It's well-known that systemic barriers often stand in the way of entrepreneurship for the BIPOC community, due to unequal access to education and job opportunities. The challenges highlight the critical role of organizations attuned to the needs of these communities. That’s where companies like Fresh Family LLC, come in. Founded in 2021 by Debbie Wilson and her son Ron Jones, the minority woman-owned business has rapidly become an indispensable part of the Kent, WA community. Specializing in hazardous waste and encampment mitigation services, the company has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to quality. Fresh Family is offering a path toward economic empowerment and community upliftment. Their mission: affording people the dignity to stand on their feet, the resources to thrive, and the support to build a better future.
“We want people to have the ability to enjoy life. Not where everything they make is paycheck to paycheck. We want you to be able to get somewhere. We saw these obstacles and we found a way to create a path for people that just wasn't there. We all created the door. We didn't open the door.”
Closing Gaps, Opening Doors
For Debbie, the opportunity to create Fresh Family was born from the desire to break down barriers that often limit access to success. She understands the profound significance of uplifting the community and the transformative impact a single opportunity can have on someone in need. Fresh Family represents not just a business but a lifeline—a tangible symbol of empowerment, inclusivity, and a pathway to a brighter future. “My son gave me that push. He has a business background and said, “Mom, this is what we can do, and this is how we can make it happen.” You get your rocky roads, you get your barriers. But if you have the drive that we have in us to make a change in the world. It comes along, you just need to have that in you.”
One of the most pervasive challenges in the American workforce is the wage gap that disproportionately affects BIPOC workers. Fresh Family LLC directly confronts this issue by committing to providing livable wages to all its employees. This equitable approach doesn't just uplift individual workers; it has a ripple effect, boosting the local economy and creating a cycle of positive community impact. Fresh Family is paving the way for individuals to not only make a living but to make a life worth living. Their impact extends far beyond their immediate community, as they strive to set new industry standards and inspire others to follow suit.
“At Fresh Family, we make sure all contracts pay prevailing wages. We want to bring the BIPOC community together and give them the same opportunities that everyone else has. Regardless of what happens, we make sure our people are armed with $56 an hr. That’s our promise.”
Fresh Family was inspired by Debbie’s own journey through the maze of societal and economic barriers. Debbie Wilson's multifaceted career with the City of Seattle served as an invaluable training ground. Over a decade, she gained a diverse range of skills and experiences that would later become the bedrock of her own business venture. From administrative duties in the Seattle Conservation Corps to customer service expertise at Seattle City Light, she developed an acute understanding of administrative, customer-centric, and operational tasks. Her experience as a General Laborer and Administrative Specialist also offered her firsthand knowledge of field operations and logistics, invaluable skills for the range of services Fresh Family LLC would provide. Her broad skill set and commitment to excellence in customer service were integral in shaping Fresh Family LLC’s approach to client relationships and operational challenges.
During her time with the City of Seattle, a key moment changed Debbie's perspective and set her on the path to creating Fresh Family LLC. At a meeting, a speaker mentioned that everyone in the room was making at least $50 an hour. Realizing she earned less, Debbie felt left out. The meeting became a turning point for her. It sparked a deep desire to break down the financial obstacles that were holding back not just her, but also many others in her community.
“In the beginning, there were skeptics who thought I couldn’t get those bids as a Black woman. But now we have a contract with the City of Seattle. We have crews out every day doing waste mitigation. Just yesterday we secured contracts with the Department of Transportation. We’re contracted clean up and construction with UW and in talks with City of Renton. Now everyone wants to work with us.”
In a groundbreaking partnership with Washington's Labor and Industries department, Fresh Family LLC initiated the state's first black-owned apprenticeship program, focused on equipping participants with specialized skills for hazardous waste cleanup. The program is designed to offer training that remains relevant even if participants choose to relocate or transition careers. It will cover a variety of areas ensuring that apprentices are well-prepared to tackle real-world challenges and delve into safety protocols and public health issues. "I want to give these guys a toolbox of skills. Even if they leave Fresh Family or move out of the city, they'll have a certificate that says, 'I am able to do this work.' We're focusing on hazardous waste cleanup. We’ll also require certifications like CPR and U.S. DOT handling and transport training. It's not just about the hazmat training; there's a unique combination of skills needed to handle the challenges of this job."
The program also addresses a lack of diversity in existing apprenticeship initiatives. By making the program accessible to BIPOC individuals, Fresh Family aims to establish a standardized approach to hazardous cleanup that could be adopted nationally. This initiative serves dual purposes: providing valuable employment opportunities for an often-overlooked community and laying the groundwork for a more equitable and inclusive future in Washington's labor landscape.
“There are a lot of apprenticeship programs out there, but you don’t see people that look like us. We’re never accepted in them. We're designing our program to be inclusive for the BIPOC community. We want to create a standard across the country on how to handle hazardous cleanup. It’s not like it was 20 years ago. It's also about public health and safety. We want to make sure we're doing things right."
The homelessness crisis is a pressing issue for Fresh Family, a company that has made it clear they do not participate in the "sweeping" tactics often employed by cities. In discussions with officials, the company has stressed the importance of streamlining the connection between available resources and those who need them. Fresh Family advocates for progressive steps to tackle homelessness. One step involves providing bags and containers in areas inhabited by homeless individuals. These containers can be filled with waste and later collected by Fresh Family, preventing public spaces from turning into makeshift landfills. By taking incremental steps like these, Fresh Family hopes to create cleaner and more humane conditions for everyone in the community.
"The work is here. We know about the homeless encampments and the trash that has been left around. We are trying to make the city back clean and fresh. We're asking for you to help us put people to work. I was born and raised here. My son, too. This is where we have our homes. Where we lived our whole life, and we just want to make a change."
Fresh Family is determined to diversify into various industries. They've expanded into construction projects, attending meetings and taking on roles where they are often the only people of color present. This experience extends even to public projects like school renovations. In one instance, they found themselves in a meeting where the organizer didn't feel the need to sign in, assuming the project was already his. Fresh Family took this as a glaring example of the barriers they face, merely present as tokens. However, these setbacks only fuel their resolve. When told they would "never have a contract," their response was an unwavering, "Yes, I will." They've already proven their capabilities in a short time; after completing work with just two trucks, they were soon asked to provide two more.
"I'm able to do this work, and I know for a fact that this business is going to be huge. We're going to be everywhere, cleaning up and providing the tools and structure to get this done effectively. We know how to put the teams together to get the job done, and we're willing to do it. Barriers will come along the way, but we're not taking 'no' for an answer."
Fresh Family's unique approach to staffing involves directly reaching out to those who need a second chance. Debbie says at one point, she went to a federal halfway house to personally interview potential workers. One individual from is already on staff and has significantly turned his life around, even planning to buy a house soon. She emphasized that they do not judge people based on their past. The belief is that once someone has served their time, that’s all that matters. Fresh Family offers an opportunity for these individuals to truly change their lives, proving an unprecedented opportunity for their employees to earn a living wage right from the start.
"I’m not a judge or jury. I'm willing to give a fresh start to others, and not just those in the BIPOC community. Anyone who needs a chance and is ready to change their life, I'm ready to help you. Whether you're homeless, or struggling, we'll help you head in the right direction. That’s why we’re called Fresh Family. If you don’t have a family, we’ll be that for you."
Prior to starting Fresh Family, Debbie was introduced to Miriam from Business Impact NW, who was impressed by their existing plans and offered crucial advice. Miriam emphasized the importance of having a business license and being well-informed about the work they were getting into. Although Debbie’s son hails from a business background, Miriam's tips on finances were critical. She also connected Debbie with a network of contacts who provided essential paperwork on reading bids. This guidance was invaluable, especially for a business navigating the initial stages of operation, providing a second perspective and an additional brain to help navigate the business landscape.
“When I first decided to start a business, I talked to Miriam. She would always say, "You've got everything together already. You're doing everything you should. What can I do to help? “Just her calling me back and making sure she kept our meetings meant a lot. She would point out rules and regulations, reminding me to have all the necessary certificates and my business license. People don't understand how much that means, and now, two years later, here we are.”
Miriam initially provided Debbie with weekly coaching sessions, which tapered off as the business grew. She also helped Debbie apply for OMWBDE certification and reviewed key documents. From the start, Debbie had a specific vision: to create a company that employs individuals from underserved communities, particularly the formerly incarcerated. Her aim was twofold—generate revenue through government contracts for cleanup services while providing living wages. Despite not having a business background, Debbie was self-motivated and absorbed the guidance Miriam provided on obtaining licenses, certifications, and strategic connections. Their coaching sessions played a crucial role in enhancing Debbie's business skills. Miriam found Debbie to be exceptionally driven, needing only targeted information and encouragement to realize her ambitions.
"Debbie was very driven by her goals. It seemed to me she felt she had a mission in life to assist others and build generational wealth in her community. The only guidance she needed was information, support and encouragement that her dreams could be realized."
On the horizon, Fresh Family will continue to expand their range of offerings and solidify their business reputation. They currently have contracts with the City of Seattle and the Washington Department of Transit focusing on waste mitigation and construction projects. Their services have extended to a contract with the University of Washington, where they offer hazardous material cleanup on a weekly basis and additional on-call services. Currently, the team is in the final stages of securing a contract with the City of Renton for waste management and city cleanup services. In the corporate sector, they've signed a year-long contract with Flatiron to provide janitorial services. Additionally, they are participating in the Port of Seattle’s PortGen Accelerator Program aimed at providing BIPOC entrepreneurs access to contracting opportunities.
“My primary goal is to refine and scale our business model to have a positive impact on both the environment and the industry. Sustainable practices and cutting-edge technology can go hand in hand. We can help create a more efficient and eco-friendly future for port operations.”
Debbie says they want to see their apprenticeship program established as an industry standard that can be replicated regionally and nationally. The company's holistic approach to business is lauded and supported by various organizations, including Tabor 100, PTAC, MDBA, L&I, among others. Additionally, they were the first Black women-owned Contractor Company to win the Best of the Year Award in Kent. In the world of business, they are not just players; they are advocates for diversity, empowerment, and the belief that with the right opportunities, every individual can thrive. Fresh Family's story serves as a powerful reminder that even in the face of adversity, when BIPOC business owners rise, they bring with them the potential to uplift countless lives, create lasting change, and inspire others to follow their path towards empowerment and success.
"I've set a goal to change 100 people's lives this year, to have 100 different people working for this business by the end of the year, all getting a prevailing wage. We're going to shine all over the world. If you have like-minded aspirations for your business or community, reach out. If your values align with our vision, we want to work together.”
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About the author
Janelle is a storyteller through and through. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs who owned and managed a series of small businesses, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a video store, and several real estate properties. Growing up in a low-income community but attending schools as a minority in affluent areas, she struggled with the inequities she faced each day.
Janelle graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, specializing in screenwriting and playwriting. She has worked for a number of nonprofits and has remained steadfast in her commitment to using her craft to support the missions of each organization, and uplift underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.