How Compassion at Work Ripples Out Into Communities

Compassionate practices, like open hiring, are the secret ingredient to Greyston Bakery’s $21 million success.

Greyston Bakery makes more than great-tasting brownies. Greyston, New York’s first registered Benefit Corporation, is making an impact on the community, society, and the environment. At the very heart of Greyston’s operations are the tenets of nonjudgment, embracing uncertainty, and loving action. It’s a philosophy that extends beyond the bakery floor into the offices of the executive leadership team and the board of directors meeting room. 

“It’s imperative that business leaders think about their communities. This is our time,” says Greyston’s President and CEO Mike Brady. “How are we ever going to close this income inequality gap if we’re not progressive?”

The commercial brownie bakery pioneered Open Hiring, a system that guarantees a job to anyone willing and able to work. By answering two questions about their legal status and physical ability, an applicant’s name is added to a first-come-first-serve hiring list. When a position opens, the next person on the list joins a 6- to 10-month paid apprenticeship where they learn the skills to work in a commercial kitchen. If they complete the program successfully, they’ll earn a permanent position.  

Greyston has created more than 3,500 job opportunities and employed as many people over its 38-year history, including former prisoners who struggle to find work once they finish their sentences. Almost half of ex-prisoners have no reported earnings in the first years after incarceration, and of those who do find work, half earn less than minimum wage, according to a 2018 report by the Brookings Institute. 

Out of the bakery’s 100 current employees, 70 came through open hiring, says Brady. “We trust that everyone can be successful on a job, and we invest in that trust,” he says. “Everyone gets a chance.” 

The model has certainly proved successful for the business. Sales have doubled over the past five years, from $10 million to $21 million. 

It also provides a compelling story to other companies getting “woke” to their role in society.

Compassionate Roots

In the early 1980s, Zen Buddhist teachers Bernie Glassman and Sandra Jishu Holmes started a bakery named after their teaching center and home, Greyston Mansion, as a way to employ their students. Inspired by the concept of right livelihood, or an ethical path to success that does not cause harm, Glassman also envisioned it as an opportunity to support the surrounding community, especially those struggling with homelessness or other barriers to employment.

“We trust that everyone can be successful on a job, and we invest in that trust,” says Brady. “Everyone gets a chance.”

The mayor of Yonkers caught wind of the idea, and asked Glassman if he’d consider launching his community development experiment there. Homelessness was at the time widespread in the city, among other social issues. Glassman sold the mansion and closed the bakery, and moved operations a few miles up the Hudson River into an abandoned lasagna factory. A few years later and funded by the bakery’s success, he and Holmes launched a nonprofit community development organization to address needs beyond employment that keep people from thriving, including housing, childcare, social services, and more. Today this work is supported by the Greyston Foundation, which distributes bakery profits back into the community. 

By the time Brady joined the team, first as a volunteer, then getting involved with the board, and then taking over operations for the bakery before moving into his current position, Greyston had long enjoyed the support of conscious capitalism vanguard Ben & Jerry’s, providing the key ingredient for its popular Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. But while attending a Social Venture Circle conference, Brady realized how far Greyston’s story had traveled. “I was blown away by the reception of others when I told them where I worked,” he recalls. “I didn’t appreciate how highly regarded it was.” 

He also realized that “there were a lot of business assets that were being under-realized.” 

Today Greyston is the official brownie vendor to Delta Airlines, and has developed a line of products, including vegan brownies and blondies, for Whole Foods, among other clients. Some 35,000 pounds of brownies are baked each day at the Yonkers facility—that’s 6.5 million brownies annually. 

Brady also often heard from business leaders intrigued by Greyston’s hiring model but unsure how it might work in their companies. “I saw that there was a lot more opportunity to make impact,” he says.

In June 2018 the Greyston Foundation launched the Center for Open Hiring to develop best practices and advise other businesses on how to extend their definition of who is employable.  The goal, says Brady, is to “make Open Hiring a common practice throughout the world.” The center has already partnered with a similar foundation in the Netherlands, which is facing its own issues around refugee and senior employment discrimination. 

Brady says that companies there are hungry for solutions to remedy social inequality, but American businesses tend to be more cautious. And while more and more have embraced corporate philanthropy and social benefit initiatives, Brady believes these efforts only go so far. “That volunteer day is great,” he says, “but it doesn’t change people’s lives.” 

Instead, he wants to flip the narrative about who is employable on its head, and create pathways for more people to enter and thrive in the workforce. “I want to inspire every business in the country to hire 10 people who need a break.  To say ‘Let’s take a chance to hire someone who doesn’t fit,’” he says.  “Now I’m solving some real problems around income inequality and poverty and criminal justice.”  

Mindfulness in Action

“Mindfulness is, for lack of a better term, fully baked into the business,” Brady says.

Brady explains the organization’s foundational belief in the concept of PathMaking, or that everyone is on their own individual life journey. If an employee is struggling in any area outside of work, such as with housing or childcare, the company is invested in trying to support them. Greyston works closely with social-service providers in the community, to make sure that employees get the help they need—something that hearkens back to Bernie Glassman’s original vision. 

Brady acknowledges that this level of involvement in an employee’s life might seem like more than what many companies are willing to do, but he’s pragmatic. “We need our business to be successful,” he says. “I want this team member to overcome this issue so they can be successful in life, but also so they can come to work. If someone is concerned about childcare, are they going to be mindful on the line? The answer is no.”

On the other side of this human-to-human support, Brady says, “What I get is a team member, for as long as they’re at Greyston, they’re committed. They’re working hard.” He notes that retention levels at the bakery are higher than the industry average.

Not everyone who comes through the program ends up working for or staying at the bakery. “We take people in without judgment; we also let people go without judgment,” Brady says. The company will even connect employees to other types of job training if they’re ready to move on. “We often say the success isn’t when we give someone a job in Greyston. The success is when they leave Greyston for another job,” he adds.

Retaining or losing employees, especially ones that you’ve invested so much time in, is a concern Brady hears often from business leaders. “There’s a lot of discussion about ‘churn’ at organizations,” he says. “But, if you think that you’ve given someone job skills, what a great thing to celebrate.”

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