It started over cannoli in a small bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ted Barber and his business comrade, Amber Chand, knew they wanted to help put an end to poverty and that investing in women in places of conflict and chaos was where they wanted to start. The product needed to be easy to make at home, scalable, and be sold for a living wage. With absolutely no experience in candle-making, Ted and Amber launched a candle company.
Previously, Barber worked on the ground in poverty alleviation for 10 years with aid agencies and NGOs, the goal to build the capacity of small businesses through strategy training. He often presented to rooms full of women, who had left the fields, dressed in their finest clothing, eager to learn skills so their lives could be improved. Looking back, Barber isn’t sure how many lives his years of capacity-building training improved.
“At one point working in northern Rwanda, I couldn’t say with confidence that a single woman was more able to put food on her table, buy medicine, or send her children to school [as a result of my training]. So much about building capacity is that immediate impact is five years out and the impact is negligible,” says Barber.
Barber knew there was a better way and that to be sustainable.
The solution had to come from the marketplace, a business designed to specifically lift women out of poverty. Why women? Because, according to Barber, the World Bank, the United Nations, and many academics, female entrepreneurship leads to healthier families, educated children, and less corruption in government. From his personal experience, Barber says it’s about creating a balanced society.
“It’s not about putting more women into positions of power than men. It’s about creating a balanced society. And when it comes to business, I will invest in women every time. Women more often spend money on their children's education and well-being, which helps break the cycle of poverty. Too many men waste money on vices,” says Barber.
In the last few years, Prosperity Candle has built relationships with hundreds of women refugees impacted by war and natural disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and even in the United States. Under the Prosperity Candle umbrella, women entrepreneurs can choose the working model which best suits their needs and the limitations of their country. In Iraq, for example, centralized production is impossible, so the women create the candles at home and can choose to sell locally, set their own prices, and work as independent entrepreneurs. Iraqi women can also choose to export and sell their candles to Prosperity Candle.
“It’s entirely their choice if they want to sell to us,” explains Barber. “We step in as a fair trade importer and provide incentives for quality control. We employed a cooperative-style model where after the product is sold they get a share in the success.”
Reinforcing the importance of high quality products is crucial for Barber. Turning away a batch of candles, liquidating them for a loss, is the hardest part of Barber’s job.
“We are still a business through and through. A business with heart, but still a business. We tell the women, ‘Here’s the kind of product we will buy from you. If you don’t meet these standards, we can’t purchase from you.’ This is a critical part of our model, in terms of sustainable impact,” says Barber.
Quality trainings have reduced the product rejection rate from 30 percent to 5 percent. Even if it means Barber creating an ad hoc candle-making shop in his kitchen in the middle of the night and Skyping with 40 Iraqi women, he is committed to increasing volume and improving quality in order to help the entrepreneurs grow their profits.
To me, the most incredible part of the Prosperity Candle approach is how they contextualize their model for each nation, each group of women. Here’s how the purchase of candles has empowered women entrepreneurs:
130 women, mostly widows, have been trained in candle-making and business skills to start their own enterprise; 100 additional women trained by other organizations using Prosperity Candle concepts and business-in-a-box kits. Prosperity Candle has invested over $125,000 to support the entrepreneurs, loaned over $18,000 for the purchase of equipment and supplies, and paid the women close to $30,000 for 7,340 candles.
12 Haitian women, many from women's shelters, have been trained in candle-making and business skills to start their own cooperative. In partnership with its sister nonprofit, Prosperity Catalyst, Prosperity Candle has invested $15,000 and 600 volunteer hours in product, quality, and business training. Through the purchase of 2002 candles, $2,574 has been paid to the Haitian candle-makers.
Prosperity Candle trained 12 women, relocated from refugee camps through United Nations federal and state programs, after living in camps for 5-17 years. Prosperity Candle asked what the women needed in terms of employment. The women were clear: living wages, steady incomes, flexible work hours, understanding from an employer about their language barrier, time commitments and other refugee status requirements, fair treatment, company-provided transportation, and help with health and child care. To meet all of those needs, Barber and his team decided to pay double the minimum wage, provide transportation, offer flexible work hours that accommodate their family and refugee status requirements, and serve as an advocate for respect and safety.
It’s no surprise that Prosperity Candle continues to be awarded with high B Corp honors as “Best for the World.” Of all of the social entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed, Barber may in fact be the most transparent, most unwilling to sacrifice mission goals, at any cost.
“Our highest priority is social impact. We are 49 percent profit-driven and 51 percent mission-driven. But this makes a huge difference. It guides every decision we make. In Haiti, for example, if something isn’t working, we don’t pull out because it's not profitable. We ask ourselves how can we stay and be sustainable, because our highest priority is our mission, lifting families out of poverty by supporting women entrepreneurs,” says Barber.
Candles are the market tool—and Prosperity Candle is no doubt an expert in candle making—but empowering women is the business goal. During our conversation, I realized that for Barber, the revenue stream was secondary. It could have just as easily been cannoli.