Interviews with purpose-driven business leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Joe Kenner and I’m president and CEO of Greyston which has been a fixture in southwest Yonkers since 1982. We are a social enterprise founded to serve people in the local community that includes a nonprofit organization – Greyston Foundation – and a for-profit business – Greyston Bakery. Through our bakery, which is New York State’s first Benefit Corporation, we provide delicious single-serve brownies for Whole Foods and other outlets, and also make inclusion brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Our foundation provides workforce development training and houses our Center for Open Hiring, which we launched in 2018 to scale our Open Hiring model throughout the country and the world.
Our mission is to unlock human potential through inclusive hiring and inclusive employment and we do that one job, one person at a time.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I always laugh when people ask me that question because I took a circuitous route in getting to where I am right now. You definitely couldn’t connect my first job to this stuff. I started as an underwriter and then worked in risk management for the investment bank Lehman Brothers. I also spent almost 10 years at PepsiCo in sales strategy, risk management, and capital markets. After about 14 years, I left corporate America and Wall Street altogether and went into government at the county and local levels. My last job before coming to Greyston in 2018 was as the deputy commissioner for social services for Westchester County.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I have a tremendous amount of respect for our founder, Bernie Glassman, who, unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet. In reading his book, Instructions to the Cook, and speaking to those who knew him, I learned that he wanted to elevate humanity through business. How can business be a force for good? And, more specifically, how can we provide a solution to poverty in southwest Yonkers? Bernie saw that solution, beginning with the dignity of work and providing employment opportunities to folks who want to work and are ready to work but, for whatever reason, have barriers to employment, whether it’s justice involvement, homelessness, or mental health issues. For instance, when Greyston was established, AIDS was a challenge for many people in finding work and housing.
At the end of the day, we believe that everyone deserves to succeed, regardless of their personal challenges or history. It’s what Greyston is all about. Through Open Hiring, we invest in people’s potential; it’s not a promise, guarantee, or program we’re providing, it’s an opportunity to pave a path to a better life.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Quantifying our impact is very important for us, both at the bakery as well as the foundation. When we look at 2020, which obviously was a challenging year for so many folks, there was actually a silver lining for us – we created $11 million in positive economic impact in our local community. It’s amazing when you think of the people we hire here and the good that’s generated from their salaries. We’ve been able to employ and help folks avoid going back into the justice system. We’ve helped folks who are able to get off of public assistance. The work we do gets them trained, connects them with jobs, and helps them become self-sufficient. And because of that impact, we want others to do what we do.
About 10 million people in this country have some type of barrier to employment: homelessness, justice involvement, what have you. Those people are on the sidelines despite being at their prime working-age and ready to work. They want jobs, but for whatever reason, they’re deemed “unemployable” because of who they are or where they’ve been. And they aren’t being captured in the unemployment rate; they’ve just dropped off the radar because they’ve just given up, they’ve just lost hope. But Greyston is there to restore that hope.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
I am a leader on a mission to see lives transformed through employment, workforce development, and workplace innovation. Through the foundation and bakery, we’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years now, and the people we have helped in our local community motivate me to scale our mission to assist others throughout Westchester County and beyond. And I couldn’t have written a better job description for myself at a more opportune time. I came to Greyston as the VP of programs and partnerships three years ago and was appointed president and CEO last April at the height of the pandemic. Greyston’s mission is more relevant now more than ever and the time is right to create long-term, large-scale social change.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
The one thing that COVID and the social unrest of this past year have taught us is that there’s a lot of inequities in the system, whether it’s in the employment arena or health care. But more importantly, folks have lost hope because the opportunities just seem so elusive for them. At the time of George Floyd’s murder, there was no need to examine who we are or what we do because Greyston was founded to address inequality and level the playing field for all. Our mission is to elevate humanity, to give people hope, and to provide opportunities that transform lives. So for us, and for me, it’s important to simply double-down on everything that we’re doing and continue to talk about the power of investing in human potential through more inclusive hiring practices. It’s also about providing workforce development training so people can earn nationally recognized credentials in emerging fields, and be placed in jobs that put them on paths to personal and professional success. We’ve just been emphasizing those things, and it’s what we’ll be doing in 2021 and well into the future.
With 10 million folks on the sidelines, a lot of work needs to be done, so we’re also working to enlist more people in this fight. There are business leaders out there who think, “Oh my God, this is too hard. How can I employ these people? What are the risks to it?” They believe inclusive hiring just won’t work in their organizations but this simply isn’t true. Get the facts, come talk to us, and we’ll show you how it’s done. Not everybody has to do it the Greyston way, but there is a way to start. Some companies jump in at the deep end by hiring a hundred or so people at a time; others take incremental steps with a job here and there. Regardless of the approach, inclusive hiring works for businesses of all sizes and across all industries.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
I would turn the question around a little bit and ask, “What are the opportunities?” Looking at the landscape that we’re in right now, and issues that have been brought to the forefront because of social unrest and the pandemic, I see a lot of opportunity. For us, there is no better time to enlist others to be part of building a more inclusive economy. We now need to expand our efforts to bring others along on this journey with us. There are many businesses looking to follow suit, such as Ben & Jerry’s, The Body Shop, Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, Arbonne in California, and Rhino Foods in Vermont. We want to see more management teams take action and be courageous enough to create real positive change in our society. Employment is key in helping people become self-sufficient; it’s transformational for their families and their communities. And Open Hiring isn’t charity, it’s a business strategy, a talent management strategy, that works. It can help grow your business and elevate humanity at the same time.
We’re working to encourage others to embrace the concept and make a dent in that 10 million figure of folks with barriers to employment. That number is so powerful; there’s economic development in there, there’s work development in there, and equity in there. There’s so much richness in that. If we can unlock that potential, just think of where it could take us as a society, by simply bringing people into the workforce, we’re generating so much more in terms of dollars and improved quality of life.
This is why Greyston also works so closely with government leaders. They understand the importance of employment to their constituents and know that when people work, they contribute to the community, build their own wealth, and don’t need public assistance. We all should be collaborating on solutions that empower our neighbors and break the cycle of poverty.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
That it’s doable. People need to know that Open Hiring is, most certainly, doable. It is radically different – particularly if you’re a traditional HR professional – to consider eliminating background checks or interviews and focus on people’s potential. But businesses are doing it and realizing that it’s a business strategy that works. The Body Shop began with a pilot in its distribution center in 2019 and then rolled it out to their retail operations in the U.S. and Canada. Why? Because they saw their turnover rate decrease by almost two-thirds and their productivity increase by around 13%. After learning more about the people hired during these pilots, we found that half were unemployed before they got these jobs. Half had barriers to employment and couldn’t get work. But The Body Shop hired them and showed that inclusive hiring benefits the business, creates positive social impact, and is a means for the company to fulfill its mission of placing people before profit.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
It’s our tagline actually. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but at Greyston, our mantra is: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.” Our focus is on people and how we can contribute to the collective good. We could be making bicycle seats or widgets or whatever, but our goal is to offer employment opportunities to those who simply need that one chance to become successful.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
We invite business leaders, partners, and others to join us either by learning more about Open Hiring and pursuing a pilot program, or supporting the work of our nonprofit foundation, which offers workforce development, skills training, and job placement services to our neighbors in southwest Yonkers. Whether it’s helping our foundation reach its fundraising goal or hiring just a couple of people who have been overlooked by others, you’re creating positive change. Just go to greyston.org and connect with us; we’d love to have a conversation with you.
And, last but certainly not least, we make amazing brownies, in both vegan and regular flavors, available via our bakery’s website, greystonbakery.com, your local Whole Foods Market, and in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. So, next time you’re looking to indulge in a sweet treat, give us a try. Every purchase allows us to continue our mission of unlocking human potential in our own community and show others how it’s done.
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