I love to find, what I describe as “blessings in my inbox.” That’s how I feel about Bee Love Buzz. When I first saw the e-mail, I read beauty products made from honey. And I thought ‘Oh cool. I love honey.’ Then when re-read the e-mail, more carefully this time, I saw that the company employees men and women who have previously served time. Amazing. So naturally, I wanted to speak to the founder of this company.
Brenda Palms Barber who was working in Denver, Colorado had decided to take a position in Chicago, working as the executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network. She was excited to get to work on the ground rather than taking a more academic approach. When she got there, she realized just how much she was needed.
“I flew in for the interview. I toured the neighborhood and honestly, I hadn’t seen this level of poverty in my life. It was an opportunity. When I got here, I was just astounded at the high, high unemployment rate. But that was my job, to create employment training, to connect people to jobs and to reduce the high level of unemployment. The more conversations I had with community residents, pastors of churches and organizational leaders, it became apparent that the driver for the high unemployment was due to mass incarceration in this community. It was just a big “ah ha” for me. It wasn’t that the people of North Lawndale didn’t want to work—which is what I was hearing— but rather, it was that people had criminal backgrounds and were barred from a number of jobs because of that background. And then they were also faced with dealing with the social stigma of being a person who has served time.”
So with that in mind, Brenda went about the work to address the issue. She wanted to create programs for this community of men and women to equip them to be competitive in the labor market and be good employees. The very first thing she started was a program called “U Turn Permitted.”
“That program turned out to be—it was amazing! It was thousands of people showing up to enroll and be a part of the program. And I was so excited at first, like, ‘This is awesome! This is great! All of these people are showing up!’ Then you realize you just don’t have enough jobs to fill that. Then once again, I’m perpetuating this deep sense of disappointment that these people have.”
But Brenda was not discouraged. She started to do more work in the community and speak to more community leaders.
“I was told all kinds of things about why we couldn’t we couldn’t chase anybody down, or they were hiring but suddenly now they’re not. ‘Oh come back as long as they’ve been out of prison for eight years, we’ll hire them then.’ And it was just ridiculous! So out of my frustration, I decided that we have to become their first employer, that we actually need to demonstrate to society that the people who have served their time, have served their time. And that they need an opportunity to be able to work and to become good citizens and to support their families, support themselves. Or we will force them, as a society, to continue to make really poor choices. So that what led me to create “Sweet Beginnings”We started out with selling honey at a farmer’s markets.”
People who care about what they put in their body and on their body, really saw the value of the product. And then they would actually see that there was value to the social purpose behind the product.
And while the plan was a good one, it wasn’t long before the company realized that the sell of honey yielded very small profit margins. She knew that honey, by itself, wasn’t the answer. So they went about trying to figure out how to introduce the key ingredient into other products.
“That’s where we began to introduce our skin care line. It was much better to put a tablespoon of honey in a body cream than it was to try to sell a tub in a jar. The profit margins shifted from 13 percent to 50 percent. Sweet!” *Laughs*
The answer made me wonder what made you decided to do honey in the first place?
I knew you were going to ask that, I was trying to get past that!
“There’s just no easy answer. I will tell you that my board of directors and I considered a number of really, really bad ideas. We looked at landscaping, we looked at a delivery service, we looked at small manufacturing. We looked at other products. The numbers just didn’t work and/or the level of literacy or the level of work experience to advance to create opportunities for anyone who was needing to reconnect to the labor market. So one day, one day one of my board members mentions that she has some friends who are bee keepers. And I was at my wit’s end. I’m like ‘I just don’t know what to do, maybe I should give up.’ She says, ‘I have some friends that are bee keepers.’ And I said, ‘Well, what does it require to be a bee keeper.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go talk to them. And through that conversation, I learned that bee keeping is a hobby or a profession that’s passed on through word of mouth. And that resonated with me. And I thought, so no matter what your academic achievements were or are, most of them love learning through storytelling. So that was what led me in the direction of moving forward bee keeping.”
Then I wanted to know about the name and whether or not it was easier to settle on one once they decided to work with bees and honey.
“Oh God, no! I didn’t have a name for the business but I was describing it to people. And I got so much criticism. People were just, they really were so suspect of the idea that I was trying to help men and women with criminal backgrounds, through bee keeping. They were very polite but the sly questions would always be, ‘What kind of employment will that lead to?’ And I understood but they didn’t get that it wasn’t really about the profession of bee keeping, it was about acclimating these men and women back to work. It was about getting acculturated to work. I remember one morning having breakfast with a very special woman here in Chicago, who I have a lot of respect for. And so, if she was going to be one more person to put this idea down, then I was going to walk away. And so, over pancakes, I tell her the story about what the business is and what we’re trying to accomplish. And she paused and she said, ‘What a sweet beginning you’re creating for these men and women.”
Chills! Chills just came over me. I was like ‘Oh my God, that’s the name!’
And then the name of our products are Bee Love. It just works.”
It works now, but I figured people, despite the popularity of “Orange Is The New Black,” might get a little jumpy when it comes to working with people who have served time. So I asked Brenda what roadblocks and obstacles, like hesitancy, fear, and skepticism, she ran into when she first conceptualized this concept?
“Yes, Veronica all the above. All the above. And the thing that’s interesting is that as African American people, most of us know somebody… a cousin—We have been deeply impacted by incarceration. When almost 40 percent of the people who have been incarcerated are Black and we only represent 13 percent of the population, we know that there’s disproportionate representation of us there. So most of us have been affected. But that said, people do still have [those fears.] I think that we’re trying to educate people more and more. But here’s the beauty of what Sweet Beginnings does. Many of our employees will only work for us for 90 days. It’s called a transitional job. And then from there, we will place them in permanent employment. But during that interview process, that’s the game changer there. People will say, I produced natural skin care products with honey, I work with bees. So the interviewer is like, ‘You worked with bees?! Tell me about that!’ So the conversation shifts from what they did in prison to who they are today as a bee keeper. It more than demonstrates that a person has turned their life around.”
I imagine working with bees and the gentleness and time that requires could lead to other similar skills being used in other arenas of employment.
“Working with natural always teaches you patience. And it teaches you the importance of the growth and life cycle. In addition to bee keeping, they are helping to manage every aspect of a business. They are managing inventory. They are dealing with customer service calls. They’re doing sales through demos through local grocery stores and markets. These are skills that are transferable to most types of work.”
Of course, I wanted to know what the people who’ve come through the program had to say about the experience.
“I think, at the end of the day, what I’ve seen is that it helps them to restore their self worth. And it does that by building up their confidence that they can be of value to society. Being incarcerated is very much about stripping a person of their self worth and reducing you to a number. It isn’t about who you are. So a lot of folks come from prison feeling invisible. Because they’re not just Black, they don’t just have criminal backgrounds, but they’re poor. And so, it’s easy to not see them. But we see you here. So that’s the value of our work. Many times people will tell me, ‘You guys really care about us.’ And so, if you believe that people care about you, you start to make different choices. And the other piece that’s really important to me is that they are aligning themselves with beautiful products. So when they go into a store, they are like, ‘I made that.’ There is this sense of pride in aligning themselves with something that is first rate, top quality, high end. And it’s not something that folks feel that often.”
And then of course, what’s next for this phenomenal company.
“There’s so much. We just expanded. There’s a chain of stores here [in the Chicagoland area] called Mariano’s and they’re really giving Kroger a run for their money. We are in 29 of their 35 stores in the Chicagoland area. We are on a growth trajectory. And one is to really take the product so we can hire full time employees. We’ll still have transitional jobs. We also want to expand the business model. I would love to have a Sweet Beginnings: New York, Detroit, Los Angeles because, unfortunately, as you know there are 2.3 million people living behind bars and 700,000 of them are released annually into this country. And so they need work and stye need to be able to reintegrate back into society with some level of dignity.”
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Brenda if there was anything else she wanted to add.
“With a purchase of any of our products we like to say that you’re transforming lives one jar at a time. But the thing that I am also cautious about is that the product really is awesome by itself. It can’t live on the hope that you care about buying our products just because of its social purpose. The body cream and our exfoliators are top notch.”
If you’re in the New York area, I’ll be giving away some Bee Love products in the gift bag for my Bettah Days book launch party. RSVP here. If not, you can always purchase some of their products here.
Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.”