Michelle Potter has found a sense of self-confidence for the first time since she dropped out of school at age 14.

A recovering meth addict, Potter, now 42, attributes her new lease on life to the Women’s Bean Project. Social enterprise investors who look for ways to use business to solve social problems are hailing the program as the “gold standard” for a new breed of ventures looking to break an escalating cycle of poverty in cities nationwide. “I am not putting drugs into my body—I am doing things with my life that I am proud of,” said Potter, who will graduate from her nine-month stint in the program in July. “I absolutely love coming to this job. When it’s time to punch out for lunch, I’m the last one.”

Potter is one of more than 70 women the Women’s Bean Project will groom this year to take manufacturing, food service, and other positions in one of the nation’s hottest job markets. With an average age of 38, most of the women are struggling to escape a history of addiction, abuse, and homelessness that left them unable to hold a job for more than a year. Like Potter, a majority are single moms who are attempting to reconnect with their kids, who are often in someone else’s custody.

In short: The Denver-based nonprofit’s curriculum prepares impoverished women for the job market with skills classes and with practical job experience. That’s where the beans come into the picture. In addition to skills classes and resource assistance, the women package gourmet products, such as Firehouse #10 Chili, for sale to the public.

On a frosty April day, Potter and her colleagues worked an assembly line in northeast Denver, scooping green- and peach-colored lentils into plastic bags, throwing in spice packets, tying off the tops, plopping them into rectangular tan-and-maroon boxes labeled “10 Bean Soup Mix,” and sealing the containers with a round sticker adorned with the signature of a woman who has participated in the program.

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