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Making Cakes to Hire People

Julius Walls, President, Greyston Bakery

Most people go into business to make money. Many, if they're successful, share their profits with the community. They donate time and money to education, health care, social services, neighborhood development, the arts, the environment and other deserving causes.

As an entrepreneur, Julius Walls has a different approach to social responsibility. For him, giving back isn't ancillary to business. It’s the reason why he's in business, and more importantly, why he's the president and CEO of the Greyston Bakery. As CBS's 60 Minutes newsmagazine described Greyston, it’s not about hiring people to make cakes. It’s about making cakes to hire people.

The Greyston Bakery, founded in 1982, provides jobs to residents of neighboring Yonkers who are hard to employ due to lack of education and skills and histories of homelessness, drug addiction, and incarceration.

The bakery struggled for years until it struck a deal with Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Today, Greyston produces 11,000 pounds of brownies a day, just for Ben & Jerry's. A $5 million a year business, Greyston cakes retail for about $35 a piece at gourmet food shops, upscale restaurants, and on the Internet.

Priest to Entrepreneur

Walls entered the picture at Greyston in 1993. The son of a homemaker and corrections officer, he grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York. Wanting to help people, he entered the seminary but left to have a family. From there, at Baruch College, he met Travis Bell, an African-American entrepreneur who owned a chocolate manufacturing company. Bell convinced Walls to join the company where he soon rose to vice president of operations.

In 1992, Walls started his own business. Sweet Roots, Inc. was marketed as the only chocolate bar manufactured using exclusively African cocoa, produced by an African-American, and sold primarily in the African-American community for fundraising by schools and other organizations. While running his business, Walls identified Greyston Bakery as a customer opportunity for his former employer, which had rehired him as a marketing consultant.

"When I came to sell Greyston product," he says, "I became aware of what they did to hire people in the community and thought they would be a great candidate to participate in Hillary Clinton’s first public event at the White House in 1993."

Walls officially joined Greyston as a consultant in March 1995.

"I told the CEO I never wanted to work as an employee again," he said. "You put your time and energy into building someone else’s brand. When you leave, you leave with your reputation and satisfaction of accomplishment, but you leave the equity you built and that troubled me."

Two years later, he explains why he changed his mind.

"I have always wanted to do things a certain way as an entrepreneur," he says. "Money interests me because it allows me to take care of my family and provides access to power. Greyston offered me the opportunity to make money, but at the same time to change people's lives."

Hiring to Empower

Changing lives at Greyston starts with its hiring practices. Every other Wednesday is open hiring day. Applicants gather outside the bakery and are hired on a first come first served basis. Most start out as apprentices on the brownie line, where the work is repetitive and the temperature can hit 90 degrees. About half drop out, but the other half go on to get fulltime jobs with decent pay and benefits.

"What we try to do is empower our employees," says Walls. "When employees come to us, for the most part they believe they have no choice. We're the employer of last resort. We try to give them the skill set and confidence to believe they can choose. The ability to choose is one of the primary characteristics of an entrepreneur.

"One of the things I'm most proud of today is that out of 50 employees, only four of us were hired outside the bakery's entry level process."

A few Greyston employees are becoming entrepreneurs in their own right.

Harriet Carter is creating and selling gift baskets, and Greyston's former director of business development, Daniel Helfman, recently launched a web site that sells products produced by socially responsible companies.

Rodney Johnson, a former drug dealer who started at the bakery earning $5 an hour and is now production manager, is developing a professional cleaning service with a fellow employee. Greyston connected Johnson with a nonprofit savings organization that helped him raise money to buy the cleaning equipment. Walls counsels Johnson about starting and running a business.

The relationship between Walls and Johnson highlights one of the challenges of mentoring and managing the same people.

"Mentoring means you have an implied interest in the success of the person you're mentoring that goes beyond what happens on the job," says Walls. "It was hard for Rodney to understand that I had a lot of interest in his success even though I expected him to report to me through his supervisor."

Walls also shares his experiences as an entrepreneur and manager outside the bakery. From teaching middle school youth about entrepreneurship in an after-school program to addressing business students at Yale University, he is frequently asked to speak about social entrepreneurship, spirituality in business, and business in the inner city. In addition, he serves on several nonprofit boards committed to economic development and youth in Yonkers.

Beyond Jobs and Mentoring

The bakery's success has enabled Greyston to go well beyond mentoring and giving people jobs. All employees are entitled to a $300 educational stipend to learn anything they want. They can also apply for scholarships up to $500 per semester to attend college.

All of the bakery's profits go into the Greyston Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves needy families whether they work for the bakery on not. Over the years, the foundation has evolved into a community development organization involved in housing development, social services, child care, HIV-related care, and job and enterprise creation. Since 2000, Walls has served as the foundation's vice president for business enterprises.

"There's a lot of entrepreneurship – catering, babysitting, braiding hair – happening in our community under the radar," says Walls. In response, Greyston has launched programs to encourage such endeavors, including teaching people how to become licensed caregivers for children in their homes and how to start food service businesses.

In March 2004, the bakery moved into a new building designed by architect Maya Linn, whose past projects include the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It will enable Greyston to employ nearly twice as many people and quadruple its profits.

"Most of the jobs in this country are in small businesses," says Walls. "From that logic alone, our mission is important. But we don't just want small businesses. We want businesses with people who are engaged in the community. We want people who bring their whole selves to work, culturally, spiritually and professionally."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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