How indulgence meets economics at the corner of healing and justice: The story of Thistle Farms

By Amanda Lopez
Staff Writer

On November 5, the Babson Center hosted Reverend Becca Stevens (C’85), this year’s Humphreys Entrepreneur in Residence speaker. Rev. Stevens, Chaplain at Saint Augustine’s Chapel in Vanderbilt University, spoke in Gailor Auditorium about Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Magdalene is a residential program for women that have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction, and homelessness. Thistle Farms is its complementary social enterprise, which provides women with the skills necessary to earn a living wage.

The event began with an introduction by Sam Taussig (C’15). He explained that a social entrepreneur is someone who seeks to create sustainable solutions for social problems. The problem that Becca Stevens tries to solve is that of women who are largely ignored by society after living lives of prostitution. According to Taussig, the average woman in Magdalene has been to jail 100 times, and has been on the streets 12 years. In order to help these women, Becca Stevens connects entrepreneurship and business, by giving these women new meaning to their lives.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

After Taussig’s introduction, Stevens walked in front of the podium. She warmly addressed the audience by saying, “It’s like talking to my family.” As she gracefully paced in the stage wearing a gray and white cardigan and no shoes, she explained to the audience that nothing she learned in Sewanee helped her start Magdalene more than the love she gained for the world whilst being a student did. After all, that is what Magdalene is all about: being in love with the world. She went on to say that you cannot love the world if you leave a whole lot of people out—namely prostitutes and addicts.

The first slide that Becca Stevens showed the audience was of the recent graduation at Magdalene. After being ordained, Stevens wanted to create Magdalene in order to provide women with a sanctuary where they could heal without relying on any religious or penal system. As a child, Stevens was sexually abused herself, and she yearned to believe that her community could heal.

Even though Stevens emphasizes that one of the most important parts of healing is love and community, she recognizes that in order to support a cause, “you better make sure people have some money. If you don’t have money, then you are only talking air.” This is how Stevens started the Thistle Farms enterprise, a social enterprise that produces lavish bath and body products. All the proceeds support the producers and administrators: the women at Magdalene.

Stevens made the convincing claim that the current penal system is broken, and that a more powerful and healing community as the one she has built is cheaper and more effective. For example, building a house for $1 million dollars to house women for two years is cheaper and safer than keeping women in prison.

As a form of conclusion, Stevens talked about the thistle. She said that the thistle grows in prisons, railroad tracks, and the streets where the women of Magdalene lived. After a flood, thistles are the only things that are left. Seeing this helps Stevens and the women at Magdalene remain idealistic. According to Stevens, her job is humbles her every day, and that being a thistle farmer entails that the whole world is her farm.