A Cup Of Soup For A Better Future: CEO Offers Lessons on Leading For Change
Thirty years ago this year The Women’s Bean Project started with $500 and a cup of bean soup.
The idea that founder Jossy Eyre had in 1989 was to transform the lives of homeless women in Colorado Springs to help them become employed workers living independently with their families.
So Eyre bought $500 in supplies to make bean soup mix, and quickly sold $6,000 in mixes on the initial investment. More than 1,000 women have been through the job training and life skills program since then and 95 percent have each remained employed more than a year after graduating.
Tamra Ryan was so impressed by what she saw in this nonprofit venture in her native Colorado Springs in 2003 that she began volunteering on the side, in addition to her full time job. She is now CEO, admitting that her path to leadership “was not a straight path.”
A fifth generation Coloradan, Ryan graduated from University of Colorado-Bolder in 1986 with a degree in kinesiology. She received a masters in philosophy from Adelphi University in New York the following year and moved to Chicago for her first job in a medical venture company connected to a local hospital. She stayed there 10 years until 1997.
“I realized I was interested in product development and business development,” Ryan says.
After a year at a for-profit education company back in Denver, she went to work for LinkShare, an early Internet company tracking customer service, from 1999-2003. It was then that she began volunteering at Women’s Bean Project.
After six months, the position of CEO opened up. Ryan says, “I tried to talk my friend into the job and she said, ‘If it’s so great, why don’t you do it?’”
So Ryan did. “I loved the opportunity to grow this business,” says Ryan, author of The Third Law, a book on societal obstacles marginalized women need to overcome.
Ryan’s leadership as CEO of a nonprofit echoes a slow shift in closing of the gendered leadership and pay gap in nonprofits nationwide.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, “Nonprofits with annual budgets of $25 million to $50 million are making the greatest progress toward closing the gender pay gap for CEOs, according to the latest "GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation Report."
“The median salary increased for female CEOs at those charities by 3.1 percent from 2016 to 2017, compared with 0.1% for men. That group also saw the proportion of female CEOs grow from 20 percent to 30 percent from 2005 to 2017,” Philanthropy reports.
“However, other data in the report indicates that progress in addressing gender disparities in pay has slowed or even reversed at most other organizations. For example, women CEOs at nonprofits with budgets of $10 million to $20 million saw their pay increase 1 percent from 2016 to 2017, compared with 2 percent for men,” Philanthropy reports.
For Ryan, growing The Women’s Bean Project has been her vision for 16 years. Now housed in a former fire house that the project owns, Ryan says the business that helps to create work for women has outgrown its space, but never its mission.
“I do this work because when you change a woman’s life you change a family’s life,” says Ryan, board chair of the Social Enterprise Alliance and winner of the Judith M. Kaufmann Award for Civic Entrepreneurship from the Denver Foundation. Women who come through the program are at an average age of 39 and have an average of three children each, she says.
“I come to work every day thinking about providing services so effective and far-reaching that no one in their family will ever need us,” Ryan says.
The 60 to 70 women in the program each year work 36 hours a week in the food manufacturing business that makes 50 different kinds of food products. The hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., every day except Wednesday, so that those days they can schedule appointments.
Seventy percent of the time is spent working in the food manufacturing business and 30 percent of the time for the participants is spent on financial literacy, organizing skills , resume writing and other trainings and activities, Ryan says. Each participant is in the program for six to nine months.
“It is intentionally flexible because some are ready sooner than others,” Ryan says.
In her 16 years at the helm of Women’s Bean Project, Ryan says she has learned many lessons about leadership, but also about the perceptions of others.
“There is a certain amount of arrogance people bring” when encountering a non-profit organization for the first time, she says. “But if you see how they run the organization, you will see how you might make an impact. Once you spend time with an organization, you see the reality vs. what you imagine.”
Research shows a gendered bias in the leadership of nonprofits.
“A 2014 poll of 650 American women who work at nonprofits — conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and New York University’s George H. Heyman, Jr. Program for Philanthropy and Fundraising — found that 44 percent believed their organization favored men over equally qualified women for leadership positions. In addition, women who worked at a nonprofit with $25 million or more in assets believed the organization put more effort into making connections with influential and wealthy men in the community than it did their female counterparts,” according to MissonBox.
“The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that female CEOs at nonprofits with budgets between $2.5 and $5 million are paid 23 percent less than males in the same position. More than 57 percent of female nonprofit leaders would like to become a CEO someday. Those women who didn’t want the top job typically cited long hours and stress as the reason,” according to MissionBox.
“A recent study by GuideStar, whose report was based on computerized analysis of Form 990 returns for nearly 75,000 nonprofits, found fewer than 20 percent of the top executives of organizations with budgets of $25 million or more are female.”
At the helm of Women’s Bean Project, Ryan says she has learned what it means to be a leader. “Before I arrived, I thought of it more like a cheerleader role. But a big part of my journey recognizes my job is to bring humility to the role and help others on my team be as successful as they can be.”
She adds, “The greatest service I can give as a leader is to help others do their jobs better.”
Separating ego from the role of CEO was also necessary, she says. While she heard often that people in her community equated her as a person with the Women’s Bean Project, she knew she was the public face of the organization. “But I am clear it is not about me. If you cross that line and don’t have your ego in check, that is a dangerous place to be.”
Another misconception in the nonprofit world, Ryan says, is dismissing women who have the title of executive director in leadership, and not the title of CEO.
With the title executive director, people would ask her, “Is that full time? Do you volunteer?”
But with the title CEO, Ryan says, no one asks her those questions.
“We have a lot of strong female executives who run non-profits, but it was that perception gap from the profit sector,” that was diminishing the role, she says.
“As women we need to own that power. The perception of power belongs to us. I can’t expect someone to talk to me as the CEO if I don’t make them understand that using that title and knowing how I speak about the organization “ is part of the perception, Ryan says.
“It’s a poignant lesson.”