It's been a big year for Thistle Farms. It's about to get bigger.
For more than a decade, the Nashville-based social enterprise has manufactured and distributed natural bath and body products, now available in more than 200 stores nationwide. It employs residents and graduates of Magdalene, a residential program for survivors of prostitution, human trafficking, addiction and life on the streets.
In May, Thistle Farms expanded its operations to open the Thistle Stop Café, a coffeehouse and lunch spot that exudes goodwill down to the many teacups donated by supporters. Between the cafe and the Thistle Farms manufacturing facility — located side by side at 5128 and 5122 Charlotte Pike — the enterprise employs nearly 50 Magdalene women, providing the necessary skills to earn a living wage and secure financial independence, an essential part of ensuring long-term recovery.
While the opening of the cafe brought to life a longstanding dream to further connect the women of Magdalene with the rest of the community, the nonprofit has set itself a much larger goal: global connectivity. To achieve this, it's hosting the first Thistle Farms National Conference this weekend at the Scarritt-Bennett Center, and using the occasion to unveil a new initiative called the Shared Trade Alliance.
"There are certain social enterprises that really hold women up as the most important part of the value chain, and we want to get these organizations all over the world to band together and become an alliance to help each other with marketing, distribution and promotion," says Becca Stevens, Magdalene and Thistle Farms founder.
According to Stevens, the Shared Trade Alliance will serve as a coalition to help other social enterprises around the world close the gap between producers and consumers in the value chain. Overseen by an advisory board of 10, it intends to share practices that will allow each individual organization to grow efficiently. Yet all these organizations have a common goal: to bring women out of poverty permanently through sustainable employment and recovery from violence.
"The issue in small social enterprises where the workforce is the mission is that it's very hard to find the resources — not only to provide living wages, but to have a marketing strategy to actually grow the company," Stevens says. "My hope is that Thistle Farms can take the lead and help other organizations share databases, share marketing dollars and share ideas so we can all help each other grow through this shared trade."
The Shared Trade Alliance will also serve as a sort of stamp of approval for social enterprises, much like the Good Housekeeping seal. Social enterprises that are part of the alliance can put a Shared Trade sticker on their products, which Stevens says will notify the consumer that they are purchasing something from an organization that helps women move from poverty to independent living.
"We already have about 20 groups from Rwanda, Kenya, Ecuador, Nashville, Ghana, and a lot of different groups signing up to be a part of this," Stevens says.
In addition to serving as the launch pad for the alliance, the conference, which will be held Sunday through Tuesday, will connect nonprofits from more than 30 different states. The conference grew out of the popularity of Magdalene/Thistle Farms' monthly educational workshops, in which representatives from other nonprofits visited the Nashville facility to learn best practices.
The conference will feature keynote addresses by Stevens and Dr. Nicholas Hitimana, a Rwanda-based doctor who works with female survivors of the Rwandan genocide to produce the geranium oil used in Thistle Farms' popular mosquito repellent. There will be workshop sessions, survivor stories, and musical entertainment from Radney Foster, Ashley Cleveland and Marcus Hummon (also known as Stevens' husband).
The event will conclude with the organization's annual fundraiser, "Welcome to the Circle," which outgrew its previous home at the Vanderbilt Student Life Center and will be held at the Ryman on Tuesday. This free concert will feature Jeff Hanna and Jennifer Nettles, as well as remarkable stories of survival from the women of Thistle Farms.
"It's called 'Welcome to the Circle,' which is really what the whole event is about," Stevens says. "It's been one of our mottos since we first started Thistle Farms. It's for visitors, for newcomers, for women coming off the streets or prison, for everybody. We need everybody to be in that circle to keep growing the circle. It's a powerful idea; it doesn't matter where you are coming from or where you're headed, but what's important is that you sat in the circle today, and it's a sign of hope and love."
The Thistle Farms National Conference runs Oct. 13-15. General registration is $195, and a full schedule is available at thistlefarms.org. The Welcome to the Circle fundraiser will be held at the Ryman Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15. Admission to the fundraiser is free, and donations will be accepted. Limited advance tickets are available at thistlefarms.org.
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