Real Leaders

The Journey of Social Enterprise

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Thinking about the opportunity of gathering with a growing community of social enterprises at the upcoming Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Nashville has me thinking once again about journeys. The road I have traveled in social enterprise has felt as precarious as Highway 1 along the rugged ridge of the Pacific. Because of the vulnerability and violence experienced by the work force I serve, I have never found a clear path leading me. There was not a simple fork in the road where I got to choose an easy road.

In fact, for most of the past 15 years founding and growing Thistle Farms, a bath and body care company, I have felt compelled to find a new road on which to travel. It began with a few simple steps towards creating a not-for-profit to serve women who have survived lives of addiction, prostitution, and trafficking. There have been times I barely maneuvered hairpin curves and seasons of confusion that settled in on me like a thick, mountain fog.

There have been harrowing stories of recovery and horrible murders of women I loved. The road of an entrepreneur feels uniquely narrow and unsure at times, but, given the chance, I wouldn’t ever choose another path. The views are breathtaking, filled with grace. Thistle Farms began as a residence offering community at no cost for two years.

We didn’t take any public funding and vowed that we wanted to be a witness to the truth – love is the most powerful source of change in the world. The women served by Magdalene had traveled down roads more perilous and broken than I could imagine. On average the women who came were first raped between the ages of seven and eleven.

They had seen the underside of bridges, the short side of justice and the backhand of anger long before they saw the inside of prison walls. Immediately and faithfully volunteers and staff with expertise in the areas where we needed guidance came along the way at just the right time. Our model was simply to keep ourselves grounded in hospitality, reverence, and love. Five years into the program, we were on a steep learning curve.

It was imperative to educate the wider community on the myths of prostitution: that women do recover, that longer prison sentences and more institutions of incarceration are not the answer, and that there is a crucial need for more residential communities. We learned that we needed to provide a real home for the women, not another prison.

It was time to forge a new path again as we were growing more concerned about the economic wellbeing of the women in the community. The women had to redefine themselves, replacing the addiction that had come to typify their lives. So we began a social enterprise creating all natural bath and body care products to intentionally promote healing.

We had to learn a new vocabulary. The sweet ideals we had held had to become leverage to influence the economics towards sustainability. We have had to learn from some unfortunate decisions on products and sales. We had to learn branding was important and being tough on manufacturing procedures translated into a better work environment for the women. We can hold on tightly to our core values of loving people lavishly without judgment and still be economical. We stamp Love Heals on all our products and are still relevant in the market.

Currently 45 women who are residents and graduates help lead a company that now celebrates over 270 retail outlets. Just this month our shipping team has broken the record on Internet sales! We have welcomed over 1,200 people from all over the world this past year into our immersion day programs to reach out and help other communities duplicate the best practices of this model.

We now have formal partnerships with four other women’s social enterprises around the world. In the past year the women stood before audiences at over 300 events, articulating our mission and courageously sharing their personal stories. Six months ago we opened a Café on site. No one person who launched this endeavor could have envisioned the growth of the enterprise, nor could any one of us made the journey alone.

It took a community in which the sum was truly greater than its parts. We held each other up and we held each other accountable. If you are attending the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Nashville, we hope you will come visit our manufacturing facility and studio. If you do, I think you will see a communal vision that is still forming.

We are only part way down the road and we pray every day together for the grace to keep walking in community. I heard an African proverb a while back that went something like this. “If we want to travel fast, we should travel alone. If we want to travel far, we should travel together.” The deeper truth I have learned traveling down this road is that if all of us will travel together, not only will we travel far, we will travel with integrity, joy, and purpose. 

The mission at Thistle Farms is to help women make the journey from the streets to home ownership. Each day we accept the challenges secure in the knowledge we can meet them togetherThe path is getting straighter, but all of us still need to do more to stand in solidarity with women who bear the universal issues of violence on their individual backs. Looking back down the road it’s powerful to remember that always there has been a compassionate community offering signs and gifts that have helped make this a straight path towards love.

This post was written by Becca Stevens, Executive Director of Thistle Farms. You can find Becca on Twitter at @revbeccastevens.


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