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Shana Goodwin is 39 years old and works in sales for Thistle Farms. She fills orders and talks to stores and keeps records — which sounds pretty standard, until she says something like this:
“Now I can do Excel and quarterlies and I had a seventh grade education.”
The education ended at age 12, when her mother’s drug dealer began sex trafficking her and giving her drugs. At 18, she went to the streets. She had 167 arrests and the words “trust no one” tattooed across her chest.
It was the last arrest in 2010 that finally took her off the streets. While she was in jail, a bed opened up at Magdalene.
Madgalene is a nonprofit that provides free longterm housing, recovery services and counseling for former prostitutes in Nashville. The end goal is recovery — and financial independence. But with resumes like Goodwin’s, that’s not easy to attain.
“I cannot imagine you sticking me in a program and giving me 28 days and saying, ‘You’re healed! Shazam! Go out into the world and find a job,’ ” she says. “I have 167 arrests, I have never held down a job, and that would have never worked.”
So in 2001, Magdalene’s founder, pastor Becca Stevens, found a way to get them jobs: She started a business. Thistle Farms makes products like scented candles, lotions and lip balms.
Today, eight out of the 10 department managers are graduates of the Magdalene program. “They run the training, they run the banking, they run the sales, they run the manufacturing,” Stevens says.
The Thistle Farms warehouse is in a concrete basement in West Nashville. They’re now sending orders internationally. And this past year, their sales grew by about 40 percent and topped one million dollars for the first time.
Stevens says that revenue now covers all of their raw materials and salaries, plus they’re about to hire 15 more women.
Upstairs, Sheri Brown, another Magdalene graduate, is whisking lemon-sage room spray in a huge silver pot and pouring it into plastic bottles. Once that’s done, she says, “it gets capped, and then it gets labeled, and then it gets downstairs to be ready to be sold.”
Of course, the company wasn’t always this successful. Like any small business, it struggled financially — about half of new businesses don’t survive the first five years.
“In the early days, we had no credit,” says general manager Holli Anglin. “I remember even trying to get a credit card, trying to get credit card machines.”
Anglin says she didn’t even have a desk when she started, and Thistle Farms shared a fellowship hall with a church. “They would make chili out of the same pots and pans we were trying to make bath and body products out of,” she says.
And people would tell them, if they wanted to make it as a business, they would need to cut their labor.
“Well, we can’t do that. That’s our driving force,” Anglin says. “In hindsight, I think we were having an identity crisis, meaning we knew who we were but the world didn’t know who we were.”
Relapse And Recovery
And then there’s something the company still struggles with.
Katrina Robertson, the national sales director, had gone through the Magdalene program, worked at Thistle Farms and then — she relapsed. For a short time, she actually went back to the streets.
“It’s hard being stretched,” Robertson says, “working on your own recovery and your own maintenance on yourselves, and then coming to work and putting on your game face, and becoming productive members of society.”
The challenges of employing workers like these, who have criminal histories and addiction, make the one million dollars in sales even more impressive, says Kevin Lynch. He’s the CEO of the Social Enterprise Alliance, which represents business with a social justice mission.
“There’s a whole set of costs that come from delivering the social mission,” he says, like providing counseling or childcare services for employees. “Those costs have to be borne somewhere, and they become an added cost burden on the business if not funded elsewhere.”
Five years ago, his organization surveyed hundreds of social enterprises and found that only one in three had grown to the point where they were bringing in a million dollars a year.
Over in sales, Shana Goodwin says her own growth since coming to Magdalene four years almost doesn’t seem real. She has her own home and car and income. And she has a milestone of her own coming up: She’s turning 40 in a few days.
“I can’t believe the 30s are gone,” she says. “I just started living at 40.”
That, too, is something worth celebrating.