Business Fridays conversation with Bill Thomas, Global Head of Sustainability for HSBC, on November 22nd. For information on how to connect, click here.

By, Christina Wildt  MS/MBA ’16


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