Alright – so today we’ve got the honor of introducing you to Tamra Ryan. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation, we’ve shared it below.
Tamra, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. Let’s kick things off with talking about how you serve the underserved, because in our view this is one of the most important things the small business community does for society – by serving those who the giant corporations ignore, small business helps create a more inclusive and just world for all of us.
C was born an addict. Her mom got her hooked on heroin in utero. She spent the first eight years of her life on methadone, a non-addictive treatment for heroin, only to get hooked again at ten when her uncle shot her up as his first step toward abusing her. She never told because she wanted to protect her siblings and her cousins.
Into her late 20’s C was an addict until finally being arrested and sent to prison for possession with intent to distribute. She was living in a halfway house when she became one of my co-workers at Women’s Bean Project. The Bean Project believes that all women have the power to transform their lives through employment and C was no exception. She was a hard worker and was amazed to learn that you had to have skills to build a careers. She was very eager to learn what those skills were. She came to work every day during her nine month tenure in her transitional job with Women’s Bean Project. When it was time for her to transition to a career entry-level job in the community, she moved into a position in light technology because her math skills and desire to do technically-oriented work were strong.
This wasn’t the end of C’s story. Family dysfunction continued to weigh heavily on her, but each time she was pulled back, she was able to reorient herself around her goals for her life because she finally believed she was worthy of having a life in which she was able to support herself.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
My involvement with Women’s Bean Project began as a volunteer. I was working in marketing and business development in the private sector, specifically at a tech company. The company was not based in Denver where I lived, so I was looking for a way to get connected to my local community. I learned of Women’s Bean Project and was fascinated with the business model. WBP is a food manufacturer that makes a line of dry food mixes and ready to eat items. But unlike many other businesses, the purpose of the Bean Project is to create jobs to hire women experiencing chronic unemployment. So, the better the business does, the more women can be served.
I volunteered on the sales and marketing committee for several months when the position of CEO came open. I thought I knew the perfect candidate for the job; my friend Sarah. When I tried to talk Sarah into applying for the job, during which, according to her, I went on and on about what a great place Women’s Bean Project is, she finally said, “If you think it’s so great, why don’t you do it?” With that prompt I applied and in 2003 became the CEO of the Bean Project. What I loved about the organization then I love even more today because now I get to meet the women we serve on their first day of work when perhaps they aren’t sure what they have signed up for, wondering whether or not this program will make a difference to them. Then, over the 6-9 months of their employment at the Bean Project, I literally get to watch them blossom and become the women I think they were meant to be.
There are many things that set Women’s Bean Project apart from other employers. First, we hire women experiencing chronic unemployment. Typically, a woman hired at WBP will not have had a job longer than a year in her lifetime, though the average age is 38. They come from long histories of addiction, incarceration, domestic violence and homelessness – barriers that keep them from being able get and keep employment. During their tenure with WBP they spend 70% of their paid time working in the business; on the production floor, in shipping and receiving and other parts of the business, helping make the products that we distribute across the country. Thirty percent of her paid time is spent working on herself – in her YOU job. During this time she will learn about trauma and the impact on her health and wellbeing. She’ll have courses in computer and financial literacy. She will also learn what employers are looking for in great employees and create a resume and cover letter and develop job search and interviewing skills. All activities are aimed toward helping each woman overcome her personal barriers to employment. Historically 70% of women graduate the program and a year later 95-100% are still employed.
I am proud that we have created an organization that works closely with women to help them create new lives for themselves and their families. When I see a graduate with small children, it is gratifying to know that her children will never know a time when their mom didn’t work and wasn’t able to support them. I go to work every day wanting to ensure that the services we provide are so effective and far-reaching that each woman we serve is the last in her family to need us. I would be delighted if we put ourselves out of business and there were no chronically unemployed women left to serve in our community.
What do you think helped you build your reputation within your market?
When I initially became CEO of Women’s Bean Project in 2003, the organization was trying to work its way out of a financial crisis. I’m not sure I realized the extent of it beforehand, but it became apparent quickly and was very stressful. I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of challenges we faced. Every aspect of the organization needed to be addressed. Knowing I couldn’t address every issue at once, I began writing down the problems in a notebook to be confronted later. Then, I took a breath and began thinking big picture. If the Bean Project were wildly successful what would that look like? Additionally, what is our brand promise – both for the women we serve and the food products we make? What do we want to be known for?
With these questions in mind, and with many conversations in which I received input from stakeholders both inside and outside the organization, I began to create vision for a better future for the organization and the women served. Then I worked to enlist others in this vision. Together we created the steps to work toward that vision, including what no longer served us and had to change in order to realize this vision. When described today, it sounds as though it were easy. It wasn’t. There were many critics who disagreed with the changes I was leading, but in the end I was able to implement a lot of change in a short amount of time. I believe this is largely because everyone knew what staying the same looked like and it would have surely led to the downfall of Women’s Bean Project. There were many times that all I had was the courage of my conviction that I was doing the right thing, leading us in the right direction. I feel fortunate that more often than not, I was correct.
As a result of that work, WBP has grown tremendously, has built a national reputation in our field and is preparing to move to a new facility twice the size of our current home to accommodate our growth. I believe that these outcomes are what has built my reputation in the market.
We often hear about learning lessons – but just as important is unlearning lessons. Have you ever had to unlearn a lesson?
Perhaps not something that needed to be unlearned, but certainly something that I needed to learn was what being a leader worth following really means. I started my journey believing that in many ways leadership meant being a cheerleader. Today I understand that the role is more nuanced and complex. Being a leader worth following involves four key areas: having the ability to create a vision and then enlist people in the change, being courageous enough to lead with conviction, displaying the emotional intelligence to navigate the people I wish to lead, and having the integrity to always be forthright and humility to know it’s not about me.
- Website: www.womensbeanproject.com
- Instagram: @womensbeanproject
- Facebook: @womensbeanproject
- Linkedin: Www.LinkedIn.com/tamraryan
- Twitter: @tamraryan