Our Stories

A Small Business That Puts People on Par with Profits

Ovenly is a beloved Brooklyn-based bakery and small business committed to providing quality jobs for people who have been denied access to economic opportunity. It is also the first recipient of a loan from The Good Jobs Fund, a cutting-edge initiative from our affiliate, the New Markets Support Company, that funnels transformative private equity capital to businesses dedicated to creating living-wage jobs in under-resourced communities. 

Photos © Jayne Wexler

Every small business has its own unique creation story. Ovenly, a beloved neighborhood bakery and social enterprise in New York City, has one that deserves replicating. That’s because Ovenly’s founders, Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga, have built a profitable company that creates both wildly popular savory-sweet cakes and cookies and quality jobs for New Yorkers who have faced high hurdles to entering the workforce. 

It's that commitment to the “double bottom line” that brought Ovenly to the attention of the New Markets Support Company (NMSC), LISC’s affiliate specializing in New Markets Tax Credits. In fact, Pantinkin and Kulaga’s venture is the first recipient of a loan—$600,000—through NMSC’s Good Jobs Fund, a novel strategy for channeling private equity to finance social entrepreneurs who are providing family-supporting jobs in under-invested places.

Michael Gilligan, a senior advisor for NMSC who oversees the Good Jobs Fund explains it as a means “to bring growth capital to businesses that are providing quality jobs for low-income communities. And by ‘quality jobs’ we mean fair- and living-wage positions with equitable benefits and professional development opportunities that lead to financial stability and a career.” These businesses, in turn, can ideally be scaled and serve as models of quality job creation across the country.

Agatha Kulaga (left) and Erin Patinkin left careers in social justice-oriented fields to start their dream bakery.
Agatha Kulaga (left) and Erin Patinkin left careers in social justice-oriented fields to start their dream bakery.

Ovenly, for its part, didn’t become a social impact business overnight. During the bakery’s first years of existence, the demands of running a successful start-up—waking long before dawn to bake, ordering supplies, managing multiple shops and customers and staff—were overwhelming. “It was just so crazy, and social entrepreneurship wasn’t even part of our lexicon,” says Patinkin. But both partners had left social justice-related careers to open the business (Patinkin worked at non-profits, focusing on criminal justice issues; Kulaga in social work, specializing in addiction and mental health research), and each had a deep-seated desire to make Ovenly a company that would contribute to the community. “At one point, we looked at each other and said ‘Is this really what we’re doing? Selling cookies?’”

A devoted customer who came daily to Ovenly’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn store for a pistachio agave or salted chocolate chip cookie provided the beginnings of an answer. He asked the partners if they would consider hiring formerly incarcerated people who came through a reentry workforce agency he directed called Get Out Stay Out (GOSO). “We said ‘Yeah! Great!’ recalled Patinkin. "It’s when we began learning about social entrepreneurship and the impact we could have as a business.”

One in three Ovenly employees came to the company through workforce partners.
One in three Ovenly employees came to the company through workforce partners.

In the years since, Ovenly has hired a third of its employees through GOSO and other workforce organizations such as the Ansob Center for Refugees and Seedco. The bakery's staff now includes people who have survived gang involvement, domestic violence and political or religious persecution in their countries of origin, and workers come from places as far-flung as Sudan, Guatemala and the Bronx.

Pantinkin and Kulaga coined the phrase “radical responsibility” to describe their three-part mission: provide quality jobs, hire people who historically have been denied economic opportunities, and reduce environmental impact as much as possible. At Ovenly, “open hiring” means that applying for entry-level positions doesn’t require a resume. “Lots of people don’t have a job background,” Patinkin explained. “Maybe they spent their youth in jail. Or they were taking care of a child or parent.”

In looking for other examples of cooking businesses with a social impact mission and open hiring practices, Kulaga and Patinkin found only a few—in the entire country. “This is not charity in the food industry,” said Patinkin. “We’re not giving a cookie to a low-income person for every cookie we sell. We’re putting people on par with profits. We make profits with cookies, and people make those cookies.”

The proof of Ovenly's success is in happy customers and stable employees who can grow with the bakery and beyond.
The proof of Ovenly's success is in happy customers and stable employees who can grow with the bakery and beyond.

So, in addition to living wages, Ovenly staff receive benefits that include maternity and paternity leave (four and two months, respectively), free yoga and quarterly classes on such topics as financial planning and personal health. They can also use a $350 professional development credit for any course that helps propel them in their career. For one worker, that meant an English language class that would enable him to move into a higher-wage position. Ovenly has also reduced its landfill waste by 70 percent and aims to be carbon neutral by next year.

When Ovenly was ready to take the business to a new level, the Good Jobs Fund was able to step in where other lenders hadn’t. “They’re still a young company,” said NMSC’s Gilligan. “And not a lot of capital providers out there are familiar with the idea that these values are also good for business.” Gilligan also appreciates the fact that Patinkin and Kulaga treat everyone around them, customers and staff included, like family. “These are two women who are basically killing it. They’ve developed a very powerful brand that speaks to a lot of people, but they also have a strong community presence and are providing jobs that are transformative.”

The Ovenly partners are using the loan to expand the bakery’s production capacity and to grow into more retail stores (they recently grew from three to five, and are planning more), creating more jobs and robust benefits in the process. They also hope to leverage relationships with LISC/NMSC to do data sharing and measure the impact of their employment strategy, in order to create models for replicating the “radical responsibility” approach in other places.

For now, the proof of their mission’s impact is manifest in happy customers and stable employees. Patinkin describes one Ovenly staff member who had never held a living-wage job, much less in a kitchen, until three years ago. “Today, she’s our lead cake decorator. She's increased her income. She’s been able to go on maternity leave after having two children, and she can pay for child care. She’s building a career here.” That's the definition of a quality job.