A Life of Climb Episode 10: Greyston CEO Joseph Kenner on the win-win-win approach to hiring
Greyston President and CEO Joseph Kenner joins Vistage CEO Sam Reese to share his organization’s bold ideas for re-thinking hiring, mentorship and advancement in today’s workforce. Joseph also explains his experience reshaping his organization as a first-time CEO and his plan to work with major brands to make a $3B economic impact.
Discover how Joseph:
- Adapted the company’s mission and vision for a changing world.
- Developed an apprentice and mentorship program to improve retention and productivity.
- Partnered with premium brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, and The Body Shop to increase Greyston’s reach and deepen its impact.
Sam Reese: Welcome everyone to another episode of A Life of Climb Podcast. I’m your host, Sam Reese. Joining me today is Joseph Kenner, President and CEO of Greyston. Joseph, thanks so much for joining us. I was really looking forward to this conversation.
Joseph Kenner: I am as well, Sam. Great to meet you and thanks for having me.
Sam Reese: You bet. I just wanted to start by asking you about your leadership journey. Your background is so interesting. When I look at your career — a career from Lehman Brothers to Pepsi to a county commissioner. Tell us how you ended up at Greyston and you got to show us how these pieces fit together.
Joseph Kenner: Quite frankly, Sam, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I really liked. I didn’t know what I really enjoyed, what industries I wanted to be in. So, for me, it was just a journey of learning about myself and about corporate America, about Wall Street, and then you talked about government, and that was the journey that I was on. So when you look at my resume, you’re seeing that — being an insurance underwriting, being a risk manager at Lehman Brothers, having an almost 10-year career at Pepsi and sales strategy, capital markets, risk management.
And it was just learning about corporate life, learning about myself, and just what my strengths and weaknesses are. And finally getting to a point where I had a sense of what I really enjoyed. Being in government, I was Deputy Commissioner of Social Services and senior advisor to the county executive. Those are my appointed offices in government, but I was also an elected official in my private life too, in my local Portchester board of trustees.
So I got a good swath of just life and industries and just how the world worked, both from a government standpoint and from a private sector standpoint. But now I’m at a point where I’ve taken all of that and I’m applying everything that I’ve experienced in my career.
Sam Reese: I think it’s interesting, I get the benefit of talking to so many great leaders and it’s just amazing the consistency, Joseph of the great leaders that talk about their journeys in the same way. People don’t typically set out to be here, I want to be the CEO of this company. It just happens, and we’re all just trying to figure out how to get better, even now.
Tell us a little bit more about what you do at Greyston and a little bit about the foundation.
Joseph Kenner: Yeah, Greyston is an amazing organization. So we were founded in 1982. So we were what you would call a hybrid social enterprise. And what that means is we have a for-profit entity that’s owned by a nonprofit. But broadly speaking, Greyston, we cater to our mission is to employ those that have one or more barriers to employment. And our mission is we want to unlock human potential through inclusive employment. We can talk about that one person at a time. How do we do that?
Greyston Bakery is our for-profit benefit corporation. So a Benefit corporation is an organization that’s governed by the triple bottom line: people, plan it, profit. We have a bakery manufacturing facility, and I love to ask people this question when I speak in different audiences. I’ll ask them: “Have you ever heard of Greyston?” They say, “No.” And then I ask them, “Well, have you ever had a chocolate fudge brownie pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream half-baked?” And everybody raises their hands.
Sam Reese: Everybody’s in.
Joseph Kenner: They get all excited. And I say, “Well, the folks that bake those brownies that go into those ice cream pints, they come through this thing called open hiring.” And open hiring is essentially a system where folks just have to put their name on a list, and when jobs become available, they get it. No questions asked. No background checks. We don’t do interviews. That’s how we work with the population that has barriers to employment at the bakery.
And again, we are providing these brownie inclusions to the likes of Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever. We have packaged brownies that are sold in Whole Foods. We have an e-commerce business online. But we also provide brownie inclusions to folks like some of your listeners may have heard of Jeni’s Ice Cream out in the Midwest or Van Leeuwen, or we’re actually in now Whole Foods private label, 365. We’re in the vegan birthday cake Blondie pint.
So, all marquee companies, Sam — Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever — these are all marquee companies. But these awesome, amazing brownie bits are made by folks that are excluded, traditionally excluded from society, whether you’re the formerly incarcerated, whether you’re the refugee, whether you’re the person [who] has English as a second language. And for 40 years, we have been providing employment opportunities to that population. And for me, it is just an amazing way to see transformation at its best.
I say our products are really our people. Yes, it’s the brownies that are amazing, but it’s really our people. And so, that’s what happens at the bakery. That’s how we bring in folks to the economic mainstream. The bakery’s owned by a foundation that now is very much focused on taking this message to a larger, broader audience. We don’t want to be the only ones doing open hiring and we want to share what we’re doing with other corporations, which is why we’re working with the likes of The Body Shop and IKEA to help them implement this model within their organizations.
The Power of Apprentice and Mentorship Programs
Sam Reese: Incredible. That is absolutely incredible. I was on your website, I saw this article about people you had trained, so now I understand the distinction in the foundation. So people you trained to be security guards, so that’s all part of the foundation’s program. They’re not working for you at all. That’s the foundation that does that. They’re off to get jobs in other places. That’s how that works.
Joseph Kenner: Absolutely. And I would say now, since I’ve been the CEO just over three years now, what we want to leverage is, and this is the beauty of being at Greyston, I say we may have lost our way a little bit over the years in terms of having people working in the bakery and staying there. We want folks to move up, as I like to say, or move out.
So you start as a bakery apprentice. What do you think about being a supply chain coordinator or being an R&D coordinator or being a supervisor one day? We promoted over 20 people last year in different positions. So we now have a former baker in almost every department except finance, HR, and marketing.
Sam Reese: What a great mission. Now, the way that it actually works in implementation is you said, so there’s no interviews. So if I walked into Greyston tomorrow, is this where the mentorship program takes over? Tell us a little bit about how that would look, what the mechanics of that look like.
Joseph Kenner: Yeah, and let me dispel some misconceptions too at the same time as we talk about the mechanics of open hiring. So I love to say that open hiring just gets rid of the barriers to employment. So all we’re getting rid of are the background checks and the interviews because it’s an entry-level job where you can learn the job on the job. The only requirement is that you want to be successful, you’ll take instruction and you’ll willing to learn, you’re willing to learn something new. So that’s the front end.
Now, when you get here, let’s figure out, let’s give you the tools so you can succeed. So you began a six- to nine-month apprenticeship with us. And yes, you will be matched with someone who has experience, who’s gone through open hiring, is now on the line as we like to say, and they’re working with you. And even our supervisors, three of our five supervisors are former bakers.
Sam Reese: Wow, I love that. I love that.
Joseph Kenner: So our senior supervisor, former baker. And two of our other supervisors are former bakers. So they know Greyston, they know open hiring, they know the challenges that you’re going to be facing, and they know what they’re working with so you’re in good company. And that’s part of the mentorship.
We get rid of the barriers to employment, but we don’t get rid of standards. And that’s the one thing I just want to, that one misconception that I want to dispel. People think it’s like a free for all. It’s not. Because again, we’re providing products to major companies like Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever. Standards still apply. Professionalism still applies. So you got to show up. You can’t not show up and not call in. You got to adhere to goods manufacturing practices.
So all of those things still apply. And if that’s not you, then unfortunately we will have to part ways. So we still have our standards of professionalism and any traditional employment standards that a corporation would have.
Sam Reese: Well, it’s clear from the quality of your products, being a consumer myself, it’s the best of the best. So is that, when you talk about open hiring not being corporate social responsibility, is that the distinction? Help us, me, understand that.
Joseph Kenner: Yeah, thank you for that question. It’s a beautiful one. I spent some time in Davos earlier this year. We won the Social Innovator of the Year Award for 2023 from the World Economic Forum, Schwab Foundation.
Sam Reese: Amazing. Just congratulations. What an amazing, how fun that is for your company.
Joseph Kenner: And I’ve been saying this even prior to winning the award. I like to say that this isn’t a program. Open hiring is not an add-on. I wouldn’t even say it’s DEI or ESG. What I would say it’s all of those things with substance because it’s a way of doing business.
It’s a business model. It’s a talent acquisition strategy. This is how we bring people into our organization. So that’s not an add-on. That’s not a program. That’s how we do business. That’s who we are. It’s in our mission statement. So that’s what I mean when I say it’s not corporate social responsibility. It’s just good business practices. It’s just good HR.
Developing the Mission and Vision
Sam Reese: Love it. When you took over this three years ago, it wasn’t on autopilot though. You didn’t just walk in and go, “Hey, let me just keep things rolling.” There were a lot of changes. What is it that you saw that you had to get your arms around quickly as a CEO? Because I know so many of our members are dealing with difficult challenges themselves. What is it you saw and how’d you get your arms around it?
Joseph Kenner: Oh, well, let’s give some context to that. I’ve been with Greyston for five years now. I started February 2018 as the vice president of programs and partnerships, but I became CEO in April 2020. So, if you recall, April 20–
Sam Reese: That’s a tough time.
Joseph Kenner: Yeah. April 2020. We had some things going on in the country. So that was a tough time, particularly as a first-time CEO dealing with a pandemic. The government just shut down, your state just shut down. Our team both at the foundation and we have about 30 people at the foundation and 120 at the bakery, everyone is dealing with anxiety, they’re dealing with fear. What’s going to happen to my family? What’s going to happen to my jobs? We were deemed essential at the bakery. So the bakery was operating throughout the pandemic.
Sam Reese: That’s nice.
Joseph Kenner: So not only am I having to deal with, all right, now we have to develop and really write a playbook for how to operate a business in the pandemic, but I was embarking on and I had started on this process during the search committee process of figuring out what is Greyston going to now look like over a period of time. I embarked on restructuring and revamping of our mission statement, developing core values, developing a three-year strategic plan and a 2030 vision because I saw the potential in the organization.
And actually, it really came to bear on me when not only the pandemic but then George Floyd and all the social unrest that happened after that. And it really highlighted, and we really didn’t talk about this, it really highlighted why Greyston is even here. And I went back to our history, and we were founded on the idea of how do we give people hope. Not so much the products, but it’s, “How do we give people hope?” And we saw our founder, Bernie Glassman, saw that as being the job — giving someone a job is the first step to bringing someone into the economic mainstream.
Sam Reese: That is really interesting. It’s just so interesting your timing because I hadn’t thought about it until you said that. What a strange time for you to be taken over in a business. But what you did is really the roots of it connected to what was happening in the world, so you galvanized around that. Now, you put together a 10-year vision. That vision, you don’t have to give the details of that, but when you thought about that, give us an idea of some of the big things that were on your mind in that 10-year vision.
Joseph Kenner: And this was actually an exercise where we are Vistage folks, so I got to talk about, this was an exercise where I brought in a lot of folks to think through this with me from our founder’s widow to my board of directors and from both our bakery and our foundation to my executive team at the time, really just create a whiteboard.
Where do you want Greyston to be? 10 years from now when we pick up the newspaper or you’re talking about Greyston, what are people saying? That’s where we started. And we landed on a few things. We really wanted to see open hiring everywhere, just to be honest. We wanted open hiring to make a dent in that population of it’s about 10 or more, 10 million or more Americans that are on the sidelines that unofficially unemployed. How do we bring them in? So we wanted to say 40,000 jobs we want to have by 2030 that are going to be offered through open hiring.
Sam Reese: Wow.
Joseph Kenner: Working with the big corporations. We want to be the recognized thought leader and the whole field of workforce development and innovation. And then we want to have that impact of $3 billion. Think about that.
Sam Reese: Wow.
Joseph Kenner: $3 billion of economic impact by hiring those 40,000 folks because that’s new income that’s being generated, that’s people getting off of public assistance, that’s people being diverted from the criminal justice system all because of Greyston making that big push with corporations, with businesses that want to hire good people, that want to innovate.
And really, that’s why I see that this is such a great business model. Increase your productivity, increase your retention, and really increase your morale of your company because folks, not just the people that you’re bringing in are benefiting, the people that are already there benefit because they’re happy to see that this is what their company is doing and the success that they’re having.
Sam Reese: When I read about this concept and then I read about it in productivity and loyalty both going up, that was my first instinct is to think not just for the people that are actually coming through the program, but as a coworker, it’s sort of like everybody in the world deserves second chances. And you see an employer that does that, that has got to be really something that motivates your people. But this is a huge goal. $3 billion in economic impact, 40,000 jobs. What a terrific thing to galvanize your company around.
Joseph Kenner: And that’s where I would say, Sam, this is not just CSR, DEI or ESG, now we’re talking economic development. Because we’re getting folks off the sidelines, we’re getting folks into companies. Companies’ productivity is going up, they’re selling more product and delivering more service. It’s a win-win-win for everybody.
Sam Reese: I’m excited to dig a little bit deeper there, but first, a quick break.
Partnership with Ben & Jerry’s
Sam Reese: There’s a piece of Greyston folklore that I wanted you to clarify. So the folklore is that Ben & Jerry’s, one of the highest profile companies in the world, that you have a great relationship with, that it was an accident that the ice cream, the fudge brownie, is that a true story? Tell us the folklore here, because that is what people need to know.
Joseph Kenner: In the history of Greyston, it just fits so well. So, when we started, Greyston used to make cakes and tarts for high-end restaurants in New York City. Bernie Glassman and this Zen Buddhist community, that’s actually how they supported themselves. So that was our history.
Bernie met Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield at a social venture conference, I believe it was in Colorado, and they literally went for a walk in the woods kind of talking about, and this is in the early ’80s, so the early to mid-’80s. They started talking about, “What can we do together?” We do ice cream, you guys are baking. And they landed on coming up with a collaboration where we would make a whoopie pie.
Sam Reese: A whoopie pie.
Joseph Kenner: Yeah, so the chocolate cookie with–
Sam Reese: Oh, I love those. Yes.
Joseph Kenner: … the vanilla ice cream. So they would do the ice cream obviously, and we would make the chocolate cookie. We had no experience whatsoever at that. Bernie invested everything he had in terms of developing this product. It gets shipped to Vermont. Didn’t quite survive the shipping process. So instead of the chocolate cookies, you got kind of this congeal chocolate slab that arrives in Vermont. And folks were like, “Okay, what do we do with this?” But someone had the idea, “Let’s just chop it up and put it into the chocolate ice cream and see what happens.” That’s the birth of [the] chocolate fudge brownie.
Preparing for the Future
Sam Reese: Which may be the very best flavor, by the way. That is — what a terrific story. And good things happen to good companies. What a great story. When you think about the challenges of a leader today, and I just take it up from a high level, all of us as CEOs of companies navigating what is a difficult economy, navigating social issues, navigating global issues. Some of the things that I guess would be helpful is to share your insights about what you think the big challenges are for all of us as leaders here in the next call it five years.
Joseph Kenner: It’s interesting you ask that question, Sam, because I had this conversation with a few of our executive team members just yesterday, to be quite honest with you. And what we’re talking about, particularly as we look at the future of work and what do we need to do for our employees to prepare them for the future as we’re talking about green transition, as we’re talking about AI and just the whole impact of technology on the future of work.
Where I’m seeing it, and I blew our resource and support specialist mind when I talked about this yesterday, and she was just like, “Joe, you just dropped the mic.” But it’s true. We really have to develop folks that are thinkers and learners. Forget position, job title, industry. There are going to be some jobs that are going to be impacted by green transition and AI and all of that, but at the end of the day, we’re going to have to be flexible and be thinkers and learners, lifelong learners because things are just moving and changing so fast. And how we prepare, particularly the population we employ and we serve, we have to think about how are we building into our training repertoire of getting our folks set up for the future so that they’re not left behind when these transitions happen.
Sam Reese: I love how you started by just saying you’re continuing on your own journey. What does it look like for you in the next 10 years as a leader? The things on your mind that you’re saying, these are the things I want to experience, improve upon, learn about, what are those things, Joseph?
Joseph Kenner: And I’ll go back to actually someone you had, that Vistage had as a speaker not too long ago, and actually former CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi, something that she always talks about, and I think I’m developing this as well. For me, for particularly CEOs, we almost have to be pseudo-labor economists and just really looking ahead at the future. And again, that’s why I talk about how do we develop our staff more and ourselves really? I don’t know who made the quote, but it’s apt: “AI is not going to take our jobs, but the person who understands it will.”
Sam Reese: I love that quote. I’ve heard that several times. Yes. Yes.
Joseph Kenner: Again, just working on my own learning. I love reading. I love white papers from think tanks. I love reading the stuff I get from Vistage and talking to my peer group at Vistage. That’s what helps all of us as leaders is, “You can’t do it alone.” They say being a CEO is the loneliest job in the world, but it really shouldn’t be. You should have your own kitchen cabinets, which is why I’m so appreciative of the group I have with Vistage.
Sam Reese: We’ve covered a lot of ground, just terrific hearing your perspective. Is there any other things that if, as you think about leaders out there today that any other insights, advice you want to share with our leaders that are listening that are all fellow Vistage members just like you?
Joseph Kenner: The one thing, again, and it’s going back to my experience just these last three years, is really don’t be afraid to change, and be resilient in the face of challenges. Again, I’ve been through organizational restructuring, I’ve been through a pandemic, we’ve been through social unrest, just remaking an organization. Don’t be afraid. If it ties to your why and why you’re in business and why you’re in your position, go for it. And that’s also Indra would say, “How do I prepare this organization to survive past me?” Not just the duration of the CEO, but the duration of the company is what I have to worry about.
Sam Reese: Thank you, Joseph, so much for spending time with us today on A Life of Climb Podcast. Really appreciate your insights, and I’m looking forward to seeing you out in Yonkers when I’m out that way. Thanks so much.
Joseph Kenner: You’re definitely invited, and thank you for having me, Sam. It was a pleasure.
Sam Reese: Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb Podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes. And please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.