The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Keith Cooper, executive director of Beautiful Day, a Providence-based nonprofit that makes granola and prepares refugees to enter the job market.
Q: What is Beautiful Day’s mission and how many refugees has it worked with to date?
A: We are a granola company with a mission to help refugees, especially youth and those who are the most vulnerable to enter the job market. Our goal is to do this in a way that helps our surrounding community welcome refugees and be invested in their well-being. That’s partly why we sell things like granola and coffee — we’re trying to make doing something about global issues of displacement a meaningful part of everyone’s daily life.
Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Beautiful Day?
A: It has raised the stakes. It has increased the need. There are now a lot more refugees out of work. And for those who don’t speak English or aren’t literate, I think it has just upped the confusion level — like someone just turned up the volume on the static. We feel it, too. We’re running a nonprofit and a food business, so there are lots and lots of decisions — re-thinking priorities, coming up with a new way to do things, adjusting our systems and operations, becoming more of a virtual company, adjusting fundraising efforts.
We’ve also seen our customers and supporters come through for us. We have received some incredibly generous gifts. It’s all pretty humbling and inspiring. Despite all the other losses, our online sales have grown by three to four times. So our business is actually growing right now, if you can believe that. We have a granola subscription service that is growing. It has made us all the more determined to find our way through this pandemic and be there for refugees and our community on the other side.
Q: How has Beautiful Day adapted and innovated in response to the pandemic?
A: In my heart, I knew around the time things were shutting down in Italy that everything was going to change drastically. My mantra to myself and my staff was: Don’t be afraid. I’ve kept a coronavirus strategy document that I revisit and adjust every week. Probably more than anything, we’ve put our effort into really good communication with our staff, customers, and supporters. We’ve actually sent out a newsletter every week. I’ve been posting blogs. We shifted most of our sales online. That has involved a lot of back-end work on our website and marketing. We shifted our youth program online. That’s a lot of trial-and-error.
We made a commitment to keep all our staff employed and to continue. At the center of all the change, that gave us something solid: We’re in this together. We met much more often with our board. Probably the craziest thing we did was that we started the process to launch a new product. We’ve been wanting to do a no-sugar-added product for years, but it wasn’t until our supply chain for Sucanat (the dehydrated cane juice we use) got interrupted that we jumped in. At that point, it was either take the week off from work or come up with a new product.
Q: Aside from the COVID-19 outbreak, didn’t Beautiful Day just face another crisis?
A: Yes — a few. We lost our kitchen space at a partner agency because COVID-19 changed things for them. Luckily, we found a perfect space downtown at Knead Donuts. Then, the night before we were supposed to start back into production, there was a dumpster fire that damaged the kitchen and could have burned the place down. It wasn’t Knead’s fault or ours, but it did feel like something happening out of a movie. It worked out fine. We love the new kitchen.
Q: I see the title of Beautiful Day’s annual report is titled “Hope over Fear” -- which one is predominant these days with you and the refugees you work with: Hope or fear?
A: Hope and fear both come in waves. From inside us. From outside us. We shut down our kitchen temporarily out of a concern about an indirect exposure to COVID-19. But no staff or trainees have tested positive, and we’re back in production. The guidance from Governor Raimondo and our Department of Health is so helpful and important. But real people — especially those with barriers of language, literacy, culture literacy, access to health care, transportation, you name it — almost never neatly fit into the rule book. So that’s where the real work and decision-making takes place.
But I think this animosity between work vs. health that’s playing out in the news is a really false dichotomy. Both matter. They matter for me and my family, for our employees and trainees, and for their communities. They both matter for our customers and ultimately, when rule books fail, we all have to rely on a moral compass and commitment to being in something together with our community to make decisions. The process of figuring out murky things has felt encouraging because it reminds me that we’re doing work that is vital and valuable.
I think our community needs refugees these days -- more than ever! Refugees have vast experience in the kind of hope and survival that the rest of us are learning right now. Hope is an awfully powerful force.
Q: Has Beautiful Day been able to return to farmers’ markets or is most of the business online?
A: As of last week, we are back in the farmers’ markets. We are so happy about this. We’ve set up our website so those who want to be extra careful about social distancing can pre-order, pay online, and then just stop by the market to pick it up. We have trained our staff to stay safe and keep our customers safe. Training for us is essential, and so is trust with our customers and community. We did take a couple months off from the markets so that we could do all of this in a thoughtful, safe way. But it is central to our mission to find ways to promote that person-to-person connection between refugees and their community. That’s why farmers markets feel critical to us: It is both sales and mission.