In 2016, I have traveled over 50,000 miles to meet with some of the most innovative and transformative organizations in the country — non-profits and social enterprises that don’t just treat the problems of society but look for ways to break the cycle of poverty by addressing the underlying causes.
Finding employment can be a lifeline to self-sufficiency, but without the right credentials or training, those facing the greatest barriers to opportunity are left with few options and many languish, shuffling from job to job, or worse — working on the streets locked in a perpetual downward spiral.
Effective workforce programs can disrupt this cycle by unlocking the talents and skills that lie beneath the surface, teaching portable skills through real-life work experience. These organizations become a stabilizing force and act as a step stone toward a career path.
As you think about holiday gift shopping, consider some of my favorite social enterprises that produce products by empowering individuals through work. From handmade jewelry to lip balm to coffee, each product is made in the United States and tells the story of an individual fighting for their future, pushing their boundaries, and working towards a better, more prosperous life. Each gift is prepared with intention and packaged through grit, perseverance, and an abundance of hope. Your purchase supports the employment journey of individuals looking for a way out and a hand up.
This holiday season, pay it forward through products that transform lives, tell a story, and change the trajectory of individuals.
Women’s Bean Project (Denver)
Where a Woman Earns Her Future
- Who they serve: Women who are chronically unemployed.
- What they sell: Soup, dips, candy, jewelry, gift baskets, various items.
- Toni’s 10 Bean Soup ($5.95) Rich hearty soup with hints of cumin and spice. This is the soup that started it all!
- Chocolate Lover’s Gift Basket ($40) An assortment of delicious chocolates and tea.
- Inspiration Collection – Handmade Limited-Edition Jewelry ($18). Each piece features two lead-free pewter pendants with the word ‘Inspire’ and another word of inspiration — hope, strength, courage, love, and more.
- Their story: Women’s Bean Project was founded in 1989 by Josepha “Jossy” Eyre, who realized that while shelters offer women a safe place to stay, they cannot make lasting changes in the lives of women. Eyre bought $500 worth of beans and gave two homeless women a job making bean soup. Women’s Bean Project is a transitional job-training program for chronically unemployed and impoverished women. They provide jobs for women making gourmet food and manufacturing handmade jewelry. In doing so, they augment the skills women develop on the job by offering special programming and classes in interpersonal and life skills necessary to move into entry-level employment. Women’s Bean Project offers a viable way to address chronic unemployment, recidivism, welfare dependency, and a host of other challenges.
Rebel Nell (Detroit)
Graffiti Jewelry That Empowers Women in Detroit
- Who they serve: Disadvantaged women in Detroit.
- What they sell: Pendants, earrings, rings, cuff links, bracelets, tie clips, and pins from graffiti paint. Each piece is unique and one of a kind.
- Their story: Rebel Nell was started with the sole purpose of employing, educating, and empowering disadvantaged women in Detroit. They hire women to craft jewelry from unique local materials while providing them a transitional opportunity into a new phase of life. Rebel Nell provides a strong support system to help program participants transition to an independent life. Support services include financial literacy and management classes, mentoring sessions to assist in confidence building and self-realization, and entrepreneurship classes to spur new women-owned businesses. In addition, they offer micro-loan assistance, legal aid, housing assistance, and wellness classes.
The Giving Keys (Los Angeles)
A Pay It Forward Company
- Who they serve: Those transitioning out of homelessness in Los Angeles.
- What they sell: Key necklaces and other jewelry made from re-purposed keys.
- Mini Key Necklace ($56) Available in the words LOVE, HOPE, and DREAM.
- Matte Black Mini Key Post Earrings ($42) Available in the words CREATE and LOVE.
- Matte Black Key Clip ($42) Available in INSPIRE (White Leather), STRENGTH and CREATE (Black Leather).
- Never Ending Bracelet ($42) Available with BELIEVE, BRAVE, BREATHE, COURAGE, CREATE, DREAM, FAITH, FEARLESS, HOPE, INSPIRE, LET GO, LOVE, STRENGTH.
- Their story: While Actress and singer/songwriter, Caitlin Crosby, started wearing a New York hotel key as a necklace on tour, she had the idea to start engraving old, used keys with inspirational words. One day as she was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, Caitlin met a couple named Rob and Cera who were sitting under an umbrella holding a sign that read “Ugly, Broke, & Hungry.” Caitlin invited them to dinner and subsequently discovered that Cera made jewelry. In this a-ha moment, Caitlin asked them to be her business partners. Rob and Cera joined the team and started making Giving Keys the very next day.
Urban Ventures/City Kid Enterprises (Minneapolis)
A City Without Poverty Takes All of Us
- Who they serve: Youth, individuals, and families in the south Minneapolis neighborhood.
- What they sell: CityKid Honey, CityKid Java, beauty products.
- Deluxe Coffee Gift Box ($50) The box includes one bag each of CityKid Java Blend, Highlander Grogg, and French Roast. Also enjoy a bag of delicious Double Dutch Cocoa, Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans, and an exclusive travel mug.
- Bee Lovers Gift Box ($25) CityKid honey is harvested from urban bee apiaries by inner-city beekeepers. This box contains a tube of Honey Lip Balm, a jar of freshly harvested CityKid Honey, and Bee Bombs that help grow habitat for our fuzzy friends.
- Food Sampler Gift Box ($50) Includes CityKid Honey, Greenway Cherry Jam, Honey Almond Granola, and rich and moist Honey Pound Cake. Wash it all down with a warm cup of CityKid Java.
- Their story: Urban Ventures exists to close the gaps that perpetuate urban poverty. They operate a holistic system of programs and social enterprises that equip individuals and families with the resources and opportunities they need to take responsibility for our communities’ future. These services include youth programs to close the achievement gap and provide academic support, family and parenting classes to empower men and women to be loving parents and break negative habits that create dysfunction, and employment programming to give individuals access to vocational training and a network of employers.
Lauren McCann is executive vice president of Stand Together, where she leads operations, external relations, and partnership development. Lauren brings to Stand Together diverse experience as an accomplished senior executive working at the intersection of business, philanthropy, and stakeholder relations. Prior to joining Stand Together, Lauren served as vice president of strategic development for the National Association of Manufacturers. Lauren lives in Virginia with her husband, Ryan, and daughter, Kaley.