January 11, 2012 |

Woman of the Week: Becca Stevens

Becca Stevens' Thistle Farms bath and body line nourishes the women who use it - and the ones who make it.

By Anna Louie Sussman

Visitors to Tennessee are hard-pressed to avoid the Thistle Farms line of bath and body products, not that they’d want to. The hand-poured candles, body butters and lip balms crop up everywhere you look: in airport newsstands, gift shops in suburban malls, at the famous Loveless Café, renowned for its biscuits. Soon, the products will be on the shelves at Whole Foods throughout the southeast United States. They’re so ubiquitous, it almost feels like a conspiracy is at work.

The woman behind the plot is Becca Stevens, 48, an Episcopalian priest, author of eight books and social entrepreneur. Thistle Farms grew out of Magdalene, a home for women survivors of domestic violence, substance abuse, the sex industry or homelessness. She and her husband, Grammy award-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon, founded it in 1997, leasing a house in central Nashville down the street from her own for a dollar a year, where five women could stay for up to two years for free while they received counseling and treatment for any addictions. 

But four years into it, she realized that even comfortable housing, country retreats and all the love she could muster were not enough to help women become truly independent. They needed an income, or they were going nowhere.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is crazy, because these women are still poor,’” she said. “And, nothing would make me want to use [substances] more than having nothing to do all day.”

Bath products seemed an obvious choice. As a young mother (her first son was born two weeks after she graduated from Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, age 27), the bathtub was the one place found total respite.

“Baths are very healing. It’s the only place where nobody bothers you,” she said. “There’s also a beautiful metaphor behind the idea that you’re healing a body. As you’re making products to heal other people, you’re also doing something for yourself.”

They began by making candles, and added bath sachets, lotions and balms scented with essential oils, which they sold periodically at the St. Augustine Chapel at Vanderbilt, where Stevens is chaplain, and at in-home events held by friends across Tennessee. Word got around, and the products spread to over 200 retail outlets across the country, and last year brought in over $500,000 in sales. The residential program has also grown, and now serves 28 residents who live in six houses in central Nashville, and provides outreach and social services to an additional 100 women.

Stevens, who was a math major as an undergraduate at the University of the South, credits two of Thistle Farms’ graduates, Director of Sales Katrina Robertson and Senior Sales Representative Beverly Mandina, with growing the business. They are among nine graduates now employed full-time at the company.

“It’s really a community effort, with everyone bringing their own gifts,” she said. “Our director of sales, Katrina, has beautiful sales skills and a great ability just by her presence and voice to go out and close a deal. My gifts are around crafts and fundraising. The key is to hone all of those skills into a workable model for everyone.”

Magdalene/Thistle Farms supplements its current annual operating budget of $1.2 million with contributions from private, corporate and foundation donations. To date, Stevens has raised over $13 million, allowing her to forgo any federal or municipal funding and the conditions that are often attached. This year, the White House honored her as one of 15 “Champions of Change.”

“It’s always been easier to do it this way,” she said. “I think it really means something when you know that every penny you’re bringing in is a gift.”

Since 1997, over 150 women have graduated from the two-year program, 72% of whom remain clean and sober after leaving. Success, she said, comes from the sense of community that Magdalene fosters. Since the beginning, she has relied on the residents to establish their own ground rules and hold each other accountable.

“When a community is open and honest, it can be a very powerful entity just by itself,” she said. “When we come together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We hold each other accountable and we hold each other up.”

But every community has its setbacks. Last April, National Public Radio produced a three-part series on Thistle Farms, including an episode describing how one resident, Tara, returned to the streets and was subsequently arrested. The day it was broadcast, Stevens was terrified. Would her work be judged as a failure? What would her generous supporters make of the story?

“People cried with us,” she said, to her surprise. “They didn’t judge us. It’s all well and good to have people with you when things are going well, but when something really bad happens, to know that people are just going to cry with you – that’s a great thing.”

She continues to build an audience through weekly travel, visiting college campuses, women’s groups, and churches with graduates to speak about the Magdalene/Thistle Farms endeavor (and sell a few lotions and potions on the road.) She consults on similar programs that will soon launch in St. Louis and New Orleans, and has set up partnerships with women’s groups in Rwanda, Ghana and Uganda to sell purses handmade in Africa at fair-trade prices. In the fall of this year, she plans to open the Thistlestop Café on Charlotte Avenue in Nashville, where graduates and residents will serve breakfast, light lunch and high tea. And she’s hoping to begin working within the criminal justice system, bringing Magdalene’s community spirit “inside the prison walls.”

“Let’s not wait and wait and wait until people get out, in order for them to find some sanctuary and hope.”

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.