Entrepreneurs are surprising us with innovative ways to lift up the talents of migrants and refugees. Ted Barber is one of these pioneering entrepreneurs. Barber co-founded Prosperity Candle, a company that recognizes the skills of refugee women. In celebration of our upcoming 75th anniversary, LIRS has bought candles from Prosperity Candle made by Moo Kho Paw, a Burmese refugee resettled by LIRS and Lutheran Social Services of New England. Today, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Ted Barber, conducted by LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins over email.
Win a 75th Anniversary tea-leaf scented candle made by Moo Kho Paw by subscribing to Higher’s blog, here. Higher is LIRS’s program that builds and connects the diverse community of employment professionals, employers, and neighbors who support refugee and immigrant self-sufficiency.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What led you to become involved with migrants and refugees?
Ted Barber (TB): Our mission at the start was to work in the most difficult places, where few businesses were able or willing to go. Places where war and natural disaster had devastated communities and left few opportunities to rebuild lives and escape poverty. We decided to focus on women because we believe that the best way to end poverty and promote peace is to invest in women as entrepreneurs. This led us to launch our pilot project in Iraq in 2009, a time when bombs and violence were a daily occurrence in Baghdad. We proved there that our model could work wonders. Within a few months, a woman could move from poverty to earning above a living wage, all from the safety of her home, as long as she had access to both local and global markets. But as we transitioned from the pilot project to a registered social enterprise and began raising capital from impact investors, we were asked how we could have a local impact as well. People loved what we were doing for widows in Iraq, but wanted to see how we could have a positive impact here in the Pioneer Valley as well. This led us to explore ideas, and we soon discovered that Springfield, MA has a large population of refugees from all over the world, including regions of conflict. And that opened up new possibilities because it aligned with our mission (working with women from as well as in regions of conflict). It not only broadened and localized our impact, but also greatly expanded our capabilities as a company by creating quick turn-around production. So it was a great update to both our mission and business model.
CP: What motivated you to begin hiring them?
TB: Investor requests for local as well as global impact were the impetus, and close mission alignment was essential. But ultimately what motivated us was meeting the Burmese and Bhutanese women through Lutheran Social Services of New England (LSSNE). We found incredible support and great enthusiasm among the women, especially the group from Burma. At the time, none had licenses to drive, so our team all took turns ferrying the women from West Springfield to our location, about 30 minutes each way. My wife and I did most of the driving, which amounted to over two hours a day. And while time-consuming, it was wonderful. We learned quite a lot about the women, their time in refugee camps, the homes they had been forced to leave, and the family members they had lost. And for many, the first paycheck from Prosperity Candle was the first wages they had ever received in their lives. That was particularly powerful for us, to know that our little social business start-up could provide such an opportunity for refugees. From there it was an easy decision to continue to hire and employ women refugees. They have enriched our lives, contributed to Prosperity Candle’s story and growth, and become part of my family.
CP: What roles do they play at Prosperity Candle?
TB: Moo Kho Paw, who started with us in 2010, is now manager of production and order fulfillment. She is part of our management team, and both oversees and trains the other women in all aspects of production and fulfillment. The other refugee women produce candles, perform quality control, inspect and finish candles arriving from Haiti and Iraq, and assist with order fulfillment.
CP: How have refugee workers contributed to your success?
TB: We would not have nearly the growth or capability that we now have without the contributions of the women refugees, and in fact production does not happen when Moo Kho is not able to work for a day. Over the past three years, they have contributed to 100% of our growth in sales because they expanded our capability to produce and delivery highly customized orders in two weeks – our lead times in Haiti and Iraq are six months. So their contribution to our growth is quite significant. We’ve also found that our commitment to hiring refugees and providing living wages (not minimum wage) resonates deeply with organizations, such as United Methodist Committee for Relief, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and Week of Compassion, as well as individual consumers. To date we have hired and trained seven women refugees from Burma and Bhutan.
CP: Have you adjusted the processes and systems to better fit the refugee workforce?
TB: Yes. First and foremost, we created flexible work hours. We quickly found that refugee families have many appointments to keep, the timing of which is often not of their choosing. Whether medical services that require a translator and are thus scheduled accordingly, English as a Second Language classes, special services for childcare and schooling, or even purchasing a car… everything we find routine is rarely so for them. So when sitting down and looking at both Prosperity Candle’s and their needs, we decided that flexibility is a high priority. Too often refugees feel trapped by job opportunities at large employers who are not flexible with hours or days, and will drop them from their employment ranks if they cannot show up every day. Providing transportation was also a very big adjustment. It meant higher costs, a much earlier start to my day, and less time in the office. It was difficult during the two years we provided this benefit, but I am very glad we did. System-wise, the main adjustment was scheduling. We do not require that the workers speak English, but must always have an English speaker present. That sometimes restricts who we can hire, but for safety and productivity, it’s important that there be at least one person who can translate.
CP: Have you encouraged others in your community to hire migrants and refugees? How have they responded?
TB: We have not actively encouraged others, but are always sharing this part of Prosperity Candle’s work and mission. We’re proud of the impact we’ve had in the refugee community. Though it’s perhaps small overall in terms of number of women, it’s significant for each family we touch. I think when others hear me talk about the experience, what it means to us as much as to the women, they understand how great an experience it is as well as central to the success of our business.