Dion Drew Greystone Bakery

Greyston Bakery’s 40-year mix of purpose and profit

Breaking down barriers to employment: Changing lives and inspiring change

Long before the nation’s CEOs pledged to make their companies more inclusive, a small brownie bakery trying to spread hope through jobs set the stage with a hiring policy that today is being adopted by companies looking for an impactful model of inclusive employment of untapped talent.

Greyston Bakery opened its doors in 1982 in a New York community with high unemployment. With that move, founder Bernie Glassman – an aeronautical engineer turned  Zen Buddhist teacher – started a social enterprise that offered work to local jobseekers who were struggling to find jobs.

Whether they were homeless or had a prison record, it didn’t matter. Their willingness to work got them hired. The company’s model is: “It’s more than a brownie. It’s more than a job. Because our brownies are packed with purpose.”

“It all grew out of the relationship of purpose-driven leaders who wanted to show how business could be a force for good,” explains Joseph Kenner, president and CEO of the nonprofit Greyston Foundation, which owns and operates the for-profit bakery.

40 Years of Putting a Community to Work

As the certified B corporation celebrates its 40th anniversary, Greyston Bakery continues what it started at its onset. It continues to hire under what it now calls the Open Hiring® policy which doesn’t require interviews, resumes, or background checks.

“It’s a very big mind shift that needs to happen more broadly – going from a traditional way of looking at hiring to this disruptive form of hiring,” adds Kenner. 

Joseph Kenner, Greyston Foundation president & CEO (Photo: Greyston)

People wanting to work put their names on a list and get called when there is an opening. Kenner says of the roughly 120 employees at the bakery today, 80 are open hires. And Kenner is on a mission to convince other employers to follow the model. He counts over 30 partners working with Greyston to either replicate its open hiring model or adopt some form of inclusive hiring.

In the process, Greyston is raising awareness about barriers to entering the workforce affecting an estimated 10 million people in the U.S., including criminal records, substance abuse, and homelessness. Kenner makes the case that with millions of jobs unfilled in the United States, it’s time for companies to rethink their hiring practices.

Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream was the first to follow Greyston’s lead and adopt the hiring policy. Five years after Glassman opened the bakery in 1982, the social enterprise partnered with Ben and Jerry’s, supplying the brownies for its Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. The ice cream company started using the open hiring process and the two companies have been in business every since.

(Photo: Greyson)
Lessons Learned From Open Hiring 

Through Greyston’s experience of hiring entry-level workers with no questions asked, Kenner says lessons have been learned, including the importance of providing support for situations outside the workforce.

Greyston works with a nonprofit and has a social worker at the bakery to locate community resources for employees including child care, housing subsidies, help for substance abuse, and help for domestic violence. “Their sole task is to connect our employees to some of what I would call non-traditional employee benefits and services,” says Kenner.  

Providing opportunities beyond a job is another lesson. Entry-level workers complete an apprenticeship at the bakery before becoming line workers. Kenner stresses the need to provide training and advancement so that employees can move into leadership positions.

The Greyston Foundation also provides workforce development training for workers to learn other job skills if they don’t want to be in the baking business. Kenner cites training in construction trade safety, culinary arts, IT, customer service, and Microsoft Suite products and it works with a job developer to help people find jobs. 

“I want our folks to move up or move out,” he explains. “We want those two career paths to be available to our folks because at the end of the day, it’s about getting them off the sidelines.”

A Phone Call That Changed a Life 

Forty-five year old Dion Drew feels strongly about his decision to come to Greyston 13 years ago. He started working at the bakery in 2009 after being released from prison on drug charges.

“I made up my mind when I was incarcerated that I wanted to come home and make a change. So, I set some goals for myself,“ explains Drew. One of those goals was getting a job.

He says he put his name on Greyston’s list, indicating he wanted to work while continuing to look for other jobs. “Nobody would hire me. I was ready to go back to my old ways,” explains Drew. He recalls feeling badly, relying on his mother and brother for money and a home, and remembers how close he came to selling drugs again when he got a call from Greyston.

Dion Drew, Greyston Bakery supervisor

“I was riding around with a friend. We were doing a little drinking, and my thoughts were getting crazy and I got that phone call and it just changed my life. That was February 2, 2009,” recalls Drew. 

Never having had a job, Drew recalls that the only skill he had was selling drugs. He says he quickly learned skills at the bakery, was given more opportunities, and started a new life. Today he serves as a senior supervisor at the bakery.

He now has his own family and says he’s been able to put money into a savings account for his daughter. He gets emotional describing how he accomplished his second goal of making his mother proud. “It felt good to see a smile on her face,” he says.

Drew has shared his story with various audiences, including Ted Talks. The attention on him, he says, brought offers of other jobs and more money, but he says the Greyston Bakery is his home. 

And he has a message for employers who might be skeptical of hiring someone, like him, who has a criminal record. “I’d be kind of skeptical about hiring a person who has that type of background too. But I just tell them, people make mistakes in life, you’ve got to give people a second chance. Things aren’t going to get better if you don’t give people a second chance.”  

A Model That Inspires Others

Greyston says more than 3,500 job opportunities created at the company, 19,000 families have been supported, and $65 million in salaries have been paid in the community in those 40 years.

It’s that kind of impact that made executives at The Body Shop take notice when Greyston explained its model of hiring to the retailer. “I remember sitting in my seat and – like a lot of people probably – underestimating just how radical this conversation was going to be around hiring,” recalls Nykeba King, the company’s global head of inclusion and belonging.

She says The Body Shop had been looking for creative ways to be more inclusive and Greyston provided the solution. In 2019, the retailer conducted a pilot project and used open hiring to hire 200 seasonal workers at a distribution center in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Its success led the retailer to expand the model throughout its business in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K.

“It’s the hiring practice for all entry-level team members, both retail and distribution center employees. In essence, we replaced our traditional interview process,” explains King.

Employees are asked three questions: whether they can legally work in the country they’re in, whether they can lift up to 25 pounds if they are working in retail and up to 50 pounds if they’re working in distribution centers,  and whether they can work an eight-hour shift. Gone are drug screenings or background checks. 

King says 3,000 people have been hired globally through open hiring since the pilot project in 2019, with 30% becoming permanent employees. In the U.S., The Body Shop reports 1,300 total hires in 2021 via the open hiring policy, with a 33% conversion rate to full-time employees. Among those U.S. workers  becoming full-time employees, the company indicates that a vast majority received promotions. 

King says the retailer is also providing different workforce training programs to help employees succeed.  She cites resilience, creativity, loyalty, and productivity as some of the skills emerging among employees being employed through the process.

She also notes that the initiative is increasing diversity at The Body Shop. “We believe that access to employment is one of the greatest equalizers. So if someone can have access to employment, then they can have stability. This is a similar belief that Greyston holds. So, we do it for that reason,” stresses King. 

Last week, as Greyston and its supporters gathered in Mamaroneck, New York at the Hampshire Country Club, to celebrate 40 years of business and of service to the community, the night ended with a special surprise from Jesper Brodin, CEO of IKEA. The company announced it would begin using the Open Hiring® model to create “a more welcoming work environment at IKEA where all can reach their full potential.”