Tamra Ryan: “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he’d never be found out”

We believe that when you change a woman’s life, you change her family’s life. When a woman graduates our program and goes on to a career entry-level job; one with an opportunity for advancement, benefits, and where the employer cares that she comes to work every day, she has started on a path to self-sufficiency, […]

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We believe that when you change a woman’s life, you change her family’s life. When a woman graduates our program and goes on to a career entry-level job; one with an opportunity for advancement, benefits, and where the employer cares that she comes to work every day, she has started on a path to self-sufficiency, with the ability to support herself and her family. A year after graduating from the Bean Project, over 95% of the women are still employed.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tamra Ryan.

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.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I wasnot planning to work in the nonprofit field. I have two science degrees, initially thinking I would be a researcher. My first job after graduate school was for a subsidiary of Rush Medical Center that took concepts out of the medical center and took them to market. The business unit I primarily worked in offered test prep for the US medical boards. I was the director of marketing and business development. This role gave me the opportunity to use my science background, because I knew the language to speak with the physicians and scientists, while I also got to learn the skills of marketing and product development. I loved the creativity this allowed and that became the theme of my career; using my skills in ways that have more to do with exploring opportunities than sticking to a single career path.

I had reached a point in my life when I knew Denver was going to be my home for the long-term and I believe that when we decide to make a community our home, we also take on a responsibility to help make that community better. So, I began volunteering, including at Women’s Bean Project. I was fascinated with the Bean Project’s business model and loved the idea that the better the business did, the more the mission could be served. I had volunteered on the sales and marketing committee for about six months when the position of CEO came open. I approached my friend Sarah to try and talk her into applying for the job. According to Sarah, I went on and on about what a great place Women’s Bean Project is, until finally she said, “If you think it’s so great, why don’t you do it?” That was 17 years ago. What I loved about the organization before I still love today, only now I get to meet the women and see the impact much more intimately.

I think you’re lucky if in your lifetime you can find a job that is the perfect combination of the things you love, the things you’re good at and where you can see the difference the work you do makes. That’s what I’ve found in this role.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Oh, gosh, where to start? There have been so many stories and lessons that I felt compelled to write a book about them (The Third Law), which came out in 2014. The stories I love best are about women who arrive on their first day of work at Women’s Bean Project unsure of what their experience might be, but willing to take a chance that this might finally be the program that will help set her life on a better trajectory. Perhaps on that first day she won’t look me in the eye, or she comes across as angry or defensive. Then, over a period of about 6–9 months — a relatively short amount of time — she literally blossoms and becomes the woman I believe she was meant to be.

All of this transformation is happening in the middle of operating a food manufacturing business. It is an amazing thing that both can occur under the same roof.

For me, the most significant personal experience was a culmination of a number of conversations I had with the women we served during which I realized that except for the accident of birth, there really is no difference between us. I happened to be born to a middle-class white family and had the expectation that I would stay in school, go to college and have a career, then eventually get married and have a family. This realization that I’m not special, just lucky, was an important epiphany and helped me realize that I have a responsibility to use my privilege for the benefit of others.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Today I think of those early mistakes as being more cringy than funny. Most of my early mistakes were related to my naïveté and my relatively limited world view. Though I liked the idea of it, I remember that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a leader of an organization. I thought of it as being something like saying in my best cheerleader voice, “Hey everybody! Let’s all work together!” Early in my tenure I remember trying to lead some staff meetings that way and it was a hot mess.

Another thing that comes to mind is that I have always used humor to lighten up a situation. I was given the gift of a sharp wit and that has generally served me well. But I needed to learn the art of using humor well in challenging situations and one of the rules I had to learn was not to make a joke at someone else’s expense, even if it isn’t intended to be hurtful, but merely teasing. I became the CEO of the Bean Project as the organization was struggling to come out of a financial crisis and there were many tense conversations with the team as we tried to address existential challenges. I often tried to make jokes or lighten the atmosphere and quickly realized that I wasn’t using humor appropriately. It was humbling and a growth moment for me.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Women’s Bean Project believes that all women have the power to transform their lives through employment. So we hire women experiencing chronic unemployment and we teach them the skills of working through our manufacturing business. A typical woman we hire hasn’t had a job longer than a year in her lifetime, though the average age is 38. They have long histories of addiction, incarceration, abuse and domestic violence.

We believe that when you change a woman’s life, you change her family’s life. When a woman graduates our program and goes on to a career entry-level job; one with an opportunity for advancement, benefits, and where the employer cares that she comes to work every day, she has started on a path to self-sufficiency, with the ability to support herself and her family. A year after graduating from the Bean Project, over 95% of the women are still employed.

In 2015 Mathematica published its Jobs Study in which they shared their finding that for every $1 spent by an employment social enterprise, the return on investment to society is $2.23. This is because people who keep employment will not return to prison, will maintain their housing, will become taxpayers and provide a whole host of benefits to our communities by being a part of them. Then, when you think of what happens for families when the mother is bringing home a paycheck, we can imagine an even greater, lasting impact.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I love thinking about C, who came to the Bean Project when she was just 21, after three years of being justice-involved. When C was 12 her mom introduced her to cocaine. At 13 C was kicked out of her mom’s home because her mother perceived C was competition for boyfriends. With the streets as her home, she wasn’t able to stay in school and she wasn’t old enough to get a job, so she began hanging around a group of older people who used and sold drugs and committed theft and violent acts to get them. Over a period of five years C was beaten and abused, held up at gun point, and threatened violence on others. Finally, when she was 18, she was arrested and charged with manufacturing with intent to distribute drugs. This is probably what saved her life. Over the next three years she worked her way through the criminal justice system and then her pastor, the one adult she felt she could trust, referred her to Women’s Bean Project.

While employed at the Bean Project, C was able to build the skills of coming to work each day and managing her relationship with her supervisor. Her case manager helped her leave an abusive relationship and find stable housing and she learned the skills of being an adult in the community, such as problem solving, goal setting, and planning and organizing. Upon graduation she was hired by a grocery store chain where her supervisor took her under her wing and taught her skills like counting change and looking people in the eye. She also went to an adult high school and began to address her 3rd grade reading level and get her GED.

Today, more than ten years later, C is married with a young daughter, owns a home and works a couple of jobs, including one in which she visits the local women’s prison and provides pastoral counseling to the inmates.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Often the most serious challenges I see the women we serve face occur when our systems work against one another. For instance, though keeping a job is a condition of parole, many of the requirements of parole require taking time off from work to meet them, ultimately jeopardizing her employment. Benefits like housing or utilities subsidy or food stamps do not taper. If one makes just $1 too much, the benefits are cut. There becomes a disincentive for employees to move up the pay scale or even, in some instances, to work. I’m not referring to people who are able to be self-sufficient, but instead those who need more of an on-ramp to self-sufficiency. I would love to see all of the systems agree on the outcomes we are seeking, such as self-sufficient people who support their families and stay out of prison, then have rules and policies work in concert with one another toward these goals.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I’ve become intrigued with the question of what qualities a leader must have to be followable. What makes people want to be there to follow someone? One can be a leader by title, but not a leader in practice. Therefore, I would define leadership as knowing how to be the leader the followers need. A leader’s role is to have a vision for the future and then enlist the team to go on the journey toward that vision. It doesn’t mean having all of the answers, but instead having the questions that help the team move forward.

For instance, I know that it is my job to set the strategic direction for our organization, but that cannot be done in a vacuum. It must be informed by our current situation and the dynamics within our company as well as what is happening in the environment. It is my job to pay attention and connect the dots to determine where we should be going. Then, the vision for our future must be communicated with energy, passion and confidence, but not a path. It is our team’s job to determine the path we will take to achieve the vision. I must always remember that I’m not the only person who is invested in the vision for the future, but I am the one responsible for gathering and enlisting others and moving us toward our goals. I am at my best when I am both paying attention to the present and looking out to the future.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. What it’s like to be in a public facing role. Initially, I was very surprised and uncomfortable with theidea that people made decisions about whether or not to support our organization based on meeting me. Because it’s not about me, it’s about our mission.
  2. It’s not about me. The moment I begin to think so, we all have a problem.
  3. I don’t need to have all of the answers, but you do need to ask good questions.
  4. Leading an organization is a lonely job.
  5. Give myself as much grace as I’m willing to give others.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I wish I could start is one of Kindness, Empathy and Grace (the KEG campaign, ha! That acronym might get some participants!). I feel we have lost much of our civility today and it saddens me. Rather than go on the attack when we disagree, I would love to see a movement that stops for a moment and tries to appreciate another’s perspective. Even if we agree to disagree, I believe we can do it without the vitriol and contempt that seems to be so pervasive. Rather than judge one another for our actions, what if we started from the assumption that we are all doing the best we can? What if we tried to have at least one kind thought a day — and more importantly, we shared that kind thought with someone else?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I believe John Wayne said, ”The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he’d never be found out.” This quote has always resonated with me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would be over the moon to have the opportunity to have lunch with President and Mrs. Obama (I know you said “a” person, but hopefully they could do it together). I’ve been very inspired by both of their abilities to take the high road even when other do not, to continue to have fun and to appear grounded, even with the power they wield.

Alternatively, Oprah seems to be a person who has the visionary qualities that I spoke about earlier: the ability to see the bigger picture, connect the dots and figure out how to create a new and interesting vision for the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @tamraryan




This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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