Green Collar Hero: Brenda Palms-Barber

CEO, North Lawndale Employment Network (NLN), Sweet Beginnings and Beeline Cosmetics in Chicago

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April is usually a busy time for Brenda Palms-Barber. Bee season has started and that means tending to the beehives owned by her 2-year-old organization, Sweet Beginnings, LLC. What’s unique about Palms-Barber’s bees is that they are urban-raised, creating their honeycombs in the heart of Chicago. Once their honey is ripe, Palms-Barber and her employees convert it into a variety of skin care products sold under the brand name Beeline cosmetics.

But the true value of the honey is the opportunity it allows for ex-convicts to have a second chance.

Palms-Barber wasn’t always a “bee lady.” In 1999, she relocated from Denver to the North Lawndale area of Chicago to address the pressing employment needs in the area. More than 50 percent of the adult population in the predominantly black neighborhood, she discovered, had been in the criminal justice system, and few employers wanted to hire people with criminal records. “I needed to come up with a way to be their first employer,” she says.

Palms-Barber considered started a landscaping service, delivery service for the elderly or a temp agency. But with those businesses, she feared, clients might be wary of her employees. A creative co-worker suggested beekeeping. “I started to get excited about the idea, but no one else was,” she says. Among the naysayers, one friend saw the potential in the idea, calling it “a sweet beginning” for ex-cons reentering the workforce. “After that,” Palms-Barber says, “I didn’t care what people said because it was going to work.”

Since 2007, Sweet Beginnings has hired and trained 123 men and women—92 percent of whom have criminal record—in management, sales, marketing and the art of beekeeping.

For Palms-Barber, making honey-based skin care products is an added bonus. What really matters, she says, is giving people a second chance while boosting the green workforce. “We’re able to take the street skills and help them transform those skills into mainstream competitive skills.”