Walking into the production facility in a small warehouse on the north side of Chicago, cold words like “factory” and “mill” are the last things that come to mind. What would you call this place? I wonder. A studio? A workshop?
As the perfect flood of pear, citrus and lavender hits my senses, so does the appropriateness of the name. Yes, this is truly an enterprising kitchen.
The Enterprising Kitchen, or TEK as its participants call it, is a workforce development social enterprise serving Chicago women with barriers to employment. They specialize in the arts of both turning around the lives of women and soapmaking. Participants are referred to the six-month program by caseworkers from social service agencies all over Chicago.
“We get referrals from a lot of different agencies,” TEK Executive Director Carolyn Nopar told me in a recent interview in her small office. “We don’t aspire to be the first social service agency, but we do want to be the last.”
Women accepted to the program learn all aspects of the small business, from production to shipping to sales to running the front office. They also have access to problem solving tools such as GED classes and financial counseling. Going beyond the ubiquitous resume writing session, TEK helps women set themselves up for self-sufficiency in the modern work world, with elevator speeches and LinkedIn profiles. Working at TEK is something of a last step on a long, hard road; a step you don’t realize you took on your own until you look back at it from another place.
The innovative nature of The Enterprising Kitchen is what convinced us at BuzzFlash that they’d be a perfect fit in our Progressive Marketplace. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they make great stuff. The high-quality, all-natural soap and spa products emerging from this process of renewal reflect TEK goals down to the very brand name.
“I would say three-quarters of the women we work with have some kind of prison record. That’s a hard thing to overcome,” Nopar said. “They’ve made some bad choices, which is why our line of product is called ‘Choices.’ Because now they’re making the right choice.”
Though she’s been working for nonprofits of late, Nopar comes from the business world. Her explanation of why the program serves exclusively women participants reflects more cost-benefit analysis than touchy-feely sentiment.
“Seventy-five percent of the working poor are women. If you impact women, because women are the primary caregivers, you impact not only them but their children. So it’s actually a very strategic way to impact a wider swath, if you will. Your return on investment is greater,” she said. “The beauty of this is from an entreprenurial standpoint… I think many people are sort of tired of the constant hand out to charities and really not seeing any kind of results or impact.”
The “enterprise” piece of TEK’s mission means that anyone can invest in these women’s futures. Each product emerging from The Enterprising Kitchen bears the signature of the woman who made it on a label that says “Packaged with pride by ____” so that customers know that they’re helping a real human being.
Nopar said that consumers love seeing the signatures on the label, but it means something for the signer, too.
“It is a sign of pride. It is a sign of accomplishment for women who have had a very, very challenging history and maybe don’t have a lot of very tangible accomplishments they can point to. So yeah; it is important. Everybody should sign their work!” she added with a smile.
When I asked one employee who was signing rows and rows of the new line of avocado cold process soap whether signing her name all the time ever gets old, she looked surprised and told me no, she doesn’t ever get tired of it.
Even with the hard work of participants, TEK is dependent on donations for about 70 percent of their operating expenses. Nopar wants to increase the 30 percent that comes from the sales of soap and beauty products. They’re always forging new partnerships to take on custom projects, whether the order is for luxury clothier Eileen Fisher or for party favors at a wedding or baby shower. The Enterprising Kitchen is always looking for new product ideas, as well. That’s where Arzu Eren comes in.
A modest but spunky woman with long, dark brown waves of hair piled on top of her head, Eren is a trained chemist from Istanbul, Turkey. She confronted two difficult problems when she moved to the U.S. She faced what seemed at the time to be an insurmountable language barrier and she was a victim of domestic violence. Referred by an immigration agency, Eren entered the six-month program at TEK, and afterward they asked her to stay on.
Today Eren dreams up new products in the kitchen, like the organic detergent TEK is formulating using soap remnants, and tries to come up with new scents that will appeal to across both sexes and to children. Nopar calls her the “resident genius,” but her official title is chief soapmaker.
The one rule? Always all-natural. Eren is happier working with the restriction against preservatives. When I asked her how it makes her feel, she had one word: “safe.”
“I know what I put in there,” she said of TEK products. Eren can’t say that of commercial soap, so she votes with her dollar, saying, “I don’t buy any stuff from out there.”
Thankfully, TEK customers can benefit from Eren’s knowledge and safety. As Nopar puts it, “What you see on the label is what is in there.” Eren’s been at TEK for seven years, but aside from cooking up new ideas, she still sees part of her job as mentoring participants in the workforce program. She told me that the best part about working at TEK is “the environment and the girls.”
“I’ve been [at] their stage. I really like to help,” she said. The educational process goes both ways for Eren, however. “I’m learning their language — mostly slang!” she joked.
Evidence of the built-in support system at TEK is literally written on the walls. Along with the photos of previous participants floating overhead in the workspace, the whitewashed brick of the break room walls is covered with rousing encouragement and inspiring quotes from women in the program.
A former employee named Angel challenged frustrated participants to “Please don’t leave until the miracle happens!” Doreen’s cry to “Have no fear. Just do it!!!!” somehow doesn’t feel at all like corporate sloganeering, but rather real heart-to-heart advice to her colleagues. Others scrawl guidance such as “adapt and overcome” and “keep an open mind and be a good listener” on the walls. Though there wasn’t a single person in the room with me, it doesn’t seem quite right to say there wasn’t a soul there.
I’m sure Angel and Doreen had some tough moments transitioning back to the working world, but it seems like they understood what The Enterprising Kitchen needed from them.
“You have to put in your mind you want to be here first, and what you want. Then this place is going to get you where you want to go,” Eren said. Though that last step can be a doozy, Eren added that “TEK is the best step, really.”
GREEN IS GOOD