Joe Kenner’s path to social enterprise CEO looks a little like connect-the-dots.

His experience ranged from insurance underwriting and risk management for financial institutions to capital markets and pricing strategy for one of the biggest names in CPG. Then he decided to step into public service.

That was the dot that connected him to Yonkers-based Greyston Bakery, known for its brownies sold nationwide at Whole Foods and as inclusions in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and — perhaps more so — for its open hiring practices.


Kenner’s transition from corporate America to public service was, quite literally, a calling. A friend who had been elected as a county executive offered him a senior advisor role in the administration serving Westchester County in New York.

That position parlayed into a role in the department of social services (DSS), where Kenner could put his personal passion for working with underserved communities into professional practice.

“I wanted to get a sense for how we were delivering services to the people of Westchester County, how effective we were and what needed to change,” he recalled.

Kenner had heard of Greyston, but DSS did not have a strong partnership with the organization. After meeting Kathryn Harris, a former Westchester DSS client and then Greyston employee, Kenner learned about the bakery’s open hiring and workforce development program through its parent entity, Greyston Foundation.

At Greyston, the concept of open hiring is about providing employment opportunities for anyone who might otherwise be overlooked — a concept that deeply resonates with Kenner. Around that time, Kenner had launched the county’s Fatherhood Initiative, a program for unemployed noncustodial fathers with child support arrears so high they couldn’t pay.

“Oftentimes they couldn’t pay because they couldn’t get a job, but they couldn’t get a job because they had a barrier to employment,” Kenner recalled. “I thought, ‘How did we not know about Greyston? This is a great resource for people we serve in the county. Why wouldn’t you hire people this way?’ And so I started my relationship with them.”

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that the leadership playbook is done. We need something new. Where are we looking for talent, and how are we hiring them? Greyston has been doing this for 40 years. It’s not something we just thought of; we know it works.” - Joe Kenner | CEO | Greyston Bakery


Kenner partnered with Mike Brady, Greyston Foundation’s CEO at the time, the Westchester DSS and the Fatherhood Initiative until 2017, when the foundation began searching for a VP of programs. When he looked at the job description, Kenner saw all those “dots” from his career path connecting to lead toward Greyston.

Requiring core competencies in financial management, social services experience, connections to business and government leaders, and community service, the position was calling his name. He sat down with Brady to throw his hat in the ring.

“Mike told me about his vision to launch the Center for Open Hiring and how he wanted to take the concept globally,” Kenner recalled. “He wanted to see this model replicated in different contexts, and I knew this was the job for me.”

As VP of programs in 2018, Kenner was tasked with streamlining Greyston’s initiatives to align those far-flung programs with the open hiring mission. He wanted to focus on its hiring and workforce development, steering away from a variety of other social outreach initiatives that the foundation had dabbled in.

“As far as I was concerned, employment was the focus,” Kenner said. “It’s what we do best, so we needed to think about how to realign our programs and the bakery operation with the mission.”

That realignment culminated in the spring of 2020 when Kenner was named president and CEO. He started restructuring the organization and sharpening the focus on its mission of inclusive employment, including bringing the bakery and foundation under the “One Greyston” umbrella. Then the pandemic hit, rocking Greyston to its core.

“You couldn’t just get out your business school textbook on how to manage a company during a crisis,” Kenner said. “But even as a first-time CEO, this is where I understood the value of the mission and where we wanted to go. Was I scared? Absolutely. There was uncertainty, there was fear and anxiety. But as a leader, I had to project a stable front.”

Greyston’s organizational restructuring happened at the height of the pandemic, where Yonkers was, at one point, a major COVID hot spot.

But the bakery was essential, and that was Kenner’s beautiful irony.


“These are people who were once deemed unemployable, and now they’re essential,” he said. “They were working at a time when 20 million of their fellow citizens were out of work. They all showed up, and it was a record year for our production.”

For Kenner, it’s a testament to the Greyston mission. The brownies, he said, are the means to what founder Bernie Glassman wanted to create.

“Greyston wasn’t founded on a product, per se,” Kenner said. “Glassman founded it on the idea of giving people hope. So, I’m constantly trying to bring people back to why this company exists: There are people who want to work but can’t. They’re blocked because of their history, whether they’re formerly incarcerated, homeless, a single parent, battling substance abuse or what have you. But they have a strong work ethic despite their barriers.”

Looking at workforce through a lens of humanity could likely be the key to solving the crisis currently plaguing the industry.  Kenner doesn’t see a “Great Resignation.” Instead, he sees a mass reassessment.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that the leadership playbook is done,” he said. “We need something new. Where are we looking for talent, and how are we hiring them? Greyston has been doing this for 40 years. It’s not something we just thought of; we know it works.”

But for Kenner, hiring is only the first step. What happens after a worker walks into the bakery is up to its leadership. Kenner’s goal is to move people “up” or “out.”

That means by working at the bakery — or participating in Greyston’s workforce development program — a person can develop transferable skills for a promotion or employment elsewhere.

“I’m probably the only CEO that thinks it’s a good thing when people leave,” Kenner said. “We have a foundation that provides training for hard and soft skills, and we have partners who know when they get someone from Greyston, the person has been trained and they’re ready to work. It’s about inclusive hiring, but it’s also about inclusive employment.”

There’s a business case for open hiring when ROI means something more than the balance sheet. Inside the labor gap lives the underrepresented — such as people of color, disconnected youth or those with criminal records — many of whom rely on public assistance.

“That comes with a cost,” Kenner said. “It’s financial costs for taxes and lost revenue, and it’s also a loss of productivity. Companies have big challenges in hiring people: If you can’t hire people, you can’t get product out the door. That’s lost tax revenue and lost economic development. But if you just look in some of these other places, you can get a percentage of these people into the workforce.”

Just look at employment partners like The Body Shop. The company adopted the open hiring model, first at its distribution centers, then globally to its retail operations, and the turnover rate cut by two-thirds. The productivity has increased by 13%.

Since joining Greyston, Kenner has seen open hiring strengthen employee retention. The company’s turnover was just over 30% and has been on a steady decline for five years. He chalks it up to purpose-driven loyalty.

“Purpose is built into what we do,” he said. “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people. When everyone else said no, we said yes.”

This story has been adapted from the April 2022 Q2 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.