Tamra Ryan | On Bean Soup, Life Choices, and Transforming Women through Employment

“This isn’t a place you come to stay the same. You come to the Bean Project out of a commitment to create a different life.”

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Founded in 1989, Women’s Bean Project (WBP) started with the mission to help chronically unemployed women achieve independence and self-sufficiency by teaching them how to get, and keep, a job.

The world has changed significantly since 1989, especially with legislation related to the “War on Drugs”, which has disproportionately targeted women of lower socioeconomic status. Federal drug cases have skyrocketed. Women are the fastest growing population in the corrections system. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 750 percent. And 85 percent of women jailed in America today are serving time for non-violent crimes like drug offenses.

These trends make the work of WBP all the more important, and the organization has stayed true to its mission despite transitions over the years. By offering a transitional job in food manufacturing, women are able to earn an income, learn job readiness, and develop life skills they need to get and keep a job. WBP brings in $2M in annual revenue and sells their products in nearly 1,000 stores nationwide.

Tamra Ryan, CEO of WBP for the last 16 years, offers her thoughts below on the impact the organization has on the lives of women in the Denver area. Not only is Tamra an articulate leader with acute awareness of current day issues, but her view on helping others is extremely compassionate and thoughtful. 

How did you get started working with Women’s Bean Project?

My involvement originally began as a volunteer. I was looking for a way to get more connected into the community. I had a job that I enjoyed with a software company — we tracked affiliate marketing online. It was a fun time to be in the space, and even though the dot-com bubble was bursting during the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, we became profitable and I was able to see a lot of innovation from a position of relative security.

But I didn’t have a connection to the local community because my clients were all over the world, so I thought I’d volunteer. I really believe that when you decide to make a place your home, you take on a responsibility to make that place better. I hadn’t yet taken the opportunity to find what that looked like for me.

So I started volunteering at the Bean Project, because I was in marketing and development and saw that they needed some help in that area. I did that for six months, and when the CEO position opened up, I tried to talk one of my girlfriends into applying for the job. According to her, I went on and on about how great the Bean Project is. She finally said, “If you think it’s so great, why don’t you do it?”. I never had some big plan that I was going to work for a nonprofit, it just happened. That was 16 years ago.

The original reason I went to the Bean Project was that it was a business in which women could be served and I loved that idea. What keeps me there now is that I get to see the direct impact; I get to meet the women on their first day, and sometimes they come across as angry or resentful or hopeless. But I get to watch the transformation that happens over the time they work for us, which is only six to nine months. If ever you can be in a place where you can witness change and transformation, it’s very much a privilege.

And we’ve seen so much success — we’re about 4 times larger than when I started and our distribution has grown tremendously. The number of women we employ is much higher.  But all of that success is just the outcome of trying to have a greater impact. 

So what exactly does the Women’s Bean Project do?

I think it’s helpful to start with what we believe: that all women have the power to transform their lives through employment.

Because we believe that, we hire women who are chronically unemployed. A typical woman we hire hasn’t held a job for more than a year in her lifetime and the average age is 39. We see long histories of incarceration, addiction, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of school. Women come to us because they decide they finally want to make lasting change. They recognize that making that change is at least partially dependent on the ability to get and keep employment, and that’s where they’ve struggled. So we hire them for a full-time job that lasts for six to nine months in our food manufacturing business. We started 30 years ago with one bean soup mix — just the beans and the spices and today we have about 50 individual food products that we sell in about 1,000 stores across the country, through our online relationships, and on womensbeanproject.com.

We’re a very sales-driven organization, particularly for a nonprofit company. That’s because ultimately sales create jobs and give us the means through which we can hire women and change their lives. Every woman spends about 70 percent of her paid time working in the business in some way — she starts out on the production line and then has the opportunity to work in other parts of our business, whether that be shipping or in our retail store or making gift baskets. The remaining 30 percent of her time is in program activities. We have a curriculum where they learn financial literacy, planning and organizing, and goal setting. We teach them how to get employment with a resume, cover letter, and what we call a “letter of explanation” that gives them the ability to talk about their background to a prospective employer. We teach interview skills — how to dress, how to speak, how to apply for jobs initially. Everything culminates in graduating from our program and going into a “career entry-level job”, which is a job with opportunity for advancement, benefits, and a set schedule. And that’s probably going to be different than any job she’s ever had before.

It seems like Women’s Bean Project is filling gaps that traditional human services organizations might miss. How are you doing things differently?

Our systems for workforce development aren’t really built on helping support someone long enough for them to make lasting change. Typical programs that happen around workforce development are fairly short, and the Bean Project is focused on providing stability for a longer period of time.

Women’s Bean Project also pays women for a job so they’re making money from the very beginning. We all know that making money gives you some breathing room. If you’re not being paid and you’re trying to acquire job skills at the same time, all you’re thinking about is how you can finish up learning so you can go get a job. You can’t really focus on yourself and learn, and get ready for the next job, while also not being paid.

Another thing we see is that often within human services, providers believe they know what’s best for the person rather than sitting down with them, understanding what they want for their lives, and then helping to secure the resources and coaching that allows that person to take action towards the life they want. And that’s what we aim to do. It’s really a difference between case management — telling people what they need — and coaching — helping people achieve the goals they set. 

It’s about equipping and empowering people, over simply mitigating problems.

Or doing things for them.

Because in that environment, we all set ourselves up for disappointment and failure. When we decide what’s best for someone and they don’t do it, we’re disappointed and maybe upset or angry. But just because you think it’s best, doesn’t mean they do.

And that ultimately perpetuates negative cycles of unemployment and poverty. If you feel that you have no agency in your life, how do you take steps forward?

That point is a really important one, because what I see is often the women who come to the Bean Project do not have a feeling of self-efficacy, because they’ve not witnessed that anything they do is going to make a significant difference in their lives. A lot of that has to do with the fact that by the time they come to us, they’re dependent on other systems. There are other people or entities that are telling them what they have to do, and they don’t necessarily see that what they do can affect their outcome.

I think for those of us who do feel agency, that’s a really important thing for us to remember: not everyone has that sense that their actions can impact their outcome.

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How do women get involved with the Bean Project?

The number one referral source is someone else who has been in the program. That’s a reflection of a couple things: 1) 2019 is our 30th anniversary, so we have a long history in the Denver community and many people know of us, and 2) we’ve served multiple generations in the same family over those years.

In addition to that, one of the things I’ve come to understand better doing this work is that barriers to employment rarely happen in singularity. The women who come to the Bean Project have lots of challenges and they’re all interwoven and messy and difficult. Women are typically involved in different parts of the system, whether it’s food stamps and welfare and subsidized housing, or in the corrections system. They’re involved in a lot of different parts of our social services system. So there are lots of ways that women are referred to us, whether it’s through halfway houses or treatment programs or shelters, or other groups that are providing various social services.

Let’s revisit that comment on serving multiple generations. I would think that has a significant impact on changing a family’s trajectory.

One of the reasons that I have stayed at Women’s Bean Project for so long is because I really believe that when you change a woman’s life, you change her family’s life.

And I believe that for a few reasons. One is that the majority of care for family members falls on the woman. The global statistic is that when women earn money, a majority goes to the family —  compared to a man in poverty who earns money, only about 35 percent of his pay goes to his family.  I think in a lot of ways, for a lot reasons, women are wired differently and are more inclined to be motivated to support their family members, and also to have the opportunity to be a role model for future generations.

Do you have any stories to share about the lives you’ve seen changed?

There’s a long list, but there’s one that comes to mind.

A young woman who was just 21 years old came to the Bean Project a few years ago. When she was 12, her mother introduced her to cocaine. When she was 13, her mother kicked her out of her house because she saw her as competition for boyfriends.

So at 13, she was on her own.

Think about what that looks like for a 13-year-old — she was too young to work and she dropped out of school. From 13 to 18 she was on the streets, using drugs, selling drugs, helping to manufacture drugs. When she was 18, she was arrested. That was one of the best things that could have ever happened to her, because it stopped the trajectory of the life she was living. From 18 to 21, she was involved in the corrections system and finished her sentence in that time. When she turned 21, she was referred to Women’s Bean Project.

She had a lot of things to address, since she had been on the streets since she was 13. She was at a third grade reading level, she had no feelings of self-efficacy, she was scared, she was in an abusive relationship. She was able to turn those things around with our help, but more importantly with her determination. She graduated the program and got a job at the grocery store, where she learned how to count change. Her supervisor was awesome and helped adjust to working, and she also went back to school to improve her reading and math skills and worked toward her GED.

She became stable enough and eventually met the man who today is her husband. She has a 6-year-old daughter and lives in a small town in South Dakota. There’s a correctional facility in the town and she’s started counseling the women incarcerated there. What I love about that is her generosity of spirit — paying it back, and coming full circle. But also she is so beautiful and lovely. We had the opportunity to tell her story in a national magazine about a year ago, and when she saw the magazine, she sent me a bouquet of flowers to say thank you.

I called her to thank her back, and she said she had told her dad once that she wanted to be a model, and he said, “You can never be a model." And she said, “Now look at me! I made it into a magazine!”. She’s such a sweet spirit. Where you think her life could have gone, ends up being entirely different than where it did go. I like to think she was referred to Women’s Bean Project at a really good time in her life, to set her on an entirely different path.

There are many stories like hers that really revolve around taking the chance to come to Women’s Bean Project. This isn’t a place you come to stay the same. You come to the Bean Project out of a commitment to create a different life.

What’s the most rewarding part of the Bean Project for you?

I think it’s about making the world better, one woman at a time. And knowing that each woman has children and family members — rarely is a woman who comes to the Bean Project the only one in her family who has experienced challenges. One person at a time, we really have an opportunity to change the world.

In your lifetime, you’re lucky if you have an opportunity to make an impact. Not all the stories are great stories, but if you can go home at the end of the day saying you did your best to make a difference, that’s what it’s about for me. I like to think that everyone has their journey, and at this time, me and the Women’s Bean Project are on the journey with these women. And when we’re no longer on that journey, I hope that we can set them on a path that will change the trajectory of their lives.

That’s what I get out of it. Knowing that each of us on staff at Bean Project are doing our best. It happens one woman at a time, slowly, just like any change.

What’s beautiful about your work is just that — you’re stepping into the journey and coming alongside women as they change. It’s easy to have compassion or even pity for others’ circumstances, but to move that into action is beautiful.

You know, it’s very humbling to sit across the table from someone and realize but for the accident of birth, you’re sitting on opposite sides of the table. There’s nothing special that I did, except be born to a white, middle-class family in Colorado Springs, that put me on the path I’m on. Yes, I’ve made choices along the way, but I also had a really different set of choices. I think before I came to the Bean Project, I really had a much more black and white view. I used to say that your life is a manifestation of your choices. I believe that to be true, but what I missed was that we don’t all have the same choices. So I think that when you open yourself to the idea that there’s nothing special about you, that you just happen to be dealt a different set of cards — I think that’s really humbling.

It’s helpful to also realize the difference between pity and compassion. Compassion has the potential to compel you to action, whereas pity has much more passive connotations.

What’s the most difficult part of running the Women’s Bean Project?

The bane of human services is free will. You can bring to bear the resources and you can offer coaching, and ultimately each individual makes choices for themselves. It’s hard to watch someone make decisions that lead them to relapse or to lose a job, to make a decision that works against them and the progress they’ve made.

But we have to give people the room to make their own choices and coach them along the way. It’s not sustainable to make choices based on what other people want.

How would you say you move the needle?

Most women have on average only held a job for nine months or less when they come to us. A woman who graduates our program goes on to work in their community and a year later, 95 percent of those women are still employed. The research shows that the number one indicator of re-arrest is being unemployed a year prior to the arrest. We also know that the key to breaking out of poverty and staying out of prison is employment.

So ultimately, a job is the first start for all of the other things to fall into place for these women. That’s how we’re moving the needle.



Tamra Ryan is the CEO of Women’s Bean Project, an author and a speaker on topics such as compassionate leadership and social enterprise. Her first book, The Third Law, has won numerous awards for women/minorities in business and social activism.