Beekeepers showing a honeybee hives to other 2 workers.

Hive mentality

On the economically battered West Side of Chicago, a beekeeping and honey business offers residents a chance to get ahead.

West of downtown Chicago, an unusual urban operation is thriving: beekeeping. For more than 20 years, the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) has worked to provide job opportunities and foster economic self-sufficiency for residents of this West Side neighborhood and the surrounding communities. The organization is focused particularly on those returning from a period of incarceration with no job awaiting them. The engine powering this effort is NLEN’s innovative business, a social enterprise called Sweet Beginnings, which produces and sells a line of all-natural honey and honey-infused skin care products throughout the Chicago area.

At Sweet Beginnings, jobs include the hands-on care of honeybee hives, a task that teaches project management as well as patience. Program participants gain real-world experience in transportation, packaging, distribution, inventory tracking and logistics — all highly valued job skills. That’s especially true for formerly incarcerated men and women, who face barriers to employment. Without assistance, 52% of returning West Side residents eventually go back to prison. In contrast, over the past three years, fewer than 10% of NLEN graduates have done so.

Financial support to NLEN from Bank of America, part of the bank’s $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity, will allow Sweet Beginnings to offer higher wages to participants for their first three years, increasing their likelihood of staying on the job and acquiring meaningful skills. The funding will also let Sweet Beginnings hire a skills trainer, purchase a new delivery vehicle and invest in marketing. Taken together, this support should further improve the effectiveness of this powerful program that not only restores bee habitats but also the prospects of the men and women who care for them.