Above: Carolyn Cesario (left) and Julie Sullivan, '12, co-founders of Ground Up PDX.


The recipe is simple, really: Combine gourmet nut butter with skills training and community support to yield social change. This particular recipe, however, requires a special ingredient for success: the passionate dedication of Julie Sullivan, '12, and her business partner, Carolyn Cesario. The duo runs Ground Up PDX, a for-profit company in Portland, Ore., that produces artisanal, peanut-free nut butters.

Five months after Sullivan and Cesario launched Ground Up, in March 2016, the business had sold more than 5,000 jars of nut butter. The income allowed them to kick their mission – empowering women – into high gear.

"We founded Ground Up on the belief that if you give a woman an opportunity," Sullivan says, "it will have a profound impact not only on her life, but also on her family and her community."

The company hires women transitioning out of homelessness or the sex industry to work part time. Five women currently work for Ground Up, where they are developing a host of skills through working in sales and marketing, shipping and receiving, and in the commercial kitchen. The women also perform administrative tasks and represent the brand at farmers markets, in-store demos and tastings.

Employees join Ground Up through referrals from the company's nonprofit community partners. "Our main qualifications are that they have the motivation to work and the desire to create change in their lives," Sullivan says.

Sullivan and Cesario hold monthly reviews and seek opportunities to help each woman grow. They also provide life coaching to those who are interested. "Some of the best learning comes from the day-to-day interactions and jobs tasks," Sullivan says.

Sullivan, who majored in sociology at Whitworth, is articulate, passionate and energetic (fueled, perhaps, by her company's protein-packed product?). Her passion stems from her previous work in Uganda, creating and running an employee-training program for 31 Bits Designs, a company that employs women overcoming poverty. "After witnessing the success of this model of empowerment," she says, "there was a fire in me to figure out how to provide opportunity to disadvantaged women in my hometown."

She credits the leadership experience she gained as a resident assistant at Whitworth with helping prepare her for her role at Ground Up. Studying abroad at the University of Ghana, in West Africa, her junior year proved most influential, however. "It gave me perspective on what's important," she says, "and led me to the path of wanting to help others less fortunate than myself."

The Ground Up crew creates its almond, cashew and coconut butters – blended with ingredients such as lavender, cardamom, chia seeds and cinnamon – in a shared commissary kitchen at the Redd, a hub in southeast Portland that supports local food enterprises. They also use Hatch Innovation Center for computer tasks and meetings.

In just two years, Ground Up's nut butters have become – ahem – widespread. Nearly 55 stores in Oregon, including Whole Foods, now carry Ground Up's products; plans are in the works to expand into Washington state grocery stores later this year. The nut butters are also available through Ground Up's online store.

Our long-term goals are to become a national brand and to build out our training program to employ more women," Sullivan says. "We also want to prove that for-profit business can be an effective vehicle for social change."

Ground Up's trainees report gaining self-confidence and discovering their strengths as some of the most valuable outcomes of their work. When the women complete their training, Sullivan and Cesario provide job references and connect them with long-term employment. They are establishing partnerships with local grocery stores and kitchens that will hire the women full or part time, and they're building a relationship with Portland Community College, for women who choose to pursue education.

"Ultimately, our goal is to help our trainees transition to the next best step for them," Sullivan says, "and to provide them with the resources they'll need to get there."

For Sullivan, the rewards of launching and running Ground Up are many. "The biggest reward is seeing the change and growth taking place in our team of women," she says. "That truly gives me the fuel I need to stay motivated on the weeks that are challenging and when the mountain feels steep."

To learn more about how Ground Up PDX is spreading good, visit grounduppdx.com.

Below: Co-founder Julie Sullivan, '12 (right), and a Ground Up PDX employee lid product jars before labeling them.