On a freezing Thursday night at an industrial kitchen in Avondale, a group of about 15 teens are making organic soap. They mix in the thyme-infused avocado oil. They pour the viscous liquid into large wooden squares. Ask about the soap and they'll tell you about their herb garden, their drying rack, and their infusion processes.
This is Sprouting Out, a program run by the Chicago non-profit Concordia Place. Here, teenagers make and sell all-natural body care products while learning teamwork, leadership, and how to stay away from things called “triclosan” or “diazolidinyl urea.”
Sprouting Out hires 76 paid interns a year, and they expect to sell $15,000 worth of products in 2015. It receives backing from State Farm, Boeing, and Starbucks, among others, but the process itself is completely hands-on and teen-run.
At its headquarters, you can find teens busy with market research, managing its new Etsy shop, or mixing products in the kitchen while wearing safety goggles and aprons. They've termed their line Ruckus—tag line: “Disruptively Awesome”—and the products, from aluminum-free deodorants to a “calming balm” designed to sooth troubled skin, speak to teen problems.
You might not expect teenagers to know much about apricot kernel oil and burdock root, but at Sprouting Out the teen interns light up when they talk about their products. They also use terms like “cost breakdown” like it's no big deal.
“We try to educate ourselves on the ingredients we use so we can tell our customers about our products and how ours is better than other products out there,” says Jennifer, a 16-year-old who's been working at Sprouting Out for about a year. She says her mother introduced her to the concept of organic products, and her participation in Sprouting Out has deepened her understanding of the very real issues at stake. “We try to drive away from what most cosmetics companies use—lots of ingredients we can't even pronounce, which gives us an idea that they're not good for us,” she says. Behind her, a shelf is lined with jars of dried ingredients like yarrow, calendula, and mullein.
A large part of selling their product is, of course, persuading their friends to go organic. Rene, a 17-year-old who's been working with Sprouting Out for three years, says his friends have finally started caring about what they use on their skin. “We sell at our schools, and when I do presentations on the products, kids are like, ‘That's so expensive,’” he says. “I'm like, ‘Well, it's hand-made, it's all natural, and it's a hundred times better for your skin than any other product in the world.’”
Raina, 16, can talk all about the nuances of jojoba oil, but she wasn't always so obsessed with going chemical-free. “This program really helped me understand natural and organic things in general,” she says. “I wouldn't know that these chemicals aren't good for you, or that certain ingredients rejuvenate your skin, without this program.”
While the soap smells good enough to eat—and technically, you could—the initiative is about more than simply infusing avocado oil with home-grown thyme. The broader goal is to teach the teens 21st century skills that they can take with them into whatever they do next. And letting the kids get involved at every level—from gardening to market research—gives them a reason to truly invest in the business (Sprouting Out has a 70 percent retention rate).
“It gives you a peek into how the real world is,” Jennifer says. “We do research, teamwork, we work as leaders, we garden, we do business stuff like product breakdown, and it just helps us grow—and influence others to grow as well.”
This holiday season, Sprouting Out has partnered with The Night Ministry, and for every product purchased, that same product will be donated to a homeless teen. Fill your favorite teen's stockings with a Chappacino Lip Balm to perk them up during all-night study sessions.