This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to the CEO of votive-maker Glassybaby about her gutsy move to give away 10 percent of all revenue (not profit!) to charity.

You wouldn't typically think a glass votive and candle could make much of an impact on someone with lung cancer - but you'd be incorrect. Glassybaby and its founder Lee Rhodes have figured out how not only to provide beautiful glass blown votives and candles but also turn the revenue into donations that help hundreds of different causes and many thousands of people.

The idea behind Glassybaby began when Rhodes was being treated for lung cancer years ago. Someone brought her a handmade glass vessel that she placed on a counter along with other gifts people brought her.

"It kind of took my breath away," Rhodes says about the candle in the votive. "It was beautiful and colorful and amazing. It just had the dancing flame and the color. It was something that, I don't know, made me pause and it made me take a breath that you always should take, which I never was at that point taking enough of. It kind of had an impact on me."

Friends visited and wanted the votives as well, so Rhodes started making them. It became a kind of mission between friends and family. Eventually, Rhodes began selling them to people beyond her inner circle.

"It's truly hard to know what to do for someone when they're sick. The constant question to the patient is, you know, 'What can I do for you?' That's a hard thing to answer, so it was really nice to be able to say, 'Just light that little candle I gave you.'"

Giving Away 10 Percent of Revenue

One of the things Rhodes noticed while she was sick and taking chemotherapy was that other people didn't come every week. She later learned this was because people often couldn't afford to pay for parking, didn't have childcare, or weren't able to pay for basic needs. For Rhodes, it seemed that getting the chemotherapy put them over the edge. This was an eye-opener that inspired her to seek ways to help.

"You have to be able to park your car," she says. "You have to be able to take a bus. You have to be able to get chemotherapy. You have to have something good to eat. You have to have a family member taking care of your kids, or friends, and it just never occurred to me before."

This was around the same time, in 1999, that she had dropped the tea light in the candle votive. As people began to ask for her to make them, she decided to give 10 percent of the revenue away.

In 2001, she started an LLC and began making and selling them all over Seattle. In 2004, she opened a "hot shop" (where you blow glass) and hired a glassblower. That's when Martha Stewart came in. A friend of Rhodes' at a Bellevue dinner party asked to borrow some of the candles to give to the businesswoman and TV personality.

"He was going back to Martha Stewart's birthday party the next day. He said, 'May I take these with me? These will be the perfect present.' He took them back to Martha Stewart and she called me the next day and said, 'I want you to make these for me in a certain color...and I want the 10 percent to go back to Alzheimer's charities.'"

When Your Business Model Doesn't Always Mean Profit

It isn't easy staying committed to charities. Although up until this point Glassybaby has earned close to $7 million, by last year it had donated so much that it actually didn't make any profit in 2016.

The biggest difference between this "social good" business model and others, like the one I covered for this series at Newman's Own, is that the donations come from 10 percent of its revenue, not profit. So, in 2016, Glassybaby gave away nearly $2 million and lost approximately $55,000. Rhodes says it's just the right thing to do.

"It's not part of our marketing. It's just part of our mission. At the end of the day, it is hard to see the end of 2016 and see that we'd lost $55,000 out of a little over $17 million in sales, but ...I think we gave $1,768,000 away last year. I think it's absolutely the right thing. It's the thing that gets me up in the morning and I think that as we grow in scale, all those numbers will begin to come together."

Charitable Donations Covering Nearly Everything

The donations from Glassybaby sales go to a fund the company started called "The White Light Fund." It currently has 450 partners, including hospitals and dozens of charities. Rhodes' focus is on uncomplicated cancer care.

"As I said I don't care what you do with your money. You can buy cigarettes, you can buy socks, you can buy a pair of blue jeans. I don't know what's going to make anyone well, and I would never venture to guess what's going to make someone heal. My sweet spot is just making sure that every hospital and every clinic knows that they can always ask us for money for their patients. That means paying for parking, paying for gas, paying for whatever. Whatever they need," says Rhodes.

Glassybaby is also expanding to charitable causes for animals. For example, donations to "Save the Elephants" in Africa and organizations focusing on the environment have become important partners.

"I know that there's room for everyone in the world to own one, at least one. They're beautiful and they make you feel better and they make you take a breath. No human being cannot respond to color and light."

If you like stories about entrepreneurs helping out underserved communities, check out some of the other stories in the series. Meet the entrepreneur who started a reality TV show featuring Lebron James in an effort to boost small businesses in Cleveland. Or, meet the entrepreneur helping thousands of disadvantaged kids learn personal finance.

Published on: Mar 15, 2017