On this episode of the Grow For Good™ podcast, Jed sits down with Greyston's CEO, Joe Kenner.
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Read the episode transcript below.
Joe Kenner [Snippet]: I really want corporate America, small business, America, whatever it might be—find a way to make your hiring practices more inclusive.
Intro [Voiceover]: It's an age-old question. Can you do well by doing good? Welcome to the Grow For Good™ podcast, where we speak with leaders who strive to make a positive impact on the world. Here's the host of the Grow For Good™ podcast, Jed Morey.
Jed Morey: A Jewish Zen Master Buddhist and two ice cream makers go for a walk in the woods. Sounds like the setup to a joke but this now infamous walk gave life to a delicious collaboration with astounding social impact.
This is one of those interviews that makes you question if and how you’ll ever do enough in your own life. Not in a depressing way, in a way that makes you question what is possible. Joe Kenner is the CEO of Greyston Bakery and the non-profit entity that helps support its efforts.
Many of you, whether you realize it or not, have probably come across Greyston’s products. At least if you like ice cream. Their brownies appear in several of the most classic and popular Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors, the result of - well - a walk in the woods.
We talk with Joe about Greyston’s fascinating origin story, the amazing brownies the bakery turns out each day to the tune of 40,000 pounds and what makes this operation so very unique. It’s one of those incredible stories that will restore your faith in humanity and make you wonder just what is possible when you hear the lengths Greyston goes to help its community and serve those in need by offering them employment, dignity and mobility.
JM: Hey it's Jed Morey, CEO of Morey Creative Studios, executive producer of the social justice podcast News Beat and the host of Grow For Good™.
Today I am extremely fortunate to be joined by Joseph Kenner CEO of Greyston, and as you heard in the introduction, Greyston—it's just a tiny little neighborhood bakery in Yonkers, no big deal. A little shop that pumps out 40,000 pounds of deliciousness every single day, distributes it to little companies like Whole Foods, all while impacting thousands of people in their community, on a daily basis. So this should be a breeze here, Joe, thanks for coming on the show.
JK: Thank you so much for having me. Looking forward to the discussion.
JM: So, before we get into your journey and some of the details of the business, can you just give our listeners a brief overview of the company itself?
JK: So, Greyston we are just about 40 years old; we've been in Southwest Yonkers for almost 40 years. We started in 1982, and I'll give you a little sense of the DNA of the company. It was founded on a very simple but profound idea by our founder Bernie Glassman, and that was to alleviate poverty in Southwest Yonkers. That's going to be something that threads throughout our conversation, how do we tackle this issue. But to your intro, we have a for-profit bakery, Greyston Bakery, which is the first benefit corporation in New York State, by the way.
Owned by Greyston Foundation, which is our nonprofit that provides workforce development, community wellness programming to the residents here in Southwest Yonkers. Our key distinction though—in addition to the DNA of our founding in terms of alleviating poverty—is how we actually hire people, particularly at the bakery. And it's based on this principle of, you know, how can we give hope to folks, how can we give opportunity, particularly employment opportunity to folks in a way that is non-judgmental. In a way that respects them, it shows compassion and gives them hope for the future so tomorrow is going to be better than today.
And this practice that we have is called Open Hiring®. And what it means essentially is all folks have to do is put their names on a list to work at the bakery, and when the next job becomes available, you get it. No questions asked. No background checks, we don't do interviews. And that in and of itself give folks hope, that you know what I may not get it tomorrow, but at some point, in time. I will have a job, I'll get that call.
And to me that is the most fulfilling part of the job, is giving folks that hope that they can get that call. Because it can be anywhere from six months before you get the call, but it's there, it's guaranteed that they will call you. And if you're available, we're looking forward to having you come work with us.
JM: So, we're going to talk a lot about that little later in the show. You've also been the beneficiary—and for good reason—of a lot of press around that concept for many, many years. And yet still, it's very unique. But there are reasons why this time and this place, I feel like it's kind of found its moment and has more people looking at it. So I definitely want to dig into that.
But before that, you've got a pretty fascinating journey on your own. Massively educated, you have incredible degrees, you spent many, many years in corporate America, from insurance to finance.
JK: And I’m still here!
JM: You are, that’s the thing you’re still there, but I'm curious like who found whom in this process? Was Greyston on your radar as you were making it through corporate America? Is this something that you aspired to or was it happenstance?
JK: I tell the story; I've told the story to business school students. All of the jobs I can say this, quite frankly, like all of the jobs that I've had since I graduated from college, I did not know they existed when I started college. So you mentioned I was in corporate America for 14 years, in corporate America, Wall Street. I was an insurance underwriter for financial institutions. I did sales strategy for PepsiCo and risk management at PepsiCo. I was in government for 10 years.
None of this, none of these things were top of mind for me when I first got into college. I definitely didn't know what a social enterprise was or a benefit corporation was. But you know, God has a way of revealing things to you along the way and all of those jobs prepared me for where I am now.
And the story goes, I met my predecessor—oh, boy it had to be 2015, 2016. He was a keynote speaker for one of the conferences I used to organize as part of the New York fathering planning conference. Mike Brady was our speaker. He introduced us to this whole idea of Open Hiring® which we thought was an amazing concept. At that time I was the deputy commissioner for social services for Westchester County. I thought it was amazing. I had never heard of this concept, I thought it was great, particularly for the people that we served in Westchester County social services, it opened the door of opportunity to be self-sufficient and give you a future in the private community. It was an amazing thing.
I never thought that I would one day be working there. It was the following year, where I asked Mike Brady to have some of his folks come back for our conference and be workshop presenter. And he says to me, “Yeah I can get you some folks from workforce development, and oh by the way, I'm looking for a VP of programs and partnerships to work for us. If you know of anybody, let me know.”
I didn't know what a program in partnership VP did. Just to be very honest with you, I had no clue what it did, but when I looked it up. I showed it to my wife, it was like you know, business background, financial background, social services background, connections to the government. You know, it was—I could not have written a better job description. So, I showed it to my wife, she was like, “You could do this,” and I was like “Yeah, I could do this.”
So I called up Mike, and you know as they say, the rest is history. So, in February 2018, I started as the VP of programming partnerships at Greyston. And again, never would have thought, you know, almost two years later, I'd be appointed CEO of this organization. Which is incredible.
JM: So, forget about the fact that you—I mean you really did have every requisite skill and background necessary for that job. Do you think that your time in public service tuned you to this job, in a way that you might not have been as prepared or as willing to jump into it had you gone straight from corporate America into a mission-driven organization?
JK: You know, I would say, all of my jobs, really, I would not sell short any of the experiences that I've had. Whether it's corporate America, Wall Street government, elected office, appointed office, they all prepared me and I’m leveraging all the learnings that I gained from those positions throughout my life. I'm using them to this very moment, today.
What really prepares you particularly for a job at Greyston or any type of a mission-minded, purpose-driven company is you have to want to believe in elevating humanity through business. That's just part of conscious capitalism, you could call it stakeholder capitalism. But to be here, it's not just about the business. That is as important as elevating humanity, and for us, it's employment opportunity. It's giving folks that bite at the apple in terms of being a part of the working mainstream. Building a future for yourself, for your family. That's very much a part of us, as is the bottom line.
JM: So, you mentioned somebody before this, the founder, Bernie Glassman. What's interesting about that is, you know, in our culture, we sort of use the term "Zen Master" as a throw away, or for Phil Jackson, like that's it. That's what most people know about it, but Bernie Glassman was an actual Zen Master from Buddhist philosophy, and started a business that has now thrived for many, many years. Can you just tell us a little bit about that man?
JK: Well, my biggest regret is I never got a chance to meet him, because he passed away the November of my first year in 2018. And I love telling the story about him it's like, it almost sounds like a bad joke. You know it's a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, aeronautical engineer, social entrepreneur, starts this company baking brownies. Like how does that all come—
JM: Of course! [Laughing]
JK: [Laughing] How does this all come together? He was a true entrepreneur. I mean just nothing, nothing could fail. Like he would try anything, and this group that he was a part of—the Zen Buddhist community as you mentioned—they lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in the Greyston mansion, which is where we got our name. They would support themselves by baking cakes. And, you know, the early 80s, Bernie saw the condition at that time, the economy was just in dire straits, the early 80s as you can recall. High unemployment, homelessness, at that time AIDS was raging, and he would notice that a lot of people could not work for a host of different issues. Different barriers, whether it was formerly incarcerated, justice-involved somehow, recovery issues, AIDS, homelessness, whatever it might be. And said, how can we change this? How can we eradicate poverty in Southwest Yonkers, and he would literally pull people off the streets.
“Hey, you want to work? We'll teach you something, teach you a skill, give you a resume, build your resume a little bit. But you'll learn something that you could possibly use somewhere else.” That was the genesis for Open Hiring®.
JK: Literally just trying to figure out, “How do we deal with poverty in Southwest Yonkers.” And from there it grew into this relationship with Ben & Jerry's—you forgot to mention them, you mentioned Whole Foods. But Ben & Jerry's is another amazing story of Bernie going to one of the first social venture conferences, I believe it was in Colorado. But literally went on a walk in the woods with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. And they just kind of talked about how can we work together? We’ve got this ice cream operation, you've got this baking thing going. What can we do? And they decided that you know maybe we can make—we Greyston—can make the chocolate cake for ice cream sandwiches.
Everybody loves the story. So Bernie, we had no expertise in any of this, this is the entrepreneur madness at work. No expertise in this whatsoever, invested all of our money into this new production. Shipped it over, shipped the product to Vermont for these ice cream sandwiches. Fortunately, they didn't survive the shipping process, so instead of getting these little sandwich cookies, you’d get like a big slab of chocolate stuff. That didn't work, but someone at Ben & Jerry’s was like, “Let's put it in the chocolate ice cream.” And from there you get chocolate fudge brownie ice cream.
JM: I mean, come on.
JK: And from there, four other flavors come into being. You know Half Baked, Brownie Batter Core, Justice Remix, Netflix & Chilll’d, that's our latest. And it's all this serendipitous moment.
JM: There's a lot of heroes in that story, but the one real true hero might be the guy in receiving that’s like, “Woah woah woah, don’t throw these out.” [Laughing]
JK: [Laughing] “Let’s just chip it up, put it into the ice cream.” But yeah, the relationship has thrived, even during this pandemic. It's been quite a headwind for us, with being a part of Ben & Jerry’s/Unilever's global supply chain. A lot of people are snacking all over the world.
JM: Yes, we are.
JK: And I like to say, you know during the pandemic, our manufacturing facility was deemed essential, so we never stopped running.
It's an amazing story to say, like folks that were once deemed unemployable, are now essential.
JM: Essential, I love it.
JK: And working and literally working every day. We were 24/6. We worked on July 4, we worked up Memorial Day. Just churning out—this a record year in terms of volume. Over 45,000 pounds of brownies a day being churned out by folks that were unemployable or couldn't work, but they did an amazing job. And I’m very proud of the work that the team is doing.
JM: Well, let's zoom out for a second and talk about that corporate structure because you do have the nonprofit arm, the foundation as a holding company for the bakery itself, but the bakery came first. So when did the idea to have that holding company, to have the nonprofit come into play? Because you do have a dual role you stand a CEO for both organizations. When did that come about and what was the purpose behind that?
JK: Yeah, so it was later in the 90s. So again this is Bernie the entrepreneur, the thinker. He saw as we were doing Open Hiring®, that you know our employees had other needs. Housing was a need, childcare was a need, just training in general, was a need. So there was a time where we had low-income housing. We had an early learning center. We continue to this day to have a housing facility for folks with HIV AIDS. And we also have workforce development.
So he saw that there were other wraparound services that we could provide or should provide to our employees because, at the end of the day, it's not just about employing folks. That's the first step. The second step is just how do we make sure that folks can be successful in the job and really successful in life. You're talking about childcare and housing. Like, I'm not going to be fully productive for you, it's not going to be a successful relationship if I'm worried about if I'm going to be evicted or if I'm sleeping in my car, or I can't get childcare arrangements. How can we support you in that journey?
So we were doing all of those things and we’re slowly getting out of a lot of that and focusing only on the bakery operation and workforce development. But, we can form partnerships within the community with the other nonprofits that can provide those services to our employees, to make sure that they could still be just as productive and work as they can, at home, because they're getting childcare issues addressed, we're dealing with a housing issue, recovery issue, whatever it might be, domestic violence, all of those kinds of nontraditional HR issues. We want to make sure that they get addressed so that our folks can bring their whole selves to work and be both successful professionally as well as, personally.
Probably a few—I think five or six years ago we established a partnership with Westchester Jewish Community Services To provide what we call an employment path maker. And it's that person's job as a social worker—care coordinator is the technical term—that sits at our bakery actually and deals with all those issues I just mentioned, working in tandem with our human resources manager director there, helping our folks through all of those issues in a very confidential way so that you know folks don't feel like their business is all over the company.
JM: Who employs that person?
JK: It's a relationship we have with Westchester Jewish Community Services. They're an employee of WJCS but we have an MLU with them, so that we pay for the role, but the person sits in our facility.
JM: That's brilliant.
JK: It's an amazing innovation that's worked out very well, we have access to their clinics, access to their programming, and even throughout this whole pandemic as folks have been losing family members, they provided grief counseling to our staff. And I would say it's not just for the Open Hiring® employees, it's for the staff, anybody can use this person, anybody can access this person. And to me, and I've been saying this for a long time now, this is the evolution of human resources. How do you make sure people can feel safe in their work environment, how can you make sure that folks have these types of resources so that they don't have to worry about all the other things that are happening outside of the job.
JM: You know what's interesting—so you have a background in risk.
JM: And risk management and risk adjustment and corporate America is so, has such a natural proclivity these days to manage everything through the lens of risk. And yet, even with that background and even with that general sense in America, you have something that is almost the antithesis of looking at risk based from what the corporate risk is, by alleviating the risks that are on the personnel side. It's just a next level of thought that I don't, even doing this show. I don't think that we have many people that have even scratched the surface of how deep into this you guys are.
JK: Absolutely. And coming from corporate it's not just managing the risk, but it's having that certainty. Folks like that certainty, but for me, it's look at the facts. We've been doing this for 40 years now, almost 40 years. We’ve quantified the impact that we've had over the last year, between the people we employ at the bakery, the people that we find, we train and find jobs for the foundation, you know. 11, 12 million dollars of impact every year.
When you think about the savings from public assistance, savings from justice involvement. The income that's generated, this is all going into Southwest Yonkers. 80% of the folks at the bakery come from Southwest Yonkers. That's huge. That's economic development, that's workforce development, right? 95% of our open hires are people of color, and 76% of the staff actually are people of color. So there is just a lot of activity that's taking place here. And I hate to say checking the box, but it's having an impact on all those areas: racial inequity, workforce development, economic development. And you know, at the same time running a good business.
JM: You know you talk about quantifying these measures and I want to make sure in the show notes that we include a link to your recent impact statement, because what struck me about going through the statement was how, in what detail, you were able to quantify the impact, not just within the employment structure of the organizations that you run, but also in the greater community.
And in, you know, so many of the corporate impact statements that you see in the world are really performative. And I don't mean to denigrate anybody's efforts towards that. Because many people in corporations have gone through an awakening, particularly this year. And we'll talk about that a little bit. And they're putting their first best foot forward, but you don't put it forward by putting together a statement at the end of your first year and say you know this, you know, we did it. You have 40 years of impact to stand on and accruing benefits to a community. And I think if anybody was looking for a guide for what a great impact statement and looks like. It would be Greyston’s. I think it's a phenomenal document.
JK: Yeah. And I would say, one of the things, not too long after I was appointed in April, we had the George Floyd instance and obviously we're at the height of the pandemic. As everybody's issuing their statements and there, you know well wishes and “I see yous” and all of these other kinds of comments, I was thinking about you know, what is my statement going to be? And as I wrote the statement for Greyston, it was very clear to me like, this is why we were founded. We don't need a statement.
JM: You do the work.
JK: And we've been doing the work. It's who we are. If anything, we need to double down on what we're doing and talk about Open Hiring® and talk about how it opens the door of opportunity to other folks who are on the sidelines. And we're seeing it now exacerbated during this whole pandemic and some of the inequities that are being laid bare.
So we're doing it, and we have been doing it, and the goal, the vision long term is, let's have others step up to the plate and put their money where their mouth is. And actually say we want to do this too, maybe not on the same scale, maybe on that same scale, maybe even larger, but how can other companies rethink their human resources practices? How can they rethink how they bring people into their organizations?
JM: So, before we leave corporate structure, one thing that I'm curious about because it might be something that other larger mission organizations could learn from, when you set up that nonprofit in the 90s, I think you said.
JM: One of the things that does is, it gives you the ability to raise public funds. And, you know, there's a lot of corporations doing really—we spoke at the beginning of the show, we talked about Bombas Socks and we had a couple of really amazing companies on the show. I imagine that having that extra company ability to go out and raise some of those public sector funds that are there and available, for funds to be put to use almost immediately, which is what you've demonstrated on the corporate side of things. That's got to be a really significant tool in your arsenal.
JK: Yeah, and it adds to the impact. So there's the great Open Hiring® impact work that's happening in the bakery on the for-profit side. But obviously more resources are needed to drive the work that's happening from the workforce development and we have what we call the Center for Open Hiring® which is our thought leadership platform to see Open Hiring® replicated throughout this country and throughout the world really. We have some work going on in the Netherlands. But we need to see that piece grow even larger.
What's been great this past year as the folks that have been coming on board at Rochester, here in our own backyard, supporting that effort because they're seeing it, and they're making connections to Black Lives Matter. They make connections to the things that are happening, and through the pandemic. And it's resonating with them. “It's like yes, we have to do something. And you guys seem to have found the secret sauce from an employment standpoint,” that's the field we're going to play in. We want to support that.
So, obviously it's all about raising the funds to continue to drive that effort. We've been doing a lot of work, all of the crunching of the numbers, that require resources. The marketing to talk about all the work that we're doing from a PR standpoint, that requires resources so that more folks can know about this and do this, try it. And that's what I always say is just try Open Hiring® maybe it's just the one job, you don't have to do it the way we do it. But at least, test it out and see how it works.
But at the end of the day, there are still folks that need work, and we want to make sure that we train folks, give them national certifications for the folks that aren't working at the bakery and put them into jobs that are emerging industry jobs. Most of our—our average placement is about 27% to 30% above the New York State minimum wage. So this is where again, folks that were deemed not employable are starting out on solid footing. And the thing I should also mention is, you know, on average, our bakers make about 16%, 17% above a study that MIT did in terms of a livable wage. We make 15, 16% above that. That's incredible.
JM: That is incredible. So, now, you mentioned that you are the first B Corp in New York State. And our listeners are familiar with B Corp because we talk about it a lot. Now, I don't think you were there for the original certification, but you've definitely been at the helm during the recertification process.
JM: What is it about that B Corp journey, that is important to you? Because unlike a company like ours that is striving to get there and learning new things along the way, they could have written the B Corp structure around the company that you already were. Why was that important to you and what does it do for you and for your employees?
JK: It's a seal of approval of the journey that we're all on as B Corps and as purpose-driven companies. In terms of the triple bottom line. So, social, environmental, and obviously the fiscal, but also transparency. Talking about the impact that we're having in the community and talking about how we can be better, which is—I know you're going through this process too. I mean it's a very thorough process to become a B Corp certified. And you don't get 100, in terms of a perfect score, so you're always looking at, “Okay, maybe it's in the area of the environment our score could be higher, what can we do next year or the next time around to be better?” Or it's in the social, “What can we do to be better next year?”
But it always—it raises a high bar. For all of the folks in the B Corp. In terms of how can we demonstrate to the world, to our stakeholders that we're doing the right thing by our people, by the communities that we're in, the communities that we serve. And obviously, by the bottom line, because you can't do the stuff that we do if we're not running a successful business. So it's very important for us in terms of having that be that seal of approval. But also, how can we be better in the long term.
JM: Do you find that your team is engaged with the process, that they're challenged, and they get excited about checking that next box and saying—is there ownership, I guess an agency in the process that they have?
JK: The beauty of the employees, we were just going through a branding exercise. I was asking the people, “Why did you come to Greyston?” That's really why people come here, and honestly, that's why I want you here, because you want to do those things and you want to hold us accountable. Because we're not perfect. Having a B Corp certification doesn't mean you're a perfect company. But it does say something about your mission, it does say something about your values. And folks cling to that. I think 99% of the folks that came here they were like, “You know I want to have an impact in my community. I want to be a part of something other than just making a product, which is a world-class product, but there's more to my job than that.” And that's why people come here.
JM: So, in our other life—the first podcast that we launched is a social justice podcast called News Beat. And one of the pillars that we have is to study and report on mass incarceration. And all of the, I guess all of the tributaries that stem from it from a social perspective and what happens to communities that are ravaged by mass incarceration. And here you are, with this Open Hiring® philosophy and strategy that has worked, you’ve demonstrated that it works. I think I read in your impact report that just this open Open Hiring® policy yields $30,000 in public savings annually per employee.
The social, economic, and community impact of a philosophy and a strategy like this I think can't be overstated. So I'd like to hang on to it for a little bit. And also humanize it without obviously giving up names or anything like that. From a narrative perspective and a story perspective, it's not just the would-be, or formerly incarcerated individual that we're talking about. It's all of the structures surrounding that person and the opportunities that come with it. Can you speak a little bit about the broader impact that comes along with this Open Hiring® philosophy?
JK: Yeah, and just to correct the narrative because a lot of folks, kind of associate us with only focusing on the justice involved, the formerly incarcerated. Though the model lends itself very well to that particular population because we don't do background checks, and we don't do interviews, it's really for anybody looking for an opportunity. Someone with barriers to employment, we quantify that number as well and it's about 10 million folks across this country who fall into that category. And again it's the people I mentioned before, homeless, people just can't get childcare, you know, single mom that you know, can't work because who's going to take care of a child? Yes, the formerly incarcerated person who just came home and has applied to 10 different jobs and just can't get one, we have people like that, that I know personally that had that issue and now they're doing very well.
But it's really about anybody who is just, they've dropped out, they've dropped out of—these other people aren't captured in our unemployment numbers, which are already high. But if you add back those folks, you know our unemployment rate which I think is just over six, would probably go to 10 because of all the folks that have dropped out of the labor force. Because they just can't get a job now. It's for those folks who have lost hope who've given up. And that can be anybody, it really can. But the beauty of our system is you could put your name on the list, and in six months, get a job. That's the point of Open Hiring® it gives that opportunity to the folks who want to—have made the decision. You've resolved, I want to be successful, but I had these other issues in my life and I just can't get a job.
JM: And you think about all of the things that are stacked against individuals from for-profit credit score companies that you know artificially construct who you are on paper before anybody gets an opportunity to look at the person themselves, all the way to somebody who might be formerly incarcerated or somebody might not have had the opportunity to be educated. These are all things that are part of the social fabric that holds people back from getting into the workforce. And one of the things that you did was, by eliminating that was you opened up people's minds to the possibility that this can be a productive workforce if we just stop looking at those metrics and start looking at the person themselves. We think about it in terms of accessibility as well.
You know in our world, in digital marketing. Web accessibility is an enormous issue right now because now that the world has gone remote and gotten fully digital and everything is online—what type of access are we ensuring that people have to be able to function in a normal economy? So you see these things all around. There's another layer to what you're doing in the Yonkers community, where of the population served, I think that—now we're talking about the mission side of the business more than the organization side—three quarters of the population are African American, I think a quarter are Hispanic. Of the outreach that is done within the community itself, and these are people that have nothing to do with the bakery. These are through other programs meant to support the larger community in and around this concept of Greyston. But can you talk about some of those programs? What they look like and how you get people involved.
JK: Yeah, and what's great about all these, whether it’s the bakery or the programs, a lot of these it’s all word of mouth. We don't do a major marketing exercise to talk about the jobs or the training opportunities that are available. So, I'll start with workforce development. That is a program we have that provides nationally recognized certifications in the area of occupational training. So security guard, customer service, building and construction, trade, safety, things like that. Emerging industries that provide a nice entry point for folks to get started, but also has a nice career path, as they move along and become successful. That's very important to us. And obviously has a good starting wage that can become a livable wage for folks. We provide that type of training, but we also provide what people might call soft skills or essential skills.
It’s the, how do you interview, how do you deal with conflict, how do you dress for an interview, how do you write a resume. We provide those services to the folks of Southwest Yonkers for free. This is all through our grants and other private support. That's one way for us to contribute to the community. And again, I always say employment is what we do, so that's the area where—that's our sweet spot, that's how we can support this community through employment. But we also have 12 community gardens throughout Southwest Yonkers where folks in these individual communities are growing their own fresh fruit and vegetables to support that particular community. And that program is probably 95%, 98% Hispanic.
That’s a strong Latino population there, but it's a way for folks to generate a little social capital but also safe and provide food for the family so it's addressing the food and security issue.
And finally, I mentioned this before about the Center For Open Hiring® is really our platform for seeing this model be replicated in different contexts around the country and we’re working with a nonprofit in the Netherlands in Europe, called the Stark Foundation. They have 21 Open Hiring® pilots going over there across different industries. It's amazing to see all this happening and the impact that folks are having. Literally hundreds of jobs every year, we get to generate opportunities for folks. To restart their lives and start building a thriving community for themselves and their family. I couldn’t be happier with the work that we're doing, day in and day out.
JM: So, before we move to more operational questions about the business, I just want to touch a little bit on—there were two seminal events in 2020 that carry forward today. Obviously, one is the social unrest, mostly in the wake of George Floyd's murder. But in the larger context, we saw so many examples of this what finally kind of bubbled over, that was just sort of I think what broke loose and put it on everybody's map and forced many corporations, families, individuals, to just turn around and say, “Okay we have to talk about this. We have to face this.” And at the same time obviously the global pandemic which had a disproportionate effect on BIPOC populations within the United States for many, many, many, many reasons.
Without getting into those reasons, let's just say that these things were enormous challenges for the Black and Latinx communities and this is your community that you serve. But also as you said, you know, 75% of the population within the walls of Greyston working there are reflected in those numbers. What, what were the internal conversations like? Did you find yourself as CEO of the organization having to take maybe more of a prominent role as listener and leader and just talking about and to and listening to people. Was it different, do you think for Greyston than it was for some in others in 2020?
JK: I'll actually say the pandemic challenged me. My style is more listener. I am going to be the guy that walks around, goes to your office, sit in your office, chat, sees people. I couldn't do that in this environment, so it was very much a Zoom and a Teams-oriented environment. But just to give you a sense, it was tough. It really was. We were in transition. Because there was a point where we did not have a President/CEO yet. I wasn't appointed until April, but there was a lot of uncertainty, there was a lot of anxiety.
People were scared. They were scared for themselves, for their family. Folks didn't understand, “What does it mean that we’re essential? Why isn’t X business essential, and we’re essential? It was tough. And I said this during the whole ordeal, like, this is when you get to see who your leaders are. And again, I could not have been prouder of our VP/GM, Rich Jamesley, who runs our bakery. Our human resources team that really kept that team together, especially, because those folks were coming to work every day. Because at one point in time, 20 million of their fellow citizens didn't have a job. And they were coming, they were scared but the conversation we were having to your question were, ‘How do we keep these folks safe?” Because we didn't have a playbook.
So it was retrofitting both the foundation, because there were a couple of programs that were deemed essential as well at our nonprofit, that had to continue running. So it was retrofitting both organizations, just checking in on folks to see how they're doing. Again Zoom, cell phone, whatever it might be. I made the point of coming to work even though I probably wasn't supposed to be here. But I did come to work just to show that we're all in this together. I value the working from home concept, but sometimes you just got to—folks need to see you, at least see you coming to work. At one point in time, we stopped all interaction between the foundation and the bakery employees because we just didn't know how this thing was spreading, so we just limited all contact with the bakery, but we connected on the social platforms.
It was tough. That was the toughest part of all of this, trying to stay cohesive. And I’d send out almost—I don’t know if it was weekly, it was pretty regularly—I would send out emails just kind of creating a positive environment, just getting folks to kind of think about their fellow colleagues, how folks are processing this differently. Folks, you know, like I said, were nervous, they were panicky, and sometimes we just have to step back, you know, that colleague of yours, who might seem like they're freaking out, they might be worried about their elderly parents, they might be worried about the kid they might be worried about themselves. So trying to teach us to understand each other's story a little bit better and how we might process things differently and not assume the negative right away. But kind of help each of us through this ordeal, which we did make it through.
JM: Talk about trial by fire. Do you think it made you a better CEO?
JK: A better person, but definitely a better leader. That's the part of, and I was told this during my Pepsi days. Your technical skills kind of become less important as you move up. When you get to this point in your career, it's really about people, it's about relationships, how you can navigate the different personalities, and a team on a leadership team, on your employee base. You really have to understand that. And you’ve got to have a very good sense of self and understand what you're good at and what you're not good at.
I was very clear with the team, I do not like talking to you via Zoom. I'd rather have a town hall where I could see you, shake your hand. But I'm going to try this thing out. I don’t think I'm still that good at it. [Laughing] But it’s what we have available to us. It's taught me so much about myself. And I’ll say that, it wasn't COVID that really threw me. Really making sure that people were safe. That was really the thing that kept me up at night.
JM: Let's get into the business because you're also in a fun really cool business when you take all the rest of it away. You make really delicious brownies, I mean, really delicious brownies.
JK: What's your favorite?
JM: Well, actually, so I knew your vegan brownies. And what's interesting about that is that,—so we have a few members of our team, and they're just sort of a thing, I just know them. We have a Whole Foods down the street, it’s kind of what we eat, and it's fun. But in doing the research— Sage, who's also a vegan who's very excited about bringing obviously, this, what we call, “a get.” We actually got you which is huge. When she was doing the research, one of the things she included, it was another podcast that was a vegan podcast, I can't remember the name, forgive me.
But it was funny because the host introduced it and she was just going on and on about the brownies and saying how excited she was to interview you. And she's like, “And then I started researching the company, I was like, oh my god, this is the greatest company ever!” And it's funny where people's entry points can be so different. Some people might know you through Open Hiring®, through the community. The bottom line is you make really, really, really delicious brownies.
JK: Yeah, that was Vegan Sexy Cool with Jackie Reid.
JM: Yes, that’s exactly it. That's the one. So the product itself. What I wanted to talk to you about is, you’re 40 years in the business now, you've taken over as CEO. One of the things that your company has managed to do is actually maintain extreme focus. It is extremely unusual that you have not branched out, that you don't have cookies, that you don't have pots and coffee mugs, and branded collateral items. And to me, it's one of the great lessons of business that sometimes you have to have that extreme focus, “What do I do the best.”
So if you can, first of all, brag about your brownies for a little bit, and let's talk about your product, but let's also talk about this concept of extreme focus. And just staying in that lane. Because there have been times over the years where people were tempted to kind of veer off into other lanes.
JK: Yeah, well as I said at the beginning, we used to make cakes, we used to make cookies, and a lot of those businesses were not profitable. So we eventually got out of them. But what we do very well—and we're actually going to be having an offsite with the board to talk about that very question that you're asking. “What is the role of this bakery going to be for the next you know, 5,10, 20 years?”
But what we do very well is inclusion, ingredients for our number one customer, Ben & Jerry's Unilever. So that you can enjoy the Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, or the Half Baked ice cream, Netflix & Chilll’d which is the newest flavor. But we also have a very robust e-commerce business. For the brownies that you buy in Whole Foods, you can also get them online at greyston.org. And you have to try the Vegan Birthday Cake Blondie, by the way.
JM: Will do.
JK: But that is what we do very well. And we do that, and we stay focused on that because the demand is there. And we are working with premier companies, Ben & Jerry's Unilever, Whole Foods, do you think they have high standards? So you can’t lose focus on that. They've got high demand. Folks have been in lockdown for almost a year now. People are ordering—I just heard the CEO of Unilever saying this the other month that a lot of folks are ordering their food online, and they're putting the ice cream and the brownies or whatever else in their shopping carts. And that's how folks are shopping now. But that's happening all over the globe.
And to say that we're a part of that and we're supporting that with you know, the folks that we hire is incredible. But there's also what we would call the ambassadors of our organization and those are the folks such as yourself who are buying the brownies and Whole Foods and buying the brownies online and opening it up and then reading about the story, reading about the organization. That's what we got to focus on it.
JK: Everything that we do—yes, gotta to run a successful business, but do not lose sight of the mission and why we're here, to begin with. Because we could be making, you know, bicycle seats, pots and pans and whatever. But whatever we're doing, can’t lose sight of that mission.
JM: So, companies that might be in the business of having a great product, but having not yet taken a step on this journey because there are different paths—there are many different ways that you can go, you have to decide what's important to you. Because you have the corporate America background and finance and because you have public service in your DNA now, and you're here with purpose-driven companies.
Other founders, other entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs, business leaders, whatever position they're in, if they want to take that first step, when they come to you and ask you that, what do you tell them? You know, because obviously, everybody would love to land where you know, where Greyston is. But that is a journey, and it's perpetual. What do you tell people about, you know, taking that first step? How do you get into purpose and mission?
JK: You know, first, I have to see if they want to do Open Hiring®, that's one of the first questions we ask. But it's really, don't try and boil the ocean. That’s what I like to tell a lot of folks, and we've been talking to folks at the business roundtable, as well. Business leaders are problem solvers, right?
So what is it about your company that could impact your community? You could be like, Chobani, and want to address hunger. Greyston has decided on employment. Wherever you're located, who are the key stakeholders? How could your business be a force for good to address a problem? Can’t solve all of them. It's impossible to think that way. But what is your purpose other than making widgets? Can your organization be a part of addressing that problem in some way? And you know, that's all that the stakeholder capitalism concept is all about. Capitalism is a beautiful system in terms of lifting people up out of poverty.
The spin we put on it is okay, there is a profit-making piece to that, but there's also the elevation of humanity in that as well and you’ve got to ask yourself that question. How can this organization or whoever it might be, ABC Inc, can elevate humanity, and it's got to be intentional. And you've got to have follow through. Because it's not to your earlier point, you're just issuing statements that mean nothing.
JM: If Greyston was just a bakery, could it be as good of a company if it didn't have all the purpose, mission-driven At its core? Or is it that that makes it such a good company?
JK: Think about why we have the relationship with Ben & Jerry's, it came together because a group of purpose-driven folks said let's work together. There's a book by Christopher Marquis of Cornell that talks about B Corps—there is this interdependency here that we are creating between our companies. Ben & Jerry's Unilever, they're the poster child for social activism, Greyston poster child for innovative employment, employment ideas, working together, addressing large issues, not just this country but this world is going through.
You can't have a Greyston without the purpose. Otherwise, it's just brownies, I don't think you'd get our brownies. It’s a pastry. There's no other higher purpose in it. But to what you just said earlier, it's like you enjoy the product, but you also enjoy what the product represents. And to me, you can't have one without the other. There would be no Greyston if there was no mission to it.
JM: Last question for you, Joe Kenner. This is the Kenner era. There's a sense of the purpose-driven company CEO archetype that we speak with, that the organization transcends any particular individual and that see themselves—I’ll call it—almost as faith keepers rather than leaders and CEOs. They're the ones that just sort of keep the promise of what the mission is and the purposes so that it can stay intact gor, you know, future generations to benefit from.
But, this is your leadership era, and it is just begun. And I'm not sure what you did wrong in a past life to start it in a pandemic and with the social unrest and high underemployment. I don’t know you must have offended somebody. [Laughing]
JM:But this is you—got through a really remarkably bad year, as you said, with actually some tailwinds that are pushing you forward. And now you have the opportunity to grow through it and take it to another place. What would you like them to say about the Kenner era of Greyston?
JK: Well, first and foremost, we got through this. No leader does it alone, so the team got through this whole pandemic and the social unrest together. I would say that first. But secondly, and this goes to an issue I had when I was interviewing for the VP job. I didn't say that I knew nothing about Greyston. And I was Deputy Commissioner of Social Services that handled employment for Social Services, by the way, and knew nothing about Greyston, or at least didn't appreciate it, because some people know the bakery, but they don't know all the foundations. Even if they do know the bakery, they really don't understand Open Hiring®.
I really had no clue. But there are so many people out there that are still in that position. What I truly hope and my reason for being I think in this role, is to get the message out about what we do. And not only that, see it replicated in different contexts, different scales, but I really want corporate America, small business, America, whatever it might be—find a way to make your hiring practices more inclusive.
If we've got 10 million people on the sidelines, think of the potential, economic potential that is waiting to be unlocked. If only we can find an innovative way to get people employed. That is huge. If I could just crack 1% of that, that would be an amazing feat. So it's to see Greyston more known in our own backyard, in our own state and our own country, in this world and then to see the model, to see the values replicated in different contexts. That's all. [Laughing]
JM: [Laughing] That’s it, we're good?
JK: [Laughing] I don’t ask for much!
JM: Remarkable. Seriously, I can't thank you enough for your time today, but also for being the type of leader that we can all aspire to and for being the faithful keeper of this really, really remarkable company. As a New Yorker, I sincerely appreciate it. Somebody who's you know, helping this company chart its own B Corp journey, you give us a lot to aspire to. And I appreciate that. You've set the bar very high and I thank you for your time.
JK: Thank you. I've enjoyed the conversation. Let's do it again.
JM: You got it.
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