“You’ve just gotta meet these people!” Amy Sarch’s eyes were gleaming as she dragged me to a display being set up here in the lobby of our Byrd School of Business.
There I met Regina Mullins, outreach manager to Thistle Farms, a two-year residential program for women survivors of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and homelessness. It was founded in 1997 by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal chaplain to Vanderbilt University.
Little did I know that Regina’s story would stop me in my tracks and change my plans for that day’s radio program “The Valley Business Today” on The River 95.3/WZRV. I had to make sure others heard this inspirational, powerful story—a story about redemption and entrepreneurship and about how to make your way in a world that wants to drag you down.
When Regina Mullins got out of prison, she faced the dreaded spiral: “No one would hire me. It seemed as though my only choices were to go back to the street and then probably back to prison. Others wanted to hold me hostage to my past.”
Thistle Farms offered Regina another alternative. When she got out of prison, she went through the program’s alcohol and drug treatment, with housing provided for up to two years. She had an opportunity to deal with health issues, including nutrition and dental work. “I got a chance to go back to school, get my children back, and figure out why I was in the streets for so long. I knew I wanted to stay on this side of recovery.”
But here’s the distinctive, unique thing about Thistle Farms: they offer an underlying business model, and that really got my entrepreneurial brain cells firing. The women in the program make a line of personal care products: lotions, body balms, bath salts, candles, and much more. Regina’s tee shirt read “Love Heals Every Body.” Regina was quick to add, “Love heals through our ministry, and love heals through our body and bath products. The money goes back into the program for the next women who come in off the streets, and it helps us make a living wage.”
Wow. What a business model!
A woman needs assistance. Someone offers her a chance and hope. Then she is taught entrepreneurial skills that can sustain and expand the program while providing customers with a quality line of products they’ll use and enjoy.
A business should never exist just to make a profit. It should also make a difference in the world. Thistle Farms takes that to a whole new level.
UPDATE: Since my interview with Regina Mullins, the Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens was named among the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2016.