Hal Cato - CEO of Thistle Farms

Scaling the Social Enterprise

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There are generally three types of risk a social enterprise must manage as it grows and scales over time: concept risk, execution risk, and scale risk.  In this week's episode we talk with Hal Cato, CEO of Thistle Farms as he manages the execution risks of a growing social enterprise and lays the groundwork for a dramatic scaling effort that includes more than 450 Whole Foods stores, supply chain integration with other social enterprises across the globe, and deepening support for women surviving trafficking, prostitution and addiction.

Grounded in Hal's humility and intellectual honesty, we explore:

  • how to stay grounded in your core mission,
  • how to get the right folks on your tea,
  • how to think about governance, structure and capital raising, and 
  • ways in which to be intentional about each facet of your organization - creating value through process and structure.

Hal was the highlight of my week and hope that you'll take as much away from our conversation as I did.  Scaling remains one of the biggest challenges social enterprises face and leaders like Hal and Thistle Farms remain integral to showing that growth is both possible and sustainable for social enterprises writ large.

***Production Note***

It was only a matter of time, but the technology gremlins showed up for the first time on one of our podcasts.  Through some creative sound engineering we were able to restore our recording, but we apologize for the background noise around minute 14:00.  Hal's wisdom, was too good to pass up, so we decided to publish it anyway.  Apologies on the quality not being better - we'll be sure to do better next time.

About Thistle Farms: 

Thistle Farms' mission is to HEAL, EMPOWER, AND EMPLOY women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. We do this by providing safe and supportive housing, the opportunity for economic independence, and a strong community of advocates and partners.  Thistle Farms believes that in the end, love is the most powerful force for change in the world. 

The Thistle Farms Model:

Thistle Farms’ comprehensive model offers women hope and healing through a holistic residential program, employment with one of our social enterprises, and a growing national and global network dedicated to changing a culture that allows human beings to be bought and sold.


A two-year residential program based in Nashville, Tennessee, that provides housing, medical care, therapy, education, and job training free of charge for up to 32 women and serves hundreds more with advocacy and referral services.


Residents and graduates of the residential program are employed in one of the divisions of our diverse social enterprise, including a natural body and home product company, the Café at Thistle Farms, the Studios, and Thistle Farms Global. 


Includes a community of sister organizations utilizing Thistle Farms’ model in cities across the country, along with myriad other partners, advocates, and organizations united in the belief that love is the most powerful force for change in the world .


Thistle Farms Global connects women producers in 10 countries directly to customers by distributing and selling their handmade products. Our shared trade model increases their share of profit margin, creates economic opportunity, and builds community.

About Hal Cato:

In 2015, the Board of Directors hired Hal Cato as Thistle Farms first CEO. Hal is uniquely qualified to address both the mission and the business of Thistle Farms given his extensive experience in the nonprofit and private sector, which includes founding Hands on Nashville, The Youth Opportunity Center, The Bright Horizons Foundation for Children, and Zeumo, his latest technology company, as well as serving as CEO of Oasis Center from 2001–2011. Hal is known for his servant-style leadership and is equally compelled to chart new growth for the organization as to spend time one-on-one with residents or roll up his sleeves during a lunch rush at the Café.

Show Notes:

Learn more about Thistle Farms: www.thistlefarms.org

Picture of Bug Spray highlighted in podcast:

Warehouse and Production Facility under construction:


Favorite (Recent) Book: Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Ann Lamott

Most Gifted Book: Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer