Prosperity Candle is the second of four social enterprises making cool products and employing refugees that Higher will feature with a success story and product promotion for our readers in the coming months. Be among the next 50 subscribers to our blog and be entered into a drawing to win a candle made by a Burmese refugee – and scented in the fragrance they say is their favorite!
Prosperity Candle creates opportunities for women and their families to thrive – overseas and in the US. In 2004, the founders began making plans to invest in women in regions of conflict to provide them with a safe, locally sustainable way to escape poverty. After several years, they hit on the idea of candle making. They launched the first pilot program in Iraq and candles began arriving in 2010.
Fast forward to today when Prosperity Candles pays a living wage to refugee women from Burma and Bhutan, as well as women in Iraq and Haiti. Learn more about this social enterprise in excerpts from an email interview with founder Ted Barber, conducted by LIRS staffer Clarissa Perkins.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What led you to become involved with refugees?
Ted Barber (TB): People loved what we were doing for widows in Iraq, but wanted to see how we could have a positive impact here, 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.
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.
CP: What motivated you to begin hiring them?
TB: Ultimately what motivated us was meeting Burmese and Bhutanese women through Lutheran Social Services of New England (LSSNE).
At the time, none of the women had licenses to drive, so our team all took turns ferrying them to our location, about 30 minutes each way. 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.
For many, their 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 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. She oversees and trains the other women in all aspects of production and order 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 3 years, they have contributed to 100% of our growth in sales because they expanded our capability to produce and deliver highly customized orders in 2 weeks – our lead times in Haiti and Iraq are 6 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 who place custom orders, as well as individual consumers.
To date we have hired and trained 7 women refugees from Burma and Bhutan.
CP: Have you adjusted 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. 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/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 2 years we provided this benefit, but I am very glad we did.
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.