Joseph Kenner headshot_landscape crop

DEI as Business Strategy

DEI as Business Strategy

Joseph Kenner ’96 is on a mission to radically change how companies hire. And his efforts are being recognized, most recently with a Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Social Innovator of the Year award for 2023, given in Davos, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum and gathering of global decision-makers.

Kenner is the CEO and president of Greyston, a $30 million bakery operation and nonprofit foundation in Yonkers, N.Y., that creates work opportunities for people with traditional barriers to employment. Since its founding in 1982 by the late Bernie Glassman, Greyston has been known internationally as the pioneer of the Open Hiring model.

With the slogan “We don’t hire people to make brownies. We make brownies to hire people,” Greyston’s bakery employs people society often ignores: new immigrants, single parents on public assistance, marginalized youth, those who were formerly imprisoned and people with a history of mental illness. Chocolaty chunks of Greyston brownies have been folded into Ben & Jerry’s ice cream since 1987. And through its foundation, Greyston helps employers around the world, like The Body Shop and Ikea, develop their own inclusive hiring practices.

Even as a youngster growing up in Burlington, N.J., near Philadelphia, Kenner was interested in business and service. He participated in a stock market simulation in sixth grade and served as treasurer of his local Interact Club, a youth service arm of Rotary International.

A political economy major at Williams, he began a 14-year career in risk management and finance at large insurance firms and PepsiCo while earning an MBA at Pace University. Seeking to make a greater social impact, he became deputy commissioner of social services for Westchester County in New York.

In 2018, Greyston reached out to Kenner to talk about the possibility of a job. He joined the organization as vice president of programs and partnerships.

“What they needed I had already done in business and government; it just matched perfectly with what Greyston was looking for,” Kenner says. “I could not have created a better job myself.”

He was promoted to chief executive officer in early 2020, less than a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. and three months before George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.

“Being a black male CEO of a social enterprise at this time, you could feel the weight of the moment,” Kenner says, adding that he spent many sleepless nights wondering how to address critical issues, from working around supply chain disruptions to ensuring the safety of bakery employees, who were considered essential workers.

“A lot of persons of color work here,” Kenner says. “I had to set the tone because it was really bad. People were angry. All trust in systems was at an all-time low … and here we have this model that’s based on trust. Every issue that was already percolating before that was laid bare because of Covid and George Floyd.”

The pain of the pandemic and social unrest inspired Kenner to sharpen the focus of Greyston’s mission: promoting inclusive hiring one person at a time. He found organizations to take over Greyston’s community garden and child care services, reorganized the executive team and recruited new board members. In its Vision 2030 plan, Greyston set a goal to help create 40,000 jobs through inclusive hiring at U.S. employers by 2030, with a $3 billion economic impact.

The need to fill jobs is great. The U.S. has more than 10 million openings, while about 5 million people are unemployed. To Kenner, that’s an opportunity.

“Something is not working with how we’re hiring” Kenner says. “We put up our own barriers to employment that no longer make sense, like requiring a job interview—or a résumé or degree for work that can be learned on the job.”

Most job candidates learn about openings at the bakery through word of mouth. They can put their names and contact information on a job list. If they get a call when a job opens, it’s theirs. Eighty of the bakery’s current 100 employees joined the company this way. Many more who were hired in previous years have since advanced into supervisory roles or into jobs with other employers.

Four people eating lunch at a table, including Joseph Kenner, Williams Class of 1996, who is second from right. Three of the people are wearing hair coverings and blue uniforms, and two have beard coverings pushed down under their chins.
Joseph Kenner ’96 (second from right) with employees at Greyston Bakery.

Greyston’s orientation covers company values and culture, quality assurance and work readiness. Each new hire is an apprentice for six to nine months and is supported by a mentor who has gone through the process. Expectations—from being on time to safety on the line—are reinforced in biweekly evaluations with a supervisor. The model offers traditional human resources support for new hires to build on their strengths and address areas in need of development. Successful apprentices graduate to line duties and become union members.

Kenner points out that each job has a ripple effect that enriches families, neighborhoods and communities. Many are able to leave public assistance or sidestep the revolving door back to prison.

“That’s DEI with substance,” he says. “That’s not us making a pledge. This is happening. We have the payroll to prove it.

“We get rid of barriers to entry,” Kenner adds. “We don’t get rid of professional standards. We still need you to be a good employee. We still have to get products out the door.”

A central piece of Kenner’s mission refresh was opening the Greyston Employment Opportunity Center, a one-stop shop for businesses looking to eliminate barriers to employment and connect candidates to training in fields such as construction, information technology and culinary arts.

The Body Shop began consulting with Greyston in 2019 as part of a pilot at a North Carolina distribution center with 300 employees. Kenner helped the company expand its Open Hiring practice to other locations in the U.S., then Canada and then into retail stores.

“This is not an add-on—a touchy-feely thing that HR has to do,” Kenner says. “It’s part of your business strategy. It’s actually economic development. We just have to have a mind shift in terms of how and where we look for talent and how we bring that talent into the organization.”

“My goal,” he adds, “is to show all these businesses how it can happen.”

—Sally Parker writes about people, past and present, who follow their passions to make a difference. She specializes in business, higher education and history.